When I first became a jazz fan (short for fanatic) in high school, I saw European classical music as the enemy. The 19th century composers were easily characterized as a pack of pretentious, highfalutin, hoity-toity, high-hat, pompous, stuffy, overstuffed, snobby, snooty, effete and elitist fuddy-duds, not to mention being middlebrow, bourgeois, sententious and musically platitudinous, to boot; instigators of gargantuan aggregations of performers intoning their vast musical stories full of profound meanings, all of which reeked of the academy and salon and smelled of the lamp.
Then I found out there were more flavors than vanilla at the classical soda fountain. Which brings us to this year’s Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, a celebration of the music of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in Spain, Italy, Germany, England and Bohemia as composed by Biber, Corelli, Bach, Lawes, Byrd and Monteverdi for such diverse instruments as the shawm, sackbut, krumhorn, viola da gamba and theorbo.
If you think you have slid into a parallel musical dimension, you have. This music is not only beautiful in itself, but also pre-classical and post-modern, a wonderful corrective to the narrow way we usually perceive the music of Europe. Early music will clean out your ears and, should you ever choose to return to the 19th century, you will find it not only both larger and smaller than you had thought but also stranger and refreshed.
The festival kicks off on Tuesday, June 3, 8 p.m., in Hertz Hall on the University of California campus, with the Wildcat Viols, English music for six viols performing compositions by William Brade, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, John Jenkins and William Lawes. The harmonies produced by a viol consort can be ethereal, a little like the brotherly harmonizing of the Mills Brothers. To give you some historical context, it was Lawes’ brother Henry who composed the music for the songs in John Milton’s Comus.
On Wednesday, June 4, 8 p.m., in Hertz Hall, the Concord Ensemble will perform 15th century Spanish secular music composed by Juan Vásquez and Cristóbal de Morales, with countertenor Paul Flight.
One of the hits of the 2006 Festival was the performance of Baroque Carnival by Le Poème Harmonique. This year that group of singers and instrumentalists will present Venezia delle strade ai Palazzi, a combination of theater, lighting, costumes and Baroque gesture applied to the music of Claudio Monteverdi and Francesco Manelli, on Wednesday and Thursday, June 4 and 5, at 8 p.m., in Zellerbach Playhouse.
The semi-finalists and finalists in the American Bach Soloists and Henry I. Goldberg International Young Artists Competition for Baroque Violin will perform on Thursday, June 5, 5 p.m., and Friday, June 8, at 3 p.m., in Hertz Hall.
As revelatory as Bach’s Cello Suites or Tobias Hume’s Musicall Humors for viola da gamba are the Mystery Sonatas of Bohemian composer Heinrich Biber. Following the events of the Gospels from the Annunciation to the crowning of Mary, these haunting pieces were intended as an aid to meditation during the evening prayer services that follow the Feast of the Rosary on the first Sunday in October. Although the first piece and the concluding Passacaglia use the violin’s normal tuning, the other 14 pieces all use scordatura, unusual tunings, that allow for some exquisite sonorities. The trio of L’Estro Armonico performs the Sonatas on Friday, June 6, 5 p.m., in Hertz Hall.
On Friday, June 6, 8 p.m., in Hertz Hall, Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, will join with the vocalists of the Concord Ensemble, to present Trionfo d’Amore e della Morte: Florentine Music for a Medici Procession. Themes familiar from Commedia dell’Arte, the Tarochi cards and Petrarch’s Triumphs will be heard in their musical incarnation. If you want to turn youngsters on to early music, catch Piffaro again on Saturday, June 7, 11 a.m., in Hertz Hall, for a demonstration of all manner of early horns, strings and percussion.
One of the most romantic events of the festival will be the candlelight performance by ten of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s principal players of three of Corelli’s Opus 6 concerti grossi on Friday, June 6, 10:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. Two other Corelli pieces, one arranged by Geminiani and the other in variations by Tartini, will also be performed.
Finally, there will be performances on Saturday, June 7, 8 p.m., and Sunday, June 8, 7 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, of Alessandro Strigggio’s Mass for five choirs, Missa Sopra Ecco Sì Beato Giorno in 40 and 60 parts. This work, the largest known contrapuntal choral work in Western music, was recently discovered by UC musicologist and harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, who will be conducting its American premiere.
These are only the highlights of a Festival that can provide total immersion in this beautiful and variegated music. To find out about all the events of the Festival visit its website at bfx.berkeley.edu and for even more events visit sfems.org/ fringe2008.htm.