The flowering, musical energy of Bach's early years in the Duke's court; an Italian madrigal comedy; springtime expressions; the cheerful melodies and exuberant phrases of Bach's Orchestral Suites; and a Valentine's “concert of love” in the Italian Renaissance tradition are all elements of the 4th Annual Houston Early Music Festival.
Spanning two weekends and showcasing partner organizations Ars Lyrica Houston, Bach Society Houston, Houston Early Music, Mercury and Piping Rock Singers, the festival begins with selections from Bach's early years in court, where he attained proficiency and confidence and learned to write his dramatic openings.
February 6: Bach in the Court of Weimar
In 1708 a young Johann Sebastian Bach gave up his post as a church organist to return to the court of Weimar. He was the toast of the town, continuing to play, compose and perform concert music with Duke Johann Ernst III's ensemble while also beginning to write the preludes and fugues that would later be developed into his monumental work The Well-Tempered Clavier.
“That really is the time of flowering, orchestral music, an incredible time in Bach's life, and the music from this series is really rich,” says Rick Erickson, director of Bach Society Houston, about the inaugural festival program, Bach in the Court of Weimar. “This is an earlier part of his life which was really exciting in a fun way.”
“The two cantatas are very interesting pieces,” says Erickson. “The opening chorus for [Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (BWV 70)] is over the top. Some of the solo is operatic in its nature. Lightning crashes. It's an interesting merging of the orchestral style.”
Of the second piece in Bach Society's program, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12) – which translates to Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing and which was composed for the third Sunday after Easter – Erickson says that it offers a nice contrast with its “dramatic and very, very expressive” score that was “almost a foreshadowing" of the serious, mature music of Bach later in his life.
The program ends with a violin concerto (BWV 1041), where we “kick up our heels,” says Erickson. “It's incredible stuff.”
Erickson says that the venue – the Edythe Bates Old Recital Hall at Rice University – is a “stunning, stunning space,” adding that it's hard to “pass up playing the organ” there.
5 p.m. Saturday, February 6, reception to follow. Bach Society Houston at Rice University, 6100 South Main. For information, call 713-400-0514 or visit bachsocietyhouston.org. $35.
February 11: Banchieri Banchetto Due: Barca di Venezia per Padova (Banchieri Banquet Two: The Boat from Venice to Padua) — deadline to RSVP is February 5
It was a mutual love for the repertoire of the Medieval and Renaissance periods that drew like-minded church choir musicians together to form the Piping Rock Singers in 1995. Their focus is on selections from c. 900 to 1750, performing sacred, secular and lesser-known works either a cappella or with period instruments, when possible.
Directed by guest Artistic Director Patrick Schneider, The Boat from Venice is an Italian madrigal comedy in which the Piping Rock Singers portray a mix of characters – singing different languages and dialects – with the shared goal of setting sail from Venice to “get to Padua.” They will perform the 1623 version of the madrigal comedy, first published by Adriano Banchieri in 1605; the updates include a new basso continuo part and alterations to the madrigal characters that parody the four appreciated composers of the age (à la maniere).
The event – which is being hailed as an “exciting Renaissance musical dinner theater experience” – features a gourmet dinner with wine where guests are encouraged to wear Renaissance costumes or cocktail attire.
Champagne reception 7 p.m.; dinner and show 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, February 11. Piping Rock Singers at The Bell Tower on 34th, 901 West 34th. For information, call 832-786-9226 or visit pipingrocksingers.com. $150 per person or $250 per couple.
February 12: All in a Garden Green
The Elysian Fields come alive with Ars Lyrica's program, inspired by the English folk song "All in a Garden Green." “[It's] basically a journey that starts with the winds that bring the allegory of Spring into being in the old legend,” says Artistic Director Matthew Dirst. “Then the birth of Spring from Chloris, the birth of the goddess, we explore the springtime expressions from flora to fauna to love itself.”
Selections mix pieces from English, Italian, French and Spanish musical culture, including songs and cantatas by Juan del Encina, Thomas Morely, William Byrd and Vivaldi, with solos by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, tenor Eduardo Tercero and Kathryn Montoya on the recorder.
“[Montoya] is playing the solo line with Vivaldi's Spring from 'The Four Seasons,' which I couldn't resist,” says Dirst. “We don't necessarily need a full orchestra; single string will work, and the recorder does that beautifully.
7:30 p.m. Friday, February 12. Ars Lyrica at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit arslyricahouston.org. $37 to $59.
February 13: Bach Orchestral Suites with Harry Bicket
“He's from England and he is one of the most famous conductors that specializes in the music of Bach and contemporary Baroque music,” says Mercury's Antoine Plante about guest conductor Harry Bicket. “He is the music director at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, and right now in Houston he is performing with the Houston Grand Opera, so we are sharing him during this month of February.”
Plante says that although Bach “wrote a lot of chamber music,” there are only about ten orchestral pieces available, “because the symphony was not invented yet.” Mercury will perform four of the suites, “inspired mostly by French music, and each of them are different in several ways.
“Suite No. 1 has strings and a smaller group of woodwinds,” says Plante. “Suite No. 2 is a little bit more intimate. It has a really famous movement, the last movement of the suite; it's one of the most famous.”
Plante says that the second movement of Suite No. 3 is “the very famous air, a slow violin movement that is so beautiful,” and both it and Suite No. 4 are “a little bit more majestic because of the trumpet.”
8 p.m. Saturday, February 13. Mercury at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-533-0080 or visit mercuryhouston.org. $35 to $68.
February 14: Lucidarium – Ay me Sospiri, Love Letters from the Italian Renaissance
“They are all virtuoso performers in their own right,” says Nancy Ellis, artistic director of Houston Early Music, about Lucidarium. The guest ensemble vocalists offer a Valentine's Day program with poetry and music of the late 15th to mid-16th centuries. “What sets them apart from other ensembles is their multicultural approach to the music, achieved from working between the written musical sources and the oral traditions.”
“Having heard Lucidarium in concert twice, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to bring them to town for our concert offering,” says Ellis, adding that their focus on Renaissance music – with period winds, plucked instruments, percussion, hammer dulcimer and viola da gamba – adds variety to a festival that generally features Baroque music.
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“Their performances are just plain fun,” says Ellis. “Highly entertaining and engaging.”
4 p.m. Sunday, February 14. Houston Early Music at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1311 Holman. For information, call 281-846-4222 or visit houstonearlymusic.org. $40.
For more information about tickets to the Houston Early Music Festival, as well as discounted festival passes, call 713-533-0080 or visit houstonearlymusicfestival.org/tickets.