Early Music Fare Is Ear-Opening ‘Genius and Folly’

Karin Modigh in period costume dances to Lully with the BEMF Festival Orchestra (Courtesy BEMF)
By Robert Markow

The theme of this year’s seventeenth biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), held June 9-16, was “Youth: Genius and Folly.” Hence, it was entirely fitting to encounter a concert given in Jordan Hall on June 13 by the Festival Orchestra called “The Birth of the Orchestra,” as it included music from the earliest days of orchestral writing. Director and concertmaster Robert Mealy pointed out in his extensive and enlightening program notes that “the orchestra as we know it was an invention of the Baroque. The sheer spectacle of a large group of instrumentalists doing exactly the same thing at the same time was something in the late seventeenth century that was a very new, and much commented-on, aesthetic creation.”

Baroque violinist Robert Mealy (Courtesy BEMF)
Baroque violinist Robert Mealy (Courtesy BEMF)

Mealy put together a themed program that reflected all the excitement and thrill of concert music in the mid-Baroque period, focusing principally on composers working in Rome (Corelli, early Muffat, and early Handel) and Paris (Lully), with passing bows to London (John Blow) and northern Germany (the little-known Philipp Heinrich Erlebach). The last two composers were included to demonstrate the fusion of French dance style with Italian virtuosity.

From the first notes of Handel’s Overture to Il Trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (1707), I was swept instantly into another world through the sheer virtuosity of the 22-member BEMF Orchestra – not virtuosity in the nineteenth-century sense of zillions of notes played at the speed of light, but in the absolute perfection of execution.

Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra (Courtesy BEMF)
Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra (Courtesy BEMF)

In more than half a century of listening, I have not heard any orchestra, including the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, play with greater unanimity of style. Mealy’s comment about “a large group of instrumentalists doing exactly the same thing at the same time” was borne out literally in razor-sharp attacks and releases, spot-on intonation and keen attention to dynamic contrasts. But even Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra never sounded like it was having the time of its life as did the BEMF Orchestra. Vitality, freshness, total conviction and infectious enthusiasm infused every moment, often leavened with a touch of humor. Many of our most prestigious full-sized orchestras and their music directors could learn a thing or two from Mealy and his band. A crisp, brilliant surface to the orchestra’s overall sonority was supported by a full, rich foundation of lower strings, two harpsichords and percussion. Just 22 musicians can project an amazing body of sound when every player is as good as these.

Adding a further dimension of pleasure to the concert was the contribution from the four-member BEMF Dance Ensemble, clad in period costumes and providing delectable visual stimulus to excerpts from various Lully ballets and operas.

Most entertaining of all was John Blow’s Suite from Venus and Adonis (ca. 1683), which Mealy aptly describes as “deeply quirky” and “spicy,” and generously enlivened with percussive effects.

BEMF aficionados already know what to expect at one of the biennial festivals: a convocation of musicians, scholars and music lovers from across the land on a scale and level of excellence not exceeded anywhere else on the planet. Exhibition halls at the Revere Hotel included displays from nearly one hundred early instrument makers and publishers, purportedly the largest such assemblage in the world.

Amandine Bayer backstage with Mozart's Violin (Kathy Wittman)
Amandine Bayer backstage with Mozart’s Violin (Kathy Wittman)

This year the exhibition included a special treat – the North American debut of Mozart’s own violin and viola, which were also heard in concert. The souvenir program book, printed on glossy paper in full color, runs to 336 pages and includes dozens of scholarly essays and program notes, plus complete bilingual texts for vocal and operatic works. The Music Critics Association of North America made the festival the focus of its annual convention (and was royally welcomed). Elsewhere the reader will find critical commentary of what was generally regarded as one of the operatic highlights of the entire season throughout North America, the first modern-day performances of Handel’s first opera, Almira.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Mealy and the BEMF Orchestra is that it convinced a longtime concert-goer hitherto dubiously disposed toward early music to find in it a source of great pleasure and awakened interest. I can’t wait to hear them again.

Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada


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