Though Early and Baroque style music continues to grow in popularity across the nation, it still has a few strong centers of interest in the US. Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area remain the two biggest markets for fans and musicians, and the latter city just played host to the 11th biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, June 3 through June 10.
Presented by Early Music America, San Francisco Early Music Society, and Cal Performances, the event centered at the First Congregational Church, just a few blocks away from the University of California Berkeley campus. In addition to performances by numerous ensembles, and an exhibit hall of instruments, bows, and sheet music held throughout the week, a Fringe series of more than 50 concerts held at a variety of nearby locations kept the early music fans busy.
If instrument and bow makers are a special bunch in the string world, then the people who specialize in making Baroque, Renaissance, and Medieval period instruments are a unique breed indeed. Clearly driven by an intense love of the music, their passion for this admittedly small niche is evident.
Held in a church space lit from above by a large skylight, the exhibit hall exuded warmth and made for a comfortable and accessible forum for exploring some of the present makers obsessed with past. There on a Friday morning, the crowd was small which made it easy to chat with the makers who were eager to talk to curious players. Perhaps most telling of the inviting spirit of the event, I heard a maker at her exhibit table say to a timid, but obviously interested attendee, “Play it! It’s much more fun that way!”
How could you say “no” to that offer?
In addition to bowed stringed instrument and their bows, several exhibitors showed recorders, flutes, sheet music, and in a few cases, themselves. Several prominent local ensembles had their own tables, including Agave Baroque, Katastrophe Music, and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.
Devin Hough, a maker from Davis, California who specializes in Baroque, Renaissance, and Medieval period instruments had a table with a few lovely instruments. In addition to a pair of Baroque-style violas, he also had a viola d’amore, which if you haven’t played one in person (or had one played for you), seek one out immediately. Frequently played under the chin, the bold-looking 14-string instrument features seven playable strings and seven higher-pitched drones, which can make this viol family member something of a one-man-band. Hough also spends much of his time either restoring or de-modernizing instruments back to a set up that would be more familiar to the person who first built the fiddle.
Taking a slightly different tack from the one-person shop philosophy, Eugene, Oregon-based maker Charlie Ogle, has branched out into managing a team of gamba makers in China to produce a line of more affordable gambas. Ogle’s extensive line of viols and gambas seems perfect for musicians interested in expanding their palette of sounds. He also gave me, and a Strings colleague Cindi Kazarian, an impromptu lesson in holding the bass viola da gamba and the Baroque-style bow, which used an underhand grip similar to the German-style hold that double bassists use now. One key difference is the need to apply pressure to the bow hair to tighten it to proper playing tension. Frightening? Yes! Exciting? You bet!
Both specializing in Baroque bows, makers Ralph Ashmead and Pieter Affourtit displayed lovely historical reproductions making extensive use of snakewood sticks and mammoth ivory frogs. Affourtit mostly stayed in the historical mode with forays through the Baroque, while Ashmead offers Baroque, transitional, and modern bows. These makers give themselves a big challenge since many of the models they are working from come from paintings and etchings, not from bows found for sale.
Several other makers, including New York-based violin and viol maker Gabriela Guadalajara, San Francisco Bay Area viola da gamba maker Alexandra Saur, and Francis Beaulieu, a viol and gamba maker from Montreal, all were showing off gorgeous, high-quality instruments.
The festival headliner, and godfather of the early music scene, Jordi Savall, capped the concert performances with a Saturday evening show called A Dialogue of Souls: Orient—Occident. Savall captivated a packed audience at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church with his trio, which included percussionist David Mayoral and multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Psonis, playing a program of music from medieval Spain and around the Mediterranean.
Though mostly known as a viol player, Savall played two fretted bowed stringed instruments throughout the performance, rebec and rebab. Together with his partners, who played a hammered dulcimer, oud, and a large selection of drums, the group created a veritable time machine. In an atmosphere rich with aural imagery, the evocative music made on these early instruments made it easy to see ancient landscapes and epic scenes worthy of an IMAX movie.
The program, broken into four thematic movements, drew on Savall’s research into music into the enduring (yet frequently denied) musical and cultural bonds of the Ottoman Empire, Sephardic Jews, Arabo-Andalusian peoples, and the rim around the Mediterranean. It was a performance of extremes—moving between the exotic and the familiar, and balanced between formalized and improvised melody and rhythm.
Instead of taking a break for the scheduled intermission, Savall introduced the musicians and gave a brief history lesson on the instruments the group was playing that night. Since the instruments’ antiquity was so obvious and their origins so exotic, the crowd was delighted to skip the break and as he described the exotic instruments onstage.
He told the audience that the rebec he was using onstage (pictured with Jordi) was made in the 15th century and that the body, carved scroll, and neck were original (the fingerboard, tailpiece, bridge, and strings were recent). He also showed off the bows he was using for each instrument. The rebab bow, especially, looked like something that could shoot arrows. He demonstrated how like many early bows, the player’s right-hand fingers are the mechanism for tightening the bow hair. I wasn’t sure if I should be grateful for the frog on my bow, or intrigued by the possibilities of drawing different sounds from an instrument by changing the hair tension.
Savall also paused to dedicate the music to his wife and musical partner of 45 years, Montserrat Figueras, who died last November.
Dimitri Psonis played most of the show on santur, a 72-stringed hammered dulcimer from Persia, with occasional accompaniment from an oud. And, the talented percussionist David Mayoral dazzled the crowd with his facility on the variety of drums including dumbeks, a variety of tambourines, and a massive bass drum that filled the church.
It would be easy to overstate this, but it was a magical performance that highlighted a bow, an instrument, and a singularly important musician.
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