Guild for Early Music performers readying their period instruments for 10th annual festival
Janet Palumbo owns three harpsichords, each one a bit different from the others.
The bulky keyboards, the largest of which weighs 150 lbs., can usually be found in various locations in her Princeton home. They are instruments of a prior age, but she plays them all, including the one she and her husband built from a kit when she was still in college.
And when the classically trained musician needs one for a performance — since harpsichords are not readily found in 21st-century concert venues — she takes it with her.
“There are two soccer mom passenger vans that are big enough to put an 8-foot harpsichord in, and I drive one of them,” she said with a laugh during an interview last month. “When I go to buy a car, I bring the fitted harpsichord cover with me. If it fits, then I buy that van.”
On Oct. 12, she will load her best harpsichord into the van and head to Hamilton for the Guild For Early Music Festival, which has been held at Grounds For Sculpture every year since 2005. For enthusiasts of what has become known as early music, there’s no better place to be.
The nonprofit Guild for Early Music was founded in 2004. Its stated mission is “to promote music of the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Early American eras by fostering in the community knowledge and appreciation of music of these historical periods and facilitating cooperation and providing resources for professional and amateur performing ensembles and musicians,” and the festival is the best single place for them to fulfill that mission.
Guild musicians are either professionals or highly skilled amateurs who play predominantly compositions written hundreds of years ago, sometimes reading from photocopies of vintage sheet music as they play. Their instruments in most cases have been painstakingly crafted by specialized builders to re-create the dulcet sounds of centuries past: lutes, recorders, baroque oboes, violas da gamba, harpsichords and more.
The festival this year is expected to feature more than a dozen vocal, instrumental or mixed ensembles giving short concerts of music from the 12th through 18th centuries on two stages. A grand finale of a “rousing Henry Purcell favorite” will be conducted by Marjorie Herman of 89.1 WWFM, the Mercer County Community College radio station.
Also featured for 2014 will be brass or wind fanfares introducing each concert, wandering musicians and instrument “petting zoos,” where festivalgoers can touch or even try to play some instruments. The event is free with park admission, which costs $15 (seniors $12, students $10, children under 6 free). More details, including a list of all ensembles scheduled to participate, are online at guildforearlymusic.org.
But how exactly does a person become an early musician? We set out to find out, asking five members of the Guild For Early Music to tell us their early music stories.
Viola da gamba
Judith Klotz grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, graduating from the City College of New York at a time when it was free to attend. The Lawrence resident worked for years at the Department of Health, as an epidemiologist.
Today she is an adjunct instructor in public health at Drexel and Rutgers. But music has long been her avocation, and she has had “very deep and extensive” training in piano and theory.
“Piano was very satisfying, but also very lonely and also very intense,” Klotz said in a recent interview. ““I wanted to play an instrument that would enable me to play baroque music with people. I wanted the experience of something that was appropriate for the earlier music, which I really loved the sound of.”
Eventually, she came to the viola da gamba. Resembling to the untrained eye something between a cello and a guitar, the viol or viola da gamba (Italian for “viol of the leg”) is a six-stringed, fretted instrument that is played with a bow.
Klotz, who is the president of the Guild For Early Music, can play all the violas da gamba — treble, tenor and bass — but favors the tenor, which is similar in size to a guitar. She owns one in each size, all of modern construction based upon the designs of historical instruments. One was made in England, one in North Carolina, and one on Long Island.
Since 1995, she has been part of performing group called La Spirita, consisting of a soprano and various sized viols. The group plays mostly English and Italian music from the 17th century, and will be performing (without vocalist Lynn Fergusson) at this year’s festival. Including the festival, they usually perform two or three times a year.
You can say La Spirita was instrumental in the formation of the Guild For Early Music in 2004. By that time, there were a number of early music ensembles and consorts in the area, and a number of players had wondered if a more formal association would facilitate working together.
As Klotz recalls, it was Mary Benton, a member of La Spirita as well as several other groups, who first suggested a consortium of all the groups in the region.
“That was a visionary thing to say and we all thought that was a wonderful idea,” Klotz said. “Where it would have been four or five groups who often worked together, now we have 24.”
Klotz said one of the things she likes about early music, particularly Renaissance music, is that it was usually written to be enjoyed by the players as well as an audience.
“It is an extremely cooperative, convivial experience, a very friendly experience. You’re having a musical conversation with everyone else who is playing,” she said.
Jane McKinley started playing modern oboe when she was 9 years old, and oboe is what she studied in college. But she became interested in medieval and Renaissance music at Northwestern University, where she played all the early wind instruments.
She got her first baroque oboe in 1983. The one she plays most often, which is made of English boxwood, she has had since 1991.
She plays baroque oboe with the Dryden Ensemble, a professional group for which she serves as artistic director. The Dryden Ensemble, founded in 1994, won’t be at the Guild For Early Music Festival. But they will be performing the music of Henry Purcell Nov. 15 in Miller Chapel, on the campus of the Princeton Theological Seminary, and they have performed at the festival in years past.
