The early-music movement that exploded in Europe and the United States in the 1960s was nothing less than a revolution in music, a shot heard round the world. It put forth the idea that music of the past should be played in the style current at the time of its composition. Orchestras in Bach’s day, for instance, were relatively small; therefore, his music shouldn’t be played in a modern style on modern instruments by a big symphony orchestra.
This turned out to be a powerful – and conveniently marketable – idea, an idea that has changed, probably forever, the way we listen to – and play – so-called classical music. True, not everyone bought the premise. We don’t, some pointed out, expect Shakespeare to be performed in the dialect of his time, an early form of English we would barely understand.
The early-music movement, however, was unstoppable. It became not just a new way of listening but an industry responsible for the creation of big careers and the sale of millions of records. Even modern-instrument orchestras adhere today to early-music notions. They don’t play Bach the way they used to, and most don’t play him at all anymore. Sadly, they leave Baroque music now to the early-music ensembles, the specialists.
The Twin Cities has never been a center of early-music performance to the degree that Boston and the Bay Area of California have. A Baroque opera company, Ex Machina, held forth here for a while, then died, and various choruses in the area have toyed -- rather timidly -- with early vocal techniques.
Judging, however, by the size and ambition of the second annual Twin Cities Early Music Festival, which got underway at Sundin Hall in St. Paul Saturday night, the pace here is picking up. What last year was a brief weekend event has been expanded this year to some 30 concerts and performance workshops given at various venues over the next three weeks by two dozen ensembles – mostly local performers, both singers and instrumentalists.
Perhaps appropriately, the opening night performance was given by the Lyra Baroque Orchestra, which, having been formed in 1984, is the oldest period-instrument ensemble in these two towns. (The disbanded Concentus Musicus started even earlier.) Jacques Ogg, the Dutch keyboard virtuoso who has been Lyra’s artistic director since 2000, has made great improvements in this orchestra’s technique and cohesion – no small task with period instruments, which are notoriously hard to keep in tune. In the days when this group, initially called the Lyra Concert, served as pit band for Ex Machina, one felt like applauding when the musicians hit the correct notes.
Staying on pitch remains a challenge. The strings had to re-tune between movements Saturday night, and a piano tuner worked onstage during intermission adjusting the harpsichords. Even so, these were lively, mostly accurate performances of an engaging program comprised of Bach’s two concertos for three harpsichords along with concertos for two oboes by Vivaldi and Telemann, for which Ellen Rider and Stanley King were the agile oboe soloists.
Musicians tend to look sour when they’re playing. Not so Ogg, whose cheerful gusto and obvious joy in music-making seemed to energize everyone else on stage. His expert colleagues at the keyboards were Tami Morse and Donald Livingston, the festival’s artistic director. The proficient string players were Lucinda Marvin, Marc Levine, Jennifer Kalika, Laura Handler and Adrian Caldie.
An enthusiastic – but far from capacity – audience responded at the end with a standing ovation.
Michael Anthony, formerly of the Star Tribune, is a freelance Minneapolis reviewer.