NY Early Music: High Season For The Low Countries

The biennial New York Early Music Celebration, now in its sixth season, rallies around a particular theme.  (nyemc.com)
By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK – You wouldn’t think that 26 events taking place all over Manhattan during a ten-day period could manage to stay under the radar. Yet the New York Early Music Celebration, now in its sixth season, remains a bit of a hidden gem.

Frederick Renz aims to celebrate New York’s early music artists.

“We don’t actually call it a festival, but a celebration,” said Frederick Renz, founder of the Early Music Foundation, the group organizing the NYEMC. As to whether the famed Boston Early Music Festival casts a daunting shadow, Renz sees no competition there. “Boston is almost exclusively for foreign artists. Well, I thought, that’s been done. Let’s focus on New York artists.”

That number includes Renz, who is also the founder and artistic director of the period orchestra Early Music New York. He considers his group to be on equal footing with all the other artists involved, who are independent entities, not members of EMF. “Early Music Foundation provides service to the field,” Renz said. “We have what we call a staging calendar, and everybody in New York is invited to submit their plans for early music events all season.” And although EMF also initiates the biennial celebration, it’s a team effort, he added: “We invite all the New York groups to be part of it. We provide the period, and we provide overall promotion and marketing, but we do not pay for their venues and we do not pay their artists.”

Barthold Kuijken plays the transverse flute, an instrument loved by Louis XIV.

Despite this commitment to the New York early-music scene, Renz is not opposed to bringing in some overseas guests. “We reach into the foreign element to kind of gussy up our endeavors,” he said. The visitors also support the theme of each celebration, which this year is Flanders and Holland. The most recent iterations – the festival has occurred every two or three years since 2004 – focused on Latin America in 2013 and Poland in 2015. The theme is determined by which consulates and promoters can obtain funding to fly musicians to the U.S.

This time around, EMF invited Belgian flutist Barthold Kuijken to play in both a chamber program of his own devising and as a soloist with Renz’s orchestra, Early Music New York. I attended the Oct. 17 chamber concert at EMF’s home space, the First Church of Christ, Scientist. That concert, called The Royal Flutes: From the Court of Louis XIV, featured only French music, but Renz still considered it part of the theme by virtue of Kuijken’s nationality.

Flutist Immanuel Davis, gambist Arnie Tanimoto, and harpsichordist Donald Livingston.

Kuijken was joined by fellow flutist Immanuel Davis, viola da gamba player Arnie Tanimoto (the first person ever to major in that instrument at Juilliard!), and harpsichordist Donald Livingston. Before playing, Kuijken talked about the fascinating context for his program: Louis XIV loved the transverse flute, a newly invented instrument at the time, and some of the pieces composed by musicians at his court were among the first written for the instrument.

The resulting program was like being transported to Versailles in 1700. Multi-movement sonatas (another recent invention) by Clérambaut, Hotteterre le Romain, Michel de la Barre, François Couperin, and Marin Marais shared the bill with an assemblage of petites pièces by various composers. Kuijken and Davis, both playing wooden flutes pitched a whole-step below modern tuning, seemed to be presenting a lesson in how to please a king, producing velvety tones densely yet clearly painted in the agréments (ornaments) cherished at the time. The duo played as if they were a single flutist with four hands and a double instrument. Their ear for the subtle drama of Baroque affect made ascending harmonic sequences thrilling. Tanimoto and Livingston were the ideal continuo team – supportive, solid, and supple as needed.

House of Time, a New York based Baroque quartet, played at Holy Trinity Lutheran.
(Darien Nguyen)

Renz’s policy of not curating anyone else’s shows extends to letting acts participate in the celebration yet ignore the theme, as did House of Time. This New York-based Baroque quartet (Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe; Tatiana Daubek, violin; Avi Stein, harpsichord; Beiliang Zhu, cello), which I heard on Oct. 14 at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, presented its own season opener during the festival, sans Dutch/Flemish flavoring.

Ruiz explained between pieces that the concert’s title, “The Nations,” referred to Baroque composers who tried, with only moderate success, to emulate national styles not their own. For example, François Couperin wanted to conjure up Corelli in the delicate little movements of his L’imperialé for duo plus continuo, but ended up sounding distinctly French. The evening’s highlight was a medley of Purcell works, also in honor of Corelli: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Z.790, and the Chaconne in G minor, Z.807.