The Hopewell Borough resident said it took a couple years playing the baroque oboe to feel proficient. A lot of what a modern oboist carries over, she said — breathing and fingering are similar. There is more air resistance on a modern oboe than a baroque one, which took some getting used to.
She said when she was learning modern oboe, there was sort of a modern way of playing baroque music. As more musicians exchanged contemporary instruments for historical ones, that began to change.
“The instrument itself gives you a lot of ideas about the music — the way the instrument articulates, the sound of it,” she said. “What happened was people forgot how baroque music was played, the tradition. Baroque music is really full of articulation. That is what makes it alive.”
John Orluk Lacombe started taking folk and jazz guitar lessons in first grade, but he never studied classical music. In high school and undergraduate college, he played no instruments at all.
His undergraduate and graduate degrees are both in music history, and he took voice lessons. But when the Pennington resident started studying the lute, part way through his masters degree program, he did it on his own, not through the school.
“I was a singer, and I found through our choir and things that I did that I liked the Renaissance music,” he says. “Through history classes, I heard lute songs. So I decided I really like this from a singer standpoint, and since I did have some experience playing a plucked instrument, I thought maybe the lute could work for me.”
Lutes are fairly rare, even for period instruments, and around 2001, Lacombe bought his first lute on the Internet, made and shipped from the Middle East at a cost of $700.
“That was the cheapest I could find, and it was basically unplayable,” said Lacombe, who works as office coordinator of the English department at Princeton University. “I had to do work on it — change all the strings, change the nut, change the frets — before I could even start to play it.”
Widely played during the Renaissance, lutes sound similar to classical guitars, and today guitars are often used to play music written for lutes. Lutes are flat in front, like a guitar, but the other side of the body is bowl shaped. Lute strings, which can number 13 or higher depending on the period, were historically made of gut, and are set at a lower tension than modern guitars.
These days Lacombe plays with a group called La Fiocco, which will be among the ensembles performing at the Guild For Early Music Festival. He has also started learning baroque guitar, which he said “should be useful for the group, and fun for me to learn something new.”
When Janet Palumbo applied to get into Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, she auditioned as a pianist. But once she saw the great Fernando Valenti play harpsichord in concert, she knew that, and not piano, was the instrument for her.
“But of course,” she said, “I couldn’t get my hands on one.” This was in the late 1970’s, and harpsichords were simply not commonplace.
She announced her intention to become a harpsichord student early in her freshman year. Her instructors accepted her proposal, as long as she studied organ for a year. Harpsichord technique is very different from piano technique, but similar to organ technique, she said, and “ninety-nine percent” of harpsichordists started out as organists.
When she was first learning piano, her instructors had her play a lot of Bach.
“So I was already playing a lot of baroque music,” she said, “and when I heard it played on the harpsichord for the first time, I thought, ‘Oh, this is what is what it’s supposed to sound like. This is what it’s supposed to be played on.’”
She did graduate work in musicology at Princeton University, continuing to play early music and dreaming of one day owning a high-end, two-keyboard harpsichord. The instruments were expensive, and could take builders years to make.
Fortunately for Palumbo, the secondary market for harpsichords is strong. She had had her eye on the harpsichords of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania maker Willard Martin for years, but it took about 25 years before she had the money to acquire one.
Palumbo often plays as a member of Le Triomphe de l’amour, a local quartet specializing in 17th and 18th century music. The group, which is going into its 28th season, gives several concerts each year at the Unitarian Church of Princeton.
The members of Le Triomphe de l’amour are also affiliated with the Guild for Early Music, a consortium of ensembles based in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Palumbo said most of her ensemble make a living playing or teaching music, but she is an exception. When she isn’t playing harpsichord, she works for ETS making music tests.
Prior commitments will mean Le Triomphe de l’amour won’t be participating as a group in 2014, but Palumbo plans to be there, playing harpsichord in the finale.
Elizabeth “Betty” Horn, a botanist who also sang when she was attending Harvard University, played clarinet for a long time. But upon moving to Princeton, she found few opportunities to do so professionally. “All positions were filled in the local orchestras,” she recalls.
So she took up the recorder, a flute that was popular between the Renaissance and the baroque period. Recorders come in four sizes — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — and once you play one recorder, Horn said, “you have to play all of them.”
“People don’t always want to get stuck playing the same line all the time,” she said. “Sometimes people want to play the middle part because it’s more interesting. Sometimes in a group of four or five recorder players, everyone’s got a set of them.”
At this year’s festival, Horn will be playing baroque recorder as well as kortholt, a Renaissance woodwind instrument, which she describes as “like playing an oboe in a box.”
Horn has been a member of the same group, the Engelchor Consort, for nearly 40 years. In all that time, only one member of the group has changed, and that was only because the member moved away.
Horn said the group’s longevity can be attributed to its members enjoying the same foods, the same music, and one another’s company.
“It’s like having a personal therapist,” she said of Engelchor Consort. “You can say anything you want.”
Grounds For Sculpture is located at 18 Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton. More information about the sculpture park is online at groundsforsculpture.org.