Cultural Tourism Lives Here
New music festival to put Houston on the early music map as it draws national attention, curiosity
Ask and you shall receive, so they say.
In a nutshell, that's how the first annual Texas Early Music Festival was born. With a healthy dose of planning and a pinch of serendipity, the weekend (this Friday through Sunday) dishes a delicious binge of the music of yore served by a coterie of art presenters that specialize or dabble in tunes performed on period instruments.
The idea for a festival had been around for a couple of years, though the stars weren't quite aligned — until now.
It all started with a scheduling conflict between Ars Lyrica and Mercury, both of which had planned concerts on the same evening. Their respective artistic directors make a habit of communicating their seasons to avoid duplicating similar programs at the same time, so they adjusted. And when Da Camera's organizers saw that their early music program fell in between Ars Lyrica and Mercury, the three-day festival was born.
"There are vibrant early music festivals on either coast typically happening on alternate years in June, which is why we are doing ours in the spring when our weather is much nicer that theirs," says Matthew Dirst, Ars Lyrica artistic director.
Early music mania
The period instrument movement exploded in the 1980s and 1990s mainly on the East Coast, particularly in New York and Boston, Dirst explains. But there wasn't much exploration of the genre elsewhere, and Houston's economic and cultural ranking amid other American cities rendered it prime for such a revival. Dirst describes Houston as an entrepreneurial friendly town where new ideas are received with enthusiasm, something that also applies to artistic pursuits.
"We will have the ability to attract national audiences who are looking to get their early music fix to Houston."
Initially, the festival was to be called the Houston Baroque Marathon, but was subsequently changed to the Texas Early Music Festival in an effort to stay true to the meaning of Baroque. As long as it's considered early music, from Gregorian Chants to Classicism and even a touch of Romanticism, a wider gamut of compositions could be programmed without having to argue about semantics on the implications and limitations of the term Baroque.
"We will have the ability to attract national audiences who are looking to get their early music fix to Houston," says Antoine Plante, Mercury's founder.
Houston's early music scene is teeming with groups that do their part in staging concerts and productions that focus on Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Classical compositions. Among them are Mercury, Ars Lyrica, Houston Early Music and Da Camera of Houston, the four nonprofits partaking in the inaugural series, in addition to Houston Chamber Choir, Bach Society Houston, Society for the Performing Arts, Early Music Southwest and Context.
Houston has emerged as a leader in the early music wave just in the past few years, Plante says, noting that the amount of work Mercury offers its core players is the most a period instrument musician can secure from a single employer in the country. His ensemble has risen as one of the largest orchestras of its kind.
Plante says collaborations like the Texas Early Music Festival, ones that act as a conduit for nonprofits to cross-pollinate resources to reach targeted art consumers, always attract new audiences. Patrons who attend performing art events are more likely to explore another presenter in a different genre. Mercury saw great success with a similar marketing partnership with Stages Repertory Theatre and Hope Stone Dance Company. The trio fashioned a three-for-one ticket special that enticed their respective supporters.
"Certainly this is good for cultural tourism to Houston," Dirst says. "Undoubtedly it will bring people from out of town who are interested in this type of music.
"And put Houston's early music scene on the map, nationally and internationally."
Dirst expects this combined marketing effort to increase the profile and breadth of participating groups, including Ars Lyrica and Mercury, ensembles that already perform outside of the city and state. He's betting on a positive outcome, and has committed to holding the festival again in February 2014.
"We really just want to foster great collaboration between organizations. And that benefits everyone."
"For the next festival, we would like to program anything from familiar masterworks, like Mercury's plans to play Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, to premieres of pieces never before heard in a modern setting, like Scarlatti's Oratorio," Dirst says.
Although it may take a few years to accomplish, Dirst and Plante are committed to eventually taking the Texas Early Music Festival on the road. Concerts in cities and towns outside of Houston are part of the plan. The concept is to be open to any group that wants to join.
"There's no mother ship that decides what's included and what isn't," Plante says. "We really just want to foster great collaboration between organizations. And that benefits everyone."
The music of yore
It would be a huge faux pas to think of all early music as belonging to one style, like claiming that Creole and Cajun fried chicken are the same.
In addition to Vivaldi's motets Nisi Dominus and Nulla in mundo pax sincera, Pergolesi's gorgeous Stabat Mater of 1736, presented by Mercury, kicks off the Texas Early Music Festival at 8 p.m. Friday at Wortham Theater Center. Though the title of the liturgical oeuvre may conjure up a stuffy, strict, virginal aesthetic, this male soprano, male alto, string orchestra and basso continuo composition found its way into the soundtracks of such films as Sucker Punch, Big Nothing and the TV series Revealed.
When Plante was growing up, it was one of his favorite works. As the concert nears Easter festivities, themes on the suffering of the Virgin Mary seemed suitable. The solo roles will be sun by soprano Amanda Forsythe, whose appearance at Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden was hailed as spinning "sweetness on top" by The Independent, and English countertenor Tim Mead, whose Handel's Messiah with the New York Philharmonic seduced New York Times'Vivien Schweitzer to describe Mead as possessing a "luminous voice, impeccable control and expressive phrasing."
"You have no place to hide in Pergolesi," Plante quips. "It's naked music. You better be on top or else . . . well, I don't want to think of the consequences."
Da Camera of Houston and Houston Early Music together bring Le Poeme Harmonique, a French group that will enliven the spirit of 17th century Venice in a semi-staged, candle-lit Wortham Theater Center at 8 p.m. Saturday. In the Golden Age of the Queen of the Adriatic, music and art was free from rules and artistic codes, and this program, titled "Venezia," delves into the refined, yet raucous sounds so loved by its residents.
Ars Lyrica's contemporary staging of Handel's Acis & Galatea concludes the weekend at 6 p.m. Sunday at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. The much different flavor of 18th-century England is embedded in Handel's musings of this pastoral opera of sorts. Based on an old fable inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, shepherds, nymphs, crazy monsters and murder narrate a story of love conquers all.
"It's somewhat of a cartoon story," Dirst says. "But it received a beautiful treatment at the hands of Handel, who approached the story with a great deal of care."
Directed by Tara Faircloth, Ars Lyrica's stellar cast includes soprano Blair Doerge, countertenor Ryland Angel, tenor Derek Chester, baritone Michael Kelly and bass-baritone Timothy Jones.
A three-concert pass to the Texas Early Music Festival is available for $90. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the Mercury Box Office at 713-533-0080.