The 1998 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition

reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman in Early Music (February, 1999)
Bernard D. Sherman is the author of Inside Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1997) and numerous articles.

photo: the Mark Morris production of Rameau's Platée from the Berkeley Festival.

The magnetic poles of early music in the United States are two university towns at opposite coasts - Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Berkeley, California. Not surprisingly, the two major American early-music festivals take place at these antipodes; sensibly, they alternate years. 1998 was Berkeley's turn.

The Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, as it calls itself, tends to put special emphasis on local (if sometimes widely known) talent, which is supplemented by stars from overseas. Additional performers come from the University of California's music department, which also hosts a symposium or two. All these ingredients were combined for this year's biggest event, the Mark Morris production of Rameau's Platée. The Festival imported the original Edinburgh production (for review, see Early Music xxvi/2 [May 1998], pp. 369-71), but the orchestra and chorus were now Californian. The homegrown Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan proved that they and their conductor are stylish Ramellians; the University Chamber Chorus proved the same about themselves and their director, Marika Kuzma. I did not attend the Edinburgh production, so I can only report the judgement of a knowledgeable conductor (not McGegan) that the Berkeley chorus had better French diction and style than their Royal Opera counterparts at Edinburgh. Philharmonia Baroque, too, was said to command Rameau better than their Edinburgh counterparts.

I can confirm first-hand that the university-sponsored symposium on Rameau was unusually stimulating. McGegan discussed the performance-practice information preserved in the records of the opera houses of Rameau's time. These records detail subtleties of diction, rhythmic modification, ornamentation, and so on. Since they are not in the composer's hand, they have been victims of the texttreu mentality, and are found neither in modern editions nor, as McGegan pointedly added, in modern recordings of Rameau. McGegan's examples convinced one that the omission is a shame; as he explained, the period practices heighten drama and increase clarity.

Downing Thomas and Anya Suschitzky continued with fascinating talks on reception history: Thomas on the contrasting reception of Platée in the 18th and 20th centuries, Suschitzky on the Rameau revival in fin-de-siècle France and its relationship to French nationalism. Finally, Wye J. Allanbrook, the chair of the department, delivered a thoughtful, witty appreciation of Mark Morris's work with 18th-century music. While Allanbrook considers his Dido and Aeneas a brilliant modern re-reading, she views his Platée as an "authentic performance realization of the piece." Morris's only significant divergence from Rameau is at the end: while Rameau and Co. seem to have felt that Platée deserves her final humiliation, Morris lets her "wrap her froggy flippers around our heartstrings, and at least momentarily she becomes a sentimental heroine-victim in a kind of comédie-larmoyante of the marsh." Allanbrook then asked, "Are we too hypocritical for the harshness of the old French comedy? Or is there some virtue in the sudden onrush of sentiment and fellow feeling we direct toward this vain and deluded creature?"

Another symposium, on national differences in early-music performance, adopted the risky format of putting together four celebrity musicians - Jordi Savall, McGegan, Marion Verbruggen, and Alan Curtis - and letting them talk freely, without preparation. The moderator focused discussion on a single topic: how "identification" with one's national group can motivate a musician to explore that nationality's musicall repertories. The topic is relevant to some early-music performance, such as the work of Savall in Catalan music or of Rinaldo Alessandrini in Italian music. But other aspects of national differences in performance were more or less ignored. An example is what the ethnomusicologist Marc Perlman calls "border crossers" - musicians who devote their careers to the music of a foreign culture. One of the panelists is among early-music's most prominent border-crossers: Alan Curtis, an American expatriate who argues that only Italian native-speakers can sing Italian Baroque music properly (all the singers in his group are natives). Another case study might have been the American William Christie, who has made French Baroque performance what it is today.

It would have been interesting to hear what the panelists think about the persistence of the distinction between "national" repertories (such as the Spanish, or the French Baroque) and repertories that have come to seem "universal," such as Bach - a composer to whom every one of the panelists has devoted serious attention? Then there's the question of national performance styles: is Bach still played in recognizably different style by historical performers from England, Amsterdam, Austria, Italy, and Spain? (In my view, the differences are decreasing.) If there are different national styles of playing, what gave rise to them? That the panelists never explored such topics seems a lost opportunity.

Some of these artists (and Pierre Hantaï) gave master classes, which were more successful. But how were their concerts? Savall and Hespèrion XX brought a sense of drama and mystery to two concerts of Spanish and Italian works that were among the high points of the festival. Alan Curtis's Il Complesso Barocco traveled from Italy only to succumb to the nightmare of all singers: bronchial viruses. Even through the phlegm, they sang with feeling in the US premiere of an affecting Ferrari oratorio, Sansone, and in wonderfully characterized madrigals. One wondered what they can do when they are in reasonable health. Hantaï was impressive in a solo recital, less so in concert with his brother, the gambist Jérôme Hantaï. In the latter case, the bone-dry acoustics of the university's Hertz Hall could not have helped.

The biggest excitement among harpsichord fanciers came from some local performers and other non-headliners. Most notable, perhaps, was a Bach harpsichord competition sponsored by the American Bach Soloists. The contest was a sort of triathlon, with the contestants being judged not only in solo and concerto repertory but also in continuo realization (in collaborations with such distinguished American Bach soloists as Elizabeth Blumenstock, Sandra Miller, Judith Nelson, Kenneth Slowik, and Jeffrey Thomas). The winner, Michael Sponseller, excelled in his rhetorical flair, his sense of 'breathing', his grasp of large musical shapes, and his ability to make a harpsichord sing and speak. He also made particularly musical use of 'early' fingering.

The standout among the local groups-indeed, perhaps of the entire festival-was Musica Pacifica, in a superb concert of Neapolitan Baroque works. Their leader, recorder player Judith Linsenberg, combined masterly control with risk-taking spontaneity - the latter being just what this music needs - and her colleagues shone as well. A recital by another local, the harpsichordist Tamara Loring, showed the fruits of her years of focus on 17th-century musical developments. Groups from other American cities, such as Second City Music (a Chicago group featuring Christine Brandes and Mary Springfels) and Seattle Baroque (featuring Byron Schenkman, who is also a member of Musica Pacifica) are reported to have been remarkable, but time conflicts prevented me from attending. No doubt others deserve special praise. Some attendees complained about the small number of international stars; but while some locals were not of international stature, others showed that they deserve recognition (which a few have attained) on shores far away from the California coast.


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