Golden Oldies: Inside Boston's Booming Early-Music Scene

For the last 30 years, Boston has been going Baroque. However, except for a devoted contingent of fans, few Harvard students are aware that Boston features the preeminent early music scene in America, if not the world.

The early music genre encompasses European music from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, as performed on historically accurate, or period, instruments. Boston is currently home to numerous internationally-renowned vocal and orchestral early music groups, as well as dozens of smaller, but equally talented, ensembles.

“Boston is the birthplace of period instruments and performance,” explains Carole Friedman, the executive director of the prominent orchestra Boston Baroque, which is the oldest period instrument group in North America. The group has sustained its mission to create “world class recordings and performances of baroque and classical repertoire on period instruments” for 35 years, a lineage stretching back to the earliest days of the movement.

Around that time, the booming recording industry funded early experiments with period instruments, according to Professor of Music Robert D. Levin ’68. The period instruments make an enormous difference in the quality of the sound. Early music offers “extraordinary sounds, colors and textures,” says Levin. “I am astonished at how potent the music is when played on original instruments.”

THE CAMPUS COMMITMENT

Student performers have also recognized the power of period instrumentation. Harvard is home to the Baroque Society Orchestra, which is—according to Early Music Society president Michael V. Givey ’06—the only orchestra of its kind at an undergraduate institution. In addition, the three Holden Choir choral groups perform early music pieces on a regular basis.

The Chamber Singers, a subgroup of Collegium Musicum, is currently under the direction of Emily C. Zazulia ’06 and has focused on fifteenth and sixteenth century music this year. Zazulia says she has enjoyed introducing unfamiliar material to a new audience: “It is wonderful to see the way that newcomers fall in love with this music. They’ll say ‘Wow, I didn’t even know this sort of music existed. It’s beautiful.’”

This is just the sort of younger audience that early music has been seeking. “Our audience reflects the classical audience at large, mainly older, very well educated, of middle and upper incomes,” says Friedman. Boston Baroque has been busy training these second and third generations of period instrumentalists, and currently has a partnership with Boston University to increase education about and awareness of early music.

“It is not just older people who go to these concerts,” says Zazulia. “This music is way older than them too, so it’s not like they are any closer to it.”

Jesse C. Rodin, a sixth year graduate student in Musicology at Harvard, represents the new guard of early music lovers. He directs the vocal octet Cut Circle (a reference to a Renaissance symbol used to signify a change in timing), and has stayed active in the early music scene on campus. “This music is just not on the radar for so many people,” he says. “There is a very loyal audience, but at the same time I keep on seeing audiences growing and new groups starting up.” The recent increase in the frequency of performances also verifies the vitality of the genre.

THE CITY’S CAPTIVATION

One reason why Boston has become a nexus of early music is the high concentration of educated specialists at academic institutions in the area. “Early music is necessarily tied up with scholarship,” says Zazulia.

Often, the composer is unknown and no definitive edition of the work may exist. “You have to really be aware of the original performance practices,” added Rodin.

Another reason is the annual Boston Early Music Festival, which takes place during the summer and draws a worldwide audience. “The festival is a magnet for aficionados and practitioners alike,” says Levin.

At the end of the day, the goal of early music is not scholarly but aesthetic. Rodin says: “We don’t want to create a fossilized object. Our major concern is to make the music engaging to the audience.”

Friedman articulates similar sentiments: “[Early music] is not really about what the composer wanted so much as exploring what they might have heard, and what it might have sounded like to the contemporary audience.”

Rodin’s dream of an ever-growing following seems to be materializing, if ticket sales of area performances are any indication. Boston Baroque sells out nearly half of its yearly concerts, and has sold more than 300,000 CDs. Other Boston-area groups, like Emmanuel Music, the famous Handel and Haydn Society, and the Early Music Festival, have had similar success.

Boston’s vivacious early music ensembles have “blossomed and grown into something that has had a huge impact on the entire classical music scene,” says Friedman.

Regardless of personal preference, the rich—and in many ways indescribable—sound of period instruments will likely fascinate any music lover.