Given the historical significance of Low Countries painters of the 15th through 17th centuries, it’s not surprising that three of the five concerts I attended made an effort to connect music with visual artists. Two of those programs chose to focus on the fantastical painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516).

Cappella Pratensis sang music Hieronymus Bosch might have heard.
(Hans Morren)

The first, on Oct. 15, was from the eight-man Dutch vocal group Cappella Pratensis, appearing courtesy of the New York organization Music Before 1800 at Corpus Christi Church near Columbia University. The ensemble paid a unique tribute to Bosch by reconstructing a complete Mass the painter might have heard at meetings of his “Confraternity” in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The polyphonic Ordinary movements were from the Missa Cum jocunditate by Pierre de la Rue (c.1450-1518), interspersed with chants and anonymous polyphony for the Proper sections.

Cappella Pratensis displayed an intense commitment to authenticity, reading off a shared facsimile of manuscript pages. Their Pythagorean-inspired tuning produced fifths and octaves so perfect that the pitches disappeared into each other. Slight finger gestures by director Stratton Bull somehow maintained exact rhythmic clarity in these mostly free-metered pieces. Among the more intriguing elements of this exquisite performance were the distinctly Dutch pronunciation of the long and short Latin u vowel and the unusually slow tempi in the chants.

Pomerium sang a varied program of Netherlandish sacred works.
(Peter Alexander)

Veteran New York early-music choir Pomerium also dropped Bosch’s name in their program title. Flemish Music Mastery in the Age of Hieronymus Bosch was commissioned by the National Gallery of Art to be presented on Oct. 29 in coordination with the museum’s Netherlandish art exhibit, Bosch to Bloemaert.

Music director Alexander Blachly led Pomerium in a concert of Netherlandish sacred works by composers ranging in time from Guillaume Du Fay (c.1397-1474) to Giaches de Wert (1535-96), with some heavy hitters like Josquin, Ockeghem, and Lassus along the way. The 16-member a cappella mixed choir performed with smoothness and accuracy in the Oct. 22 performance at the Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch. During the Lassus motet “Surgens Jesus,” the Gothic-style rafters rang to glorify the rising Christ. The most puzzling piece was Jacob Obrecht’s motet “Salve crux, arbor vite,” so syncopated (Blachly called it “strange and difficult”) that it sometimes seemed the various voices were singing different pieces. De Wert’s motet “Vox in Romanus” served up big, juicy dissonances on the word “plorans” (“weeping”) as proof that Monteverdi was right around the corner, historically speaking.

Camerata Trajectina, gleeful and bawdy, at the Morgan Library.
(Linden Chubin)

Johannes Vermeer was the putative inspiration for Dutch ensemble Camerata Trajectina’s concert on Oct. 18 in Gilder Lehrman Hall, a wonderfully warm-sounding recital space in the Morgan Library and Museum. “The paintings of Holland,” said recorder player Saskia Coolen from the stage, “are much more famous than the music of this time. But when you look at the paintings, you see a lot of people making music in them, and having a good time.”

Indeed, Camerata Trajectina showed us all a good time. The mood was set as soon as the five members entered in a processional led by a gleefully tootling Coolen. They jumped into some Dutch tunes popular in the early 17th century, arranged by the blind carillonneur Jacob van Eyck. This was the first of several sets of songs on the program, including love lyrics by the poet Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft, theater songs by the “Dutch Shakespeare,” Joost van den Vondel, and bawdy numbers from Jan Janszoon Starter’s best-selling songbook, Friesche Lusthof.

If the singers, soprano Hieke Meppelink and tenor Nico van der Meel, struggled with intonation, they made up for it with great expressiveness and an engaging stage presence. What else is truly needed for pop songs in any era?

Carillons, like the bells at St. Thomas, were very much a Low Country phenomenon.

This year’s NYEMC events also included carillon recitals by Geert D’Hollander and Julie Zhu (“Carillon is very much a Low Countries phenomenon,” Renz explained). Organ recitals by Gwendolyn Toth at Holy Trinity Lutheran and Daniel Hyde at St. Thomas showcased New York pipe organs best suited to the Dutch repertoire. There were Renaissance street singers, a recorder workshop, and plenty of other concerts by local groups to keep early-music devotees happy and busy for ten days.

Even as he was in final preparations for this year’s festival (sorry – I mean celebration), Renz’s mind was already moving ahead. “So, I’m thinking, what will the theme be in 2019? Something may just come onto the horizon.” He pondered for a moment, and then his eyes lit up. “You know, we haven’t touched German music yet.”

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.


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