A look back and look ahead at BLEMF, the Bloomington Early Music Festival, seems in order.
It’s encouraging that this Maytime event, for which so many folks showed deep devotion but which all but succumbed to financial burdens, appears to be on a new road leading with clear purpose to manageable and artistically promising goals.
BLEMF 2017’s five-day presence, extended by a Historical Performance Institute Conference that included several concerts open to the public, already proved a dramatic step toward the old festival that stretched with a full schedule of events from the pre-Memorial Day weekend through that holiday weekend, about 10 days. Plans call for coming even closer to what once was when May 2018 rolls around. Not all is to be as it was, however; there are reasons for change, and what the board at Bloomington Early Music is seeking to move to involves different dimensions of collaboration and focus.
For someone who has been engaged as a customer/fan/supporter of the BLEMF of previous years, 2017 should have afforded satisfactions. In former days, there were alliances with Indiana University’s School of Music, more specifically, Early Music Institute alums who distinguished themselves and, through loyalty, returned to Bloomington to perform. However, there were also performances given by world class artists and ensembles that had little or no direct ties to the university or local scene but came by invitation, considering the acceptance as another opportunity to do their thing at an event becoming one of national, even international prominence.
That meant, of course, the festival ran on a budget, certainly tight yet pieced together with contributions, grants and ticket sales that allowed for the participants to be paid, probably not enormous sums but large enough, also adding in BLEMF’s increasing importance, to make the accepted invite worthwhile.
Since revival efforts stirred in the past few years, the talent has been mostly homegrown: Jacobs School faculty, student groups, nearby alums and others of talent who also live not far away. That has meant performers perfectly willing to perform for little or no pay. And that has allowed those who run the festival to open the concerts free of charge, a way to keep customers coming.
This year, compensation and such matters, according to Alain Barker, for 10 years executive director of the Bloomington Early Music Festival at its zenith and now board member of Bloomington Early Music, the town/gown organization promoting the festival and assorted complementing activities such as the ongoing Bloomington Bach Cantata Project, were handled this way: “Thanks to contributions from individuals, we were able to cover travel and a small honorarium for our visiting musicians, pay for festival expenses such as hall use, programs, marketing, and etcetera. The support for emerging musicians in the festival is taken seriously, and we made efforts this year to include them in career development activity through the Jacob School’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Career Development, of which I’m the director, profile them on the website, and promote their performances via social media.”
The extension of Early Music availabilities close to BLEMF came courtesy of a Historical Performance Institute Conference on Theory, Practice, and Intedisciplinarity, put together by another Bloomington Early Music board member, Dana Marsh, director of Jacobs’ Historical Performance Institute. That tie will be strengthened next season, if plans work out, and it sounds as if they will, for the organization and magazine called Early Music America to bring its Early Music America Young Performers Festival to Bloomington. In the past this event has seesawed between the Boston and the Berkley festivals. That, of course, would add a number of performances, thereby extending the enrichment to be like the Maytime Early Music days of old.
Barker expressed optimism brought on by this year’s “robust” audience. He explained: “I’m estimating an increase of around 15 to 20 percent. That resurgence in interest gives me a sense that the project of revival is up and running once again. The most important thing for us now is to keep growing in a creative, innovative, and sustainable way. As we look toward next year and a relationship with Early Music America, we’ll be focusing on our base of support, individuals and partners who we would love to work with long term, such as the Historical Performance Institute, WFIU, organizations in the region, and sponsors.”
If you read my Herald-Times reviews of the concerts last month, you’ll be aware that I expressed pleasure for what I heard: from truly distinguished alums like violinist Ingrid Matthews, harpsichordist Byron Schenkman, flutist Colin St. Martin, and viola da gamba player Liam Byrne; from Bloomington Early Music board member and flute/traverso specialist Leela Breithaupt and the violin/fortepiano duo of Jessica Park and Ji-Young Kim; from Jacobs School students Curtis Pavey (harpsichord), Kathryn Summersett (soprano), and Michael Walker (countertenor); from all who delivered a delightful program of French love songs from centuries of long ago; from students past and students present performing in honor of viola da gamba pioneer teacher and performer Wendy Gillespie on her retirement from IU; from those taking part in the closing program given by the Bloomington Early Music Festival Orchestra, and others that I may or may not have mentioned along the way. There was much good to be heard during BLEMF 2017, and I was happy to have it for my listening.
There’s looking ahead now to 2018 for more of the homegrown again, and more of the visitors, and, one hopes, the Early Music America up-and-comers, and some big timers, together on a more extended schedule. The future holds promise.
BLEMF means much to quite a few area devotees. One of them, my oft concert-attending colleague Janis Starcs, former owner and retired proprietor of Caveat Emptor, the city’s foremost used-book-store-on-the-square, also former BLEMF board member, sent me a message just before BLEMF 2017 got underway. I share it with you:
“While I am typing this, I am listening to WFIU playing Brahms’ Third Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Back when I started listening to Early Music, it was the poor stepchild of the music world and condescended to as the refuge of amateur and second-rate musicians. Karajan forbade his orchestra from hiring Harnoncourt and conducted Vivaldi more like Mantovani than anything we would recognize today. Now, Simon Rattle has been employing historically informed style and can tell the difference between Mozart and Mahler. Harnoncourt made recordings at the Concertgebouw. Early Music luminaries are guest conducting orchestras in Chicago, Boston, Vienna, and elsewhere.
“We now have alumni teaching at Juilliard, once a bastion of reaction,” Janis continues. “There are still people who have not yet gotten the message, notably among vocalists and some string players, but we have arrived. There is still the problem of funding, but that is probably true for all the arts these days. The recording industry keeps finding new composers and historical repertoire, and is turning out more high quality product than I can afford to keep up with. Forty years ago, each significant new recording was news. How many people of a certain age were blown away by Harnoncourt’s Monteverdi Vespers or the Ulsamer Collegium’s Praetorius ‘Terpsichore’ as I was? These are heady times.”
Surely, my friend and music lover Janis Starcs is pleased that BLEMF is back. He went to every performance this past May, and he’s yearning for more.
Contact Peter Jacobi at email@example.com.