Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Amherst Early Music Festival: Inclusive and Enlightening

A choral workshop at the Amherst Early Music Festival. Paul R. Johnson photograph

A choral workshop at the Amherst Early Music Festival. Paul R. Johnson photograph

Every musician wants to perform onstage, in front of a large and enthusiastic audience.

Or do they?

Sometimes just participating is enough. Playing an instrument, getting better at that instrument, and sharing it with fellow players. That’s what the Amherst Early Music Festival is all about.

“We are a learning festival, with some concerts,” says AEMF board president Richard Pace, a recorder and dulcian devotee, and longtime participant. That sums up the decades-old festival (almost half a century, depending on how you count it), and gently states its mission.

The Amherst Early Music Festival now centers its activities around two one-week sessions in July at Connecticut College in New London. AEMF also hosts weekend get-togethers along the east coast during the year. But the vibe always remains the same.

“Do you want to play and have fun, or do you want a class that presses you,” is the way that Marc Simpson, a longtime festival attendee in recorder and flute, sums up the choices. “The range of answers to that question at this festival is deeper and broader than other places.”

Don’t misunderstand: AEMF is not a bunch of newly minted recorder players, trying to learn basic fingerings. Having developed strong choral and opera programs, and string programs as well, along with dance and staging—with multiple performances during the summer sessions—AEMF has become an important training ground for young pre-professionals in many instruments, who work right alongside engaged amateurs. 

And they study with some of the finest early-music musicians anywhere. Julianne Baird has taught in the vocal department for years—“our operas are the festival’s most important contribution to the early music world,” she says. Kent Tritle will lead choristers this summer. Drew Minter coaches. Benjamin Bagby “came last year did a whole program in Beowulf style, which opened up huge ideas for people,” says Ellen Farrell, who has come to AEMF since “probably since the ’80s.” 

AEMF could be easily be called the Interlochen Early Music Festival. Or the Goddard Early Music Festival. Or Salve Regina. Or Hampshire. Storrs, Tufts or Bennington as well. Or now, Connecticut College Early Music Festival. At some point the festival has been at all of those places, in one guise or another. It was in Amherst—the festival was there from 1981–1998—that the organization incorporated, severed formal ties with the American Recorder Society, and officially acknowledged its diversity into other instruments and offerings. 

It’s not the name that matters. It’s the spirit.

AEMF began in a music camp in Michigan, at Interlochen, which was started in the 1920s and in 1961 began offering workshops sponsored by the American Recorder Society. An ex-jazz player, LaNoue Davenport, directed the first sessions. By the second year workshops in viol, Baroque flute and crumhorn were included. The demand surprised the faculty, and the summer sessions grew until they had to be relocated to Goddard College, in Vermont, about a decade later, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis directing. 

Gradually more and more instruments—exotic instruments back then, like harpsichords, lutes, and Baroque winds—were added to the mix. The summer camps moved several times, adding instruments and offerings as interest waxed and waned—mostly waxed.

There are many famous musical personalities who have taught at AEMF, even before it had the name. Martha Bixler, Kay Jaffee, the daunting musicologist Richard Taruskin. Andrew Parrott and Joshua Rifkin have conducted here. Way back when, a young instrument maker named Friedrich von Huene was on the faculty. Han Tol and Marion Verbruggen are just two of a long list of recorder virtuosos. Andrew Lawrence-King directed the first opera performance, Monteverdi’s “Il ballo delle ingrate,” in 2002. Every student has a favorite. 

Currently, AEMF is run by executive director Marilyn Boenau, assistant director Emily Egan, and festival director Frances Blaker. “We’re a three-person team, and we split the work,” Blaker says. “We do it all with various groups of people. We try to set a tone, an atmosphere of inclusiveness and welcome, and acceptance.

“We have some very accomplished pre-professionals who come to study,” Blaker says, “but we also have adult amateurs, some of whom are also quite accomplished. And some who are newer. It’s my aim to make all those people feel welcome.”

“We continued to add some programs on,” Boenau says. “The fascinating thing is that we have such a broad range—teenagers to the early 90s. We’re trying to keep this as a big tent, with an international feel.

