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Early Music Blends Styles

The Early Music Society may have chance to perform novel show at Versailles

By J. samuel Abbott, Crimson Staff Writer

Great art has that funny tendency to reaffirm one’s confidence in the universal bonds of humanity, and to recognize those extraordinary bonds in ordinary pursuits. With this tendency in mind, members of the Harvard Early Music Society have indulged their shared love for a series of vocal works from the French baroque master Louis-Nicolas Clérambault and turned it into “Metamorphoses,” an intimate yet operatic fusion of dance, theater, and music that will premiere at the Horner Room at Agassiz Theatre on Nov. 14.

The term “staged cantatas” does not exactly encompass all of the thought and hard work that went into the project, the title of which is not directly related to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” but which, in the words of producer Joshua H. Billings ’07, shares its focus on “a narrative of change and transformation.”

The cantatas are based on modified and dramatized updates of old tales of Greek and Roman mythology. The stories of Orpheus, Hercules, Cupid and Apollo serve as the basis for the Society’s original theatrical component.

“It plays with traditional operatic concepts in an unconventional way,” says Billings, referring to the multiple roles of the singers and the interactions with the dancers.

Billings is backed up by a cast and crew that are bursting at the seams with enthusiasm and inspiration, not to mention talent.

The close-knit cast—five singers, three dancers and a crew—have been working on this project since the summer, when Billings and music director Julia S. Carey ’08 were inspired to stage these cantatas after hearing them at a performance.

“Julia fell in love with the music,” says Billings, “and that was that.”

“From the beginning, we tried to make sure that we understood each other to help ideas mesh,” says stage director Matthew M. Spellberg ’09 of his work with choreographer Larissa D. Koch ’08. They insist that they have never worked together before, but Spellberg and Koch appear extremely attuned to each other’s sensibilities.

“It has been an exchange between Matt and I for a while,” says Koch. “I had all these ideas about what sort of gestures I wanted the dancers to express, and I based them on Matt’s blueprint.”

Spellberg, jumping right in, adds that “At the same time, Larissa has brought an enormous vocabulary to the piece.”

Spellberg says that one of the most satisfying things about going ahead with this project is that, despite the novelty of the presentation, he feels that it is very much in the spirit of baroque performance.

“In a way, early music did justice to the time period in which it was written, but it also allowed artistic freedom for dancers and set designers,” says Spellberg. He notes that Clerambault, although in many ways a traditional French baroque composer, worked outside the patronage system of the aristocracy.

Instead of holding a job as “court composer,” Clerambault wrote for (and made a living from) private performances. This practice, which did not become commonplace for classical composers until well into the 19th century, suggests that both the composer and the “arrangers” share similar independent sentiments.

“These were not really of a performance genre in origin,” says Spellberg of the cantatas. Clerambault, who is regarded as the master of the “French cantata,” may have written these with a living-room performance among friends in mind.

“We had so much fun, and we got such a good response from the French community last year,” says Billings of last year’s HEMS concert of works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a well-known French baroque master who is, more or less, the musical “father” of Clerambault.

The response to HEMS concerts has been so good over the years that the society now boasts an impressive list of contributors outside the student body.

What Spellberg calls the “benevolent interest” comes from people like Thomas Forrest Kelly, the Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music and longtime HEMS faculty advisor, former HEMS music director and violinist Robert Mealy ’85-’87, and renowned harpsichordist and organist Frances Fitch, who currently serves as the Chair of Early Music at the Longy School of Music.

Perhaps most impressive is that the dedication, cooperation and passion in this project has landed them the attention and praise of Francois Gauthier, the Consul General of France in Boston, who is working with his staff to get the Society a spot at Le Mois Moliere, a prestigious performance festival in Versailles.

As the producer, most of Billings’s work at this stage involves securing that possibility, both financially and diplomatically. From a cocktail party in December to a series of fundraisers throughout the year, he is looking to find ways to fund this potential excursion, which would not happen until after he and many of the other performers graduate. Billings also notes that the trip would occur after the Boston Early Music Festival, at which they will also be performing.

“I’m like - we‘re going to France!” says Koch, adding that “the possibility is both thrilling and terrifying.”

Those looking forward to that weekend’s more well-known, somewhat less independent display of teamwork and commitment—the Harvard-Yale football game—will perhaps be surprised with the intensity and power of this performance.

Ironically, what will probably be the most open-minded, innovative artistic work this year has emerged from a group of students who are committed to the most traditional and conservative art form there is—early music.

—Staff writer J. Samuel Abbott can be reached at

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