Last night I went to a terrific concert, one of many at the Madison Early Music Festival. MEMF is currently in its seventh year, and this is my fourth year of half-ass participation as a student worker. I always have mixed feelings about participating in MEMF. The artists-in-residence are fantastic and the concerts are inspiring, but there is not usually very much for keyboard players to do. This year, for example, my student worker "job" is to accompany one of the morning classes for singers. Today we met for the first time and no one had brought anything to sing. Our teacher José, a delightful South American countertenor, taught us a couple of Sephardic songs from Spain. Not that I don't enjoy ancient Sepharidc melodies (they really were beautiful), but I felt a tad irrelevant in there. Even worse was the next class, also for singers, where my own harpsichord teacher was already accompanying and made it clear that I wasn't really good enough to do it myself. Not much of a booster to my already precarious self-esteem, but it was just as well, since I don't like being put on the spot to sight-read figured bass, especially from old facsimiles.

The other thing about MEMF that annoys me is how competitive and pretentious early music people can be. The world of early music is a very small one, and the same folks tend to go from one summer festival to another, slapping shoulders and trading sackbut jokes like they're best buddies when they're actually just showing off. It's just silly, and I should just get over it, but it still makes me feel like a nobody when the woman whose classes I've been in for three years running still calls me "Sue" and can't be bothered to learn my actual name even after I've gently corrected her. Twice.

I can get over all of that in a day or two, though, because working with people this good at what they do is very inspiring. (After taking a harpsichord technique class and getting a private coaching from Barb Weiss last summer, I was ready to convert for good. Modern piano just seemed so big and loud and jarring compared to the delicacy and intimacy of the harpsichord. Also, piano music has too many notes. Give me the vocal line and a few bass notes and I'm set to go.)

Also, most of the people who are truly good early music musicians do away with pretention. For one thing, they need each other to play in ensembles. With the exception of the odd lute solo, you need anywhere from three to ten people to perform a given piece. When you have that level of collaboration, it evens the playing field somewhat. Additionally, while it takes some serious skill to do early music, - all the instrumentalists play about eight different instruments, sometimes while singing, and most of the singers play at least one instrument - and while there is certainly virtuosity required for many pieces, it's not the kind of jock-musician machismo playing you hear from modern musicians. The skill lies in understanding the music, its history and construction, and in knowing how to improvise on given melodies or over a bass line.

So that's what I'm doing this week: gleaning inspiration from the best of the best of early music and trying not to get annoyed with pretentious players of the sackbut. I'll keep you posted (hee hee) on how it's going!


pamigelsrud said…
I still remember how much I enjoyed the concert we went to last summer. Is that woman you worship there this year? I forget her name.
Suze said…
christa patton! ahhhh, yes she is here again and worship-worthy as ever. i think she's here every year because she's in piffaro and they are here every year. she played in the concert last night, actually (the group is ex umbris and they were excellent.)

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