I attended the Utrecht Early Music Festival for the first time as a member of the audience. I was last here in 1998 to sing the role of Euridice in Antonio Sartorio’s Orfeo, in a Teatro Lirico production directed by Stephen Stubbs.
At this time of year, Utrecht is bustling with musicians and the carillons play baroque tunes. The town centre, reserved exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists, is quiet save for the conversations wafting out of the cafes and restaurants that line the streets. I was struck by the many lovely churches which provide superb acoustics for the concerts.
This year’s festival included quite a few concerts of Renaissance vocal music, all very different from each other. One I attended was the last in a series of three by the Huelgas Ensemble which featured both old and new music. The programme didn’t list any composers. Instead, we were given a pencil and asked to guess whether the pieces were from the 1600’s or composed after 1900, a dead give-away that they would perform early 20th century pieces. This concert introduced me to the excellent acoustics of St. Martin’s Cathedral (called the Domkerk) where I would also hear Le Concert Spirituel, and then a few days later, The Tallis Scholars.
The Tallis Scholars, who will perform as part of Early Music Vancouver’s season at the Chan Centre on April 21, 2024, were in Utrecht to perform all 18 masses by Josquin des Prez. A tour de force of eight concerts spread over three days!
Profeti della Quinta, who will perform at EMV on November 9, 2023, gave a soul-stirring performance of Jozef and His Brethren. Written in Hebrew by the ensemble’s leader Elam Rotem, the work is composed entirely in the early baroque style. Moved by the tragic biblical story, which Elam put to music with such effect, I had goose bumps throughout the performance. I look forward to their concert in Vancouver which will juxtapose works by two great masters who met while living in Mantua: Claudio Monteverdi and Salamone Rossi.
A standout concert was Coprario: Parrot or Ingenious Parodist, a performance by the Hathor Consort and the Pluto Ensemble. The programme of music by Coprario, Eremita, Lupo, Marenzio, De Wert, Ferrabosco, Vecchi and Monteverdi was held in St. Peter’s Church (Pieterskerk), a smaller venue with great acoustics. I was delighted to hear two colleagues I admire greatly and who are well-known to many of you, tenor Charles Daniels and bass Harry Van der Kamp.
At 1 pm every day, various keyboardists gave harpsichord recitals. I attended those of Skip Sempé and Benjamin Allard. A memorable moment of Skip’s recital was Thomas Tomkin’s Pavan for Distracted Times, as appropriate now as it was in 1649. Benjamin Allard played a wonderful recital of 18th century pieces, which he closed with a gloriously rendition of J.S. Bach’s Partita V in G major (BWV 829). These recitals took place in the intimate Luthersekerk (Lutheran Church). Here, some of the artists had the opportunity to play a magnificent 17th century French harpsichord from renowned maker Claude Labrèche. I did not know this maker but will be sure to keep an eye and an ear out for copies of his instruments.
The joy, and the whole point of going to a festival like this, is to discover new musicians and new groups. One of these was the excellent Dutch ensemble, Castello Consort. Their programme juxtaposed the stylus phantasticus of Biber, Castello and others with contemporary works of Dutch composer Martijn Padding. His pieces, inspired by the old style, highlighted the player’s skills and the sonority of their early instruments. Here is a snippet of an earlier live performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwFN8YFQg5I&t=21s
I also discovered a young Spanish group Cantoria who lead activities related to demographic challenges, diversity and sustainability. They performed Ensaladas by Mateo Flecha “El Viejo”, which they recently released as an album, and sang the entire programme from memory! For a little taste of the experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nIMClNPXZQ
This year, the festival was co-curated by a Croatian singer and musicologist Vancouver audiences will recognize, Katarina Livljanić. With her ensemble Dialogos, she presented Hecuba, a reconstructed Croatian Renaissance drama, based on the tragedy by Euripides written around 424 BC. They were joined by Kantaduri, an ensemble created in 2008 for one of Ms. Livljanic’s projects. Kantaduri sings music from different Croatian traditions which they learn orally from elders. The combination of these two musical worlds (Dialogos and Kantaduri) was a bit surprising at first, but through the intensity of the enacted drama, each style began to support the other a bit like birds help trees to seed.
Another highlight was the new production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen by Les Arts Florissants, with stage direction and choreography by Mourad Merzouki. Six dancers and eight singers from the Jardins des Voix share the telling of the story and the teamwork between singers and dancers is remarkable. The Jardins des Voix is Les Arts Florissants’s academy for young singers. This year it welcomed a talented Canadian mezzo-soprano, Georgia Burashko, who is on an upward trajectory. You can find the recording of the performance I saw here.
Part of what made these concerts so enjoyable was the fact that I heard most of them in the company of Jose Verstappen and Matthew White, who were both attending the festival. To experience the concerts with two of EMV’s most important family members made the trip much more fun.
My biggest take away from the festival is that music is best heard live and shared with other human beings. It was such a valuable experience for me to hear these groups in live shows. What a thrill to see how they communicated and took risks in the moment, with us, the audience, as witness and facilitator. For me, it’s the difference between looking at a cake and eating it. I can have pleasure from looking at it, but I can only taste all its flavours and textures when I bite into it!
With this, I hope I’ve managed to whet your appetite for our upcoming LUMINESCENCE season which begins tomorrow with Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, starring Tyler Duncan and Jacqueline Woodley, and includes Vivaldi’s famous bassoon concerto La Notte with soloist Nathan Helgeson.
Looking forward to seeing you there and to sharing many other EMV concerts with you!