“There can be some tensions,” Boenau says about the intergenerational mix. “The younger ones want to zip around and the older ones need more time. But there can be lots of cross-fertilization, and everyone’s invested. Very invested. They are engaged in something they care about, and they’re not passive about it. We have a number of students who have gone on to the early music field, and that’s great to see.”

As board president, Pace has been active in encouraging growth. “For a while our population was aging and shrinking,” he says. “But we diversified. We created related programs that broadened our offerings—the choral program, and dance, ensemble singing intensive and Renaissance notation. This has changed the composition of the festival into a larger mix—instrumental, dance, covering all the arts and music.”

“People will come with a single purpose, but cross over into other areas,” Pace says. “When I look at the recorder players I started with 12 years ago, they’ll all still playing recorder, plus flute or some double reed instrument or something. There’s lots of reasons for it—I think people define their musical center more loosely now. ‘Just because I’m a classical musician doesn’t mean I can’t play in a bluegrass band,’ that sort of thing.”

This summer’s festivals (July 14–21; 21–28) reflect that. The historic dance program, led by Dorothy Olsson and Kaspar D. Mainz, is now in its 25th year. A choral workshop will be run by organist/conductor Tritle. Baird and Richard Stone direct workshops for two one-act Italian operas, based on the Dafne character, which intersects with the dance program. Vocal soloist programs focus on early diction, ornamentation and early notation. Minter is among the many coaches.

“About two hundred people come each week, and some people stay for both weeks,” Boenau says. “And we have about 80 instructors on staff.”

Of course, there is the recorder. “People still think of ‘Hot Cross Buns’ when they thing of recorder,” says Farrell. “Amherst really brought in the great virtuosos, Europeans like Han Tol and the Flanders Recorder Society—and you could hear what the recorder was supposed to sound like. They treat it like a conservatory instrument.”

Richard Pace typifies the “engaged amateur” profile when it comes to recorder. Pace, who is also board president of the Oratorio Society in New York, says, “I’d been playing recorder since the 1960s, then wandered away to the clarinet. Not to mention a career in banking. But I decided to take lessons again, then started with the weekend workshops. When I joined the board I decided I had to go to the summer festival. That was 12 years ago.

“The festival’s biggest component comes from adult amateur musicians, who want to go to band camp,” he says. “But we also engage the pre-professional portion of the music community. It’s a network, and an opportunity to meet like-minded musicians.”

“It feels like it started out as a recorder-centric program,” Farrell says, “and then they added singers, and theater production, and opera. It’s just spectacular the caliber of players that are here now. 

“There’s a lot of conservatory students who really think it’s a coup to be accepted into the Amherst opera program. And the modern players, they get exposed to early music and they love the chance to play one on a part,” Farrell says. 

“If you’re a modern player, in an orchestra job, you never get to do that. Early music approach focuses on the individual player. It’s exciting and creative—if you play polyphony, there’s no hiding. And I think younger musicians are bringing that kind of feeling to modern playing.”

Each attendee brings their own expectations, and designs their own experience. But a sense of collegiality unites all of them. “To me the festival has the feeling of ‘Brigadoon,’ this community that disappears for a year and then all of a sudden pops up again,” Pace says. “It’s impossible to separate the musical and the social aspects of the festival.”

Even longtime participants maintain a kind of breathless quality when talking about the experience. “Sometimes I can’t believe this is here for us,” Simpson says. “One of the things we talk about as students are the recitals that the faculty gives. And then we get to be in class with some of them the next day. It lets us shadow their achievement, and makes us better musicians and ensemble players. And the continuity: the year-round workshops provide that, and then it’s wonderful in the summer to renew those friendships.”

“Some just like the workshop level,” Farrell says. “You spend a week with great repertoire, and you don’t have to perform. But everyone gets excited about being immersed in the broader early music context.”

“People have different paths, but their level of music is just as great,” Blaker says. “Our core of adult amateur players ranges from 16 to 95 years old, and I want to continue to foster that special group of people. Let’s share our talent and be inspired by each other.”

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