Instruments of change/Early music groups make old up-to-date
By Charles Ward, reprinted from The Houston Chronicle, 9/22/2002

The oil depression of the early 1980s was a disaster for Houston’s performing arts. All kinds of groups disbanded, including the city’s chamber orchestra and chamber choir.

Some groups will always battle deficits, but the damage of the 1980s largely has been repaired.

And then some.

When Istanpitta presents its first formal concert Friday, the four-member medieval-music ensemble will join an early-music community on the edge of a breakthrough to prominence in the city.

Nine performing groups, plus the presenter Houston Early Music, currently offer the city’s audiences the chance to hear repertoire from the 12th to 19th centuries, performed on instruments (or copies) used when the music was written. By comparison, Dallas has only two significant groups.

For its performance of the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of St. Mary), Istanpitta will use such distinctive instruments as the oud (an Arab lute), medieval bagpipes and the chittara moresca (Moorish guitar).

At the other end of the spectrum, the chamber-music ensemble Context will open its season today with an all-Beethoven program featuring early 19th-century stringed instruments and a restored Viennese piano (ca. 1810) similar to the ones Beethoven used.

Classical-music audiences are conditioned by what they hear weekly in places such as Jones Hall – the huge sound and rich, homogeneous tone that pour from today’s grand pianos and orchestral instruments. These are products of industrial technology and modern aesthetics, however. Even the 17th- and 18th-century Italian stringed instruments so prized today – including Stradivari violins – have been rebuilt to satisfy current sensibilities.

Before the 20th century, composers wrote their masterpieces for the instruments of their eras, and never imagined this contemporary sound. Period instruments produce a softer, more distinctive sound whose character changes as players move from low notes to high. In ensembles, the distinct personalities produce a clarity not possible with modern instruments.

Interest in period instruments emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, mostly because of the work of Swiss musician Arnold Dolmetsch. He resuscitated obsolete instruments such as the lute and published a pioneering book on interpreting 17th- and 18th-century music. The tradition was carried on by his son Carl Dolmetsch, the virtuoso recorder player, who died in 1997.

Interest spread and intensified after World War II. Performers became more adept at playing older instruments, including unaltered strings. In the 1960s and 1970s, the movement exploded into mainstream classical music.

One seminal moment was the recording of the complete Mozart symphonies on period instruments by the Academy of Ancient Music, founded in 1973 by Christopher Hogwood. (Houston Early Music will present the ensemble with its current director, violinist Andrew Manze, on Oct. 11 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.)

Another part of the revival was learning how to play the repertoire in the appropriate style (as nearly as music historians can determine it). While the focus initially was on music written before 1800 – the standard definition of “early music” – the research since has spread to 19th-century repertoire as well.

Musicians of all sorts have come under the sway of such “historically informed” music-making (including a few members of major symphonies, who become adept on both modern and period instruments).

Albert Cofrin, founder of Istanpitta, is a flight controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He studied jazz while an undergraduate in aerospace at the University of Texas at Austin until a teacher suggested he look into medieval music “because a lot of it has to do with improvisation,” Cofrin said.

Cofrin continued his studies of medieval music after he moved to Houston in 1986. He began Istanpitta in 1994; until now it has played only at bookstores, libraries and the Texas Renaissance Festival.

Its program Pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Mary comes from approximately 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary that were collected for the Spanish king Alfonso X (aka Alfonso the Wise). His court was also known for cultivating French, Islamic and Jewish culture.

The music is state of the art – for the 13th century. (People familiar with Hildegard of Bingen will find loose parallels.)

A soloist sings the melodies. A drone establishes a tonal center. Rhythm instruments provide strong propulsion. Voices or instruments with highly colorful sound duplicate the melody. The only harmony comes from a voice moving at exact parallel intervals (usually a fifth).

Much of the finished product depends on the imagination of the performers. They draw on every scrap of information available, including the illuminations that dot the manuscripts of the Cantigas.

Over the past decade or so, enough Houstonians have quietly acquired expertise in medieval music and other idioms to form a core of 35-40 professional-level players. Approximately 25 are Baroque instrumentalists, including enough strings for the core of a Baroque orchestra.

The development has been so quiet that in 1999, when Houston Grand Opera presented Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), everyone was surprised that HGO could staff the 22-member orchestra almost entirely with Houstonians.

A major reason lies in key people who teach at area universities (though there are no degree programs in early music or period instruments).

Matthew Dirst at the University of Houston founded the student ensemble Collegium Musicum and the professional group Ars Lyrica Houston. At Rice University, violinists Sergiu Luca and Kenneth Goldsmith, co-founders of Context, have inspired numerous string players. Yvonne Kendall of the University of Houston-Downtown formed Collegium Mysterium.

The quiet ferment continues. The 2-year-old Mercury Baroque Ensemble, established by Rice graduates, has ambitions to become a full-fledged Baroque orchestra, said artistic director Antoine Plante, a double-bass player whose parents are early-music performers in Montreal.

Christ the King Lutheran Church has invited conductor Peter Kopp of Dresden, Germany, to join its staff for five months beginning in January. In an exploration of a possible permanent move to Houston, he will serve as the church’s music director and head the Bach Choir and Orchestra, which the church sponsors.

Kopp’s primary ensemble, the Koerner Chamber Choir of Dresden, sings with period instruments today at the church (the concert was postponed from last September because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks). Kopp also is assistant director of the 800-year-old Dresden Kreuzchor, whose core repertoire comes from the German Baroque.

It’s not clear yet whether these possibilities will produce a major leap here in the influence of the early-music/period-instruments movement – the establishment of a professional-level Baroque orchestra.

Conductor David Fallis thinks that with the right artistic and administrative leadership, it’s a real possibility. Fallis, who has led two HGO period-instrument productions, including Orfeo, is resident music director of Toronto’s Opera Atelier, which specializes in Baroque opera. In fact, he sees dramatic potential flowing from the financial turmoil among North American symphony orchestras.

“The current malaise of orchestras has meant that more and more standard symphony-goers are saying, ‘Let’s give something else a try,’ ” he said.

Houston’s early-music and period-instruments players are offering music lovers an increasingly attractive option.

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