Storms: a natural, if terrifying ebb and flow, affecting human beings for millennia. Some 400 or so years ago, English composer Henry Purcell depicted stormy weather in his opera Dido & Aeneas. However, while music can be atmospheric, it can also be used as escape. On September 23–25, the Sackville Festival of Early Music (SFEM) held concerts of love and light, despite the raging rains and winds outside the conservatory.
SFEM is a staple to the Mt. A community: an annual festival of concerts, outreach, and community engagement bringing early music to a wider audience. Fourth year voice major Annika Williams has served as the student intern for three years. “Being from Sackville, I grew up going to the outreach concerts,” she said. According to associate professor of music and artistic director of the festival, Dr. Linda Pearse, Williams has grown “into being a force to be reckoned with as a manager of arts festivals.” Pearse came from experience in the performance of early European art music and leading arts ensembles and so “it seemed like a very natural move for [her] to be involved with the festival.”
Leading up to the festival, the student buzz surrounded one very special object: a gorgeous Flemish double harpsichord donated by Joanna Manning in thanks and memory to her late husband, Gary. The beautiful instrument was the source of much excitement. The piece is truly a work of art and bears the Latin inscription Musica laetitiae comes medicina dolorum (Music is pleasure’s companion and sorrow’s remedy). Pearse spoke on the process of getting the harpsichord, and specifically, organizing transport across the border, which was the most time-consuming part of the harpsichord process. “No, it’s not a coffin! This is a box that does, however, transport the hearts and minds and souls of people to other worlds! But no, it’s not a coffin,” she quipped, reimagining her explanations to border security when driving the harpsichord up from Maine.
“There are ways in which the harpsichord provides experiential learning opportunities— […] and it also exposes stories of women, in particular, because it moves through different locations in society. It wasn’t just a concert instrument. It was also used in homes, and it was used in salons as well as for public performance and at the courts, and so we have rules [saying] ‘women should not be allowed to perform!’ and so that tells us that there were some pretty rebellious women performing, otherwise they wouldn’t need to write a rule about it! We also have descriptions of the royal family, of a woman who was not supposed to play pieces that took her right hand and left hand apart, which are the more difficult pieces, because it would show her torso in a way that was immodest. And so, we learn from that that women were playing really difficult music and that men were trying to control their bodies: where they moved, how they moved. The instrument opens itself to all sorts of considerations about gender, and how women lived. Those types of stories are often invisible in music history courses. We focus on the great men: the Bachs and the Beethovens and the Brahms and the Schuberts but we miss out on these other stories. […] Harpsichords also trace colonial pathways—colonizers took harpsichords with them in some cases, and then would use them to influence local music practices. […] I think that people are curious about the stories,” Pearse said, on the educational use of the harpsichord for many years to come.
Each of this year’s concerts are intriguing. Pearse spoke to the importance of developing relationships with artists when programming, ending up with a set of concerts that “really do cover the gamut,” and “balance each other well.” Both Williams and Pearse spoke to accessibility and flexibility learned through the past two years of online festivals, and that knowledge certainly came in handy this week. While Friday and Sunday’s concerts were in-person with a streaming option, due to campus closures and hurricane damage, Saturday’s concert had no in-person audience, and was streamed on YouTube.
Friday’s concert, Navré de ton dart, was presented by Ensemble ANIMA, directed by countertenor Daniel Cabena and trans poet Luke Hathaway. This was truly a multidisciplinary concert, taking “poetry from Christine de Pizan and [transforming] it […] to tell a transition story, and it’s accompanied by music from the Late Medieval and early Renaissance period,” described Pearse. The group made up of Cabena, Hathaway, baritone Paul Genyk-Berezowsky and chamber musician Judith Souman was a multi-talented amazement, at times playing Medieval vielle, Baroque violin and viola, as well as recorders. It felt like a drama; the music was interspersed with Hathaway’s spoken poetry, creating a heartfelt, beautiful, and emotional story. Cabena and Genyk-Berezowsky’s voices soared in gorgeous harmonies accompanied by Souman’s detailed playing. This concert reminded me of why I love early music so much: it’s incredibly human. It taps at the essence of what it is to be human. According to Williams, “I hope it also highlights that it’s not a teleological narrative, where things constantly are improving and now is the best time. […] It will show that gender has always been fluid and it’s always been negotiated throughout time, which is definitely relevant and something that’s good for people to know now.”
Saturday’s concert, A Tribute to Molière and the French Sense of Humour on the 400th anniversary of his birth, presented by Les Boréades with special guest Acadian baritone Dion Mazerolle, may have been solely streamed, but its emotion was transcendental. The ensemble invited its audience to laugh, and Mazerolle’s emotive facial expressions really brought out the humour of the program, even if your French wasn’t quite strong enough to understand the text. “No offense, but you have to be a little bit nerdy to be into playing this, so when you see someone on stage playing it, they’re just so into it,” said Williams. Mazerolle has “gone on to fame and acclaim in the opera business,” according to Pearse, and although the strength and power of his voice is certain, I found it didn’t quite match the lightness and jauntiness of the instrumentation. The influence of French playwright Molière was evident in the atmospheric nature of many of the pieces. The support of the harpsichord and use of wooden recorders pulled the music to nature, feeling very much like you were attending a country ball, with the recorders mimicking birdsong. Second year Commerce major Jacob Farrell even found himself narrating his own story to the concert, depicting a princess who escaped from her castle, wanting to be a part of the town’s festivities. “I think people like to escape to other worlds, and a historical world is one possibility. It’s also a sort of creative practice, to imagine what another time was like and so having contact with this music and these instruments help us understand who we are now…And let’s just face it, the music is really darn beautiful. It’s exciting! It cracks open the imagination in a way that’s enjoyable,” said Pearse. I found myself escaping to childhood with this concert, as the music seemed to take me away to movies like Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses and Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper, both of which have surprisingly period-accurate scores. It’s fantastical.
SFEM President Dr. Andrew Wilson welcomed Sunday’s audience by thanking them for choosing SFEM over the rescheduled football game. Quill and Bow: a celebration of the Harpsichord and Cello showcased the virtuosic abilities of harpsichordist Mélisande McNabney and cellist Elinor Frey. McNabney sought to christen the new harpsichord by playing a program that would ensure that she played every single note on the instrument. Her detailed, exact approach was magnificent. The pair explored a balanced program of composers and pieces well known and virtually unheard of, some of which have never been recorded. Additionally, McNabney expressed how she wanted to both participate in the performance of harpsichord music—such as that of the first French published woman composer in harpsichord, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre—and the music making. With the latter, McNabney shared with the audience the “all-purpose” nature of harpsichord players of the past, noting one particular performance practice: transcribing reduced opera scores to play at home. McNabney engaged in this practice by transcribing two pieces from Jean-Philippe Rameau operas. The pair truly showed off their incredible skill, their love for the music, and the historical past that they reflect through their music making.
I found that Mt. A more than other music conservatories has a particular appreciation for early music. According to Pearse, “we have Vicki St. Pierre and Christina Haldane now and Gayle Martin and for a long time Lynn Johnson, so I think we have a critical mass of knowledge and expertise and joy and love and admiration for the music.” SFEM will continue their programming with an outreach programme from September 26–28 featuring harpsichordist Mélisande McNabney, who will present a workshop, outreach concerts for area schools, and a public lecture. Additionally, SFEM is working with local soloists, Elliott Chorale, and Mt. A’s Choral Society to perform a live concert as well as a community music installation featuring music by renegade nun Raphaella Aleotti. You really never know what SFEM has up their sleeves, so be sure to check them out!