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Learning to Hear With 17th-Century Ears

The Boston Early Music Festival, which opens today, draws fans of historic instruments

FOR many music-lovers, "historically informed performance" is an acquired taste. The intimate acoustics, a general lack of flamboyance in the interpretation, the limited use of vibrato and a sweeter, slightly ropy sound in the strings, the mellow sonorities of early wind instruments - all are generally at odds with 20th-century standards and practices.

Then there's the repertoire. Though the practice of historical authenticity has begun to creep into familiar 19th-century repertoire, much of early music is just that - early. And most casual listeners don't know their Byrd from their Gesualdo.

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But for true aficionados, early music is a passion and has inspired a following that is almost cult-like in its devotion. There is nothing casual about the scholars, musicians, and fans who thrive on the pure pleasures of early music. And for those committed to performing any music as authentically true to the composer's intentions as possible - both in regard to stylistic intepretation and the use of original instruments - there is no other way.

Beginning today and running through June 20 at Harvard University, the seventh biennial Boston Early Music Festival is the place to be for lovers of early music. The festival attracts performers and attendees from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East. Though there have been an increasing number of smaller festivals in recent years, Boston's is the oldest and most prestigious in North America and the second largest in the world (the largest being the Utrecht festival in H olland.)

This year's festival, co-directed by the American lute virtuoso Paul O'Dette and the renowned British conductor Andrew Parrott, focuses on the 16th- and 17th-century English and Italian repertory, with special commemorations of the 450th anniversary of William Byrd and the 350th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi.

There are several different facets to the festival - main performances sponsored by the festival, concurrent performances of smaller groups, symposiums, master classes, and the festival exhibition, which runs all week.

"It's an extremely lively festival," Mr. O'Dette says. "At any hour of the day, there are two to three concerts going on as well as the exhibition and master classes and symposiums. There's everything from the social aspect of being able to try out instruments and meet friends, to the pedagogical side of master classes and bringing together scholars from all over the world to talk about the latest research on this music."

The festival centerpiece will be a fully staged, authentic production of Monteverdi's first opera, "L'Orfeo," which Mr. Parrot calls "the best opera ever written. It's stunning, one of the very first operas written right at the beginning of the form, and it's a wonderful spectacle, yet very intimate acoustically."

The work will be performed in Italian with English surtitles. Parrott, a noted Monteverdi scholar, will conduct.

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"It's one of the most direct pieces of music I know, because the music is so clear and the setting projects the meaning of the text," Parrott says. "Although a lot may seem esoteric, when you see the music so well done, these barriers disappear. It appeals as directly as a good piece of modern theater or a terrific symphony. It's in no way exclusive."

The noted Australian stage director Simon Target will oversee the production, with sets and costumes by James Middleton. The cast will include Joseph Cornwell, Mark Bleeke, Jan Opalach, Ellen Hargis, Frank Kelley, and William Hite, among others. The orchestra will feature a combination of musicians from The King's Noyse and Italy's Concerto Palatino, as well as other noted instrumentalists.

In addition to four performances of "L'Orfeo," concert highlights will include programs of music from the time of Byrd and Monteverdi by the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus, Concerto Palatino, and the King's Noyse, among others. The Boston Camerata will present a special program of rare, newly transcribed Shaker songs. More than 50 concurrent concerts also are scheduled at various sites throughout the Cambridge, Mass., area.

A focal point of every festival is the exhibition featuring over 120 instrument- and accessory-makers from five continents, as well as record companies and dealers in rare books, prints, and manuscripts. This year's primary site will be Harvard's spacious Memorial Hall.

As O'Dette describes the exhibition, "It's sort of like going to a large zoo or a museum. There are so many fantastic things to see. A lot of people are so interested in the variety of unusual instruments that the average concertgoer has little or no exposure to."

And for early music diehards, there are lectures, classes, and symposiums planned, which will focus on the latest research on performance practices as well as historical and technical information.

The phenomenal growth during the past few decades of the early music field shows little sign of slowing down.

O'Dette explains, "Somehow we've tended to think of music before Bach as kind of pre-music - primitive, a little bit dull and boring. It's unusual why people recognize the great cathedral architecture and literature of early times but assume the music must have been kind of primitive or we would be performing it more often today. The reason was that we didn't have the right instruments. You can't play Renaissance or Medieval music on modern symphonic instruments.

"People had to learn how to get original instruments or get someone to make modern copies and then try to reconstruct playing techniques that had died out centuries ago and were completely different from the techniques used on modern instruments," Odette continues. "Once groups developed the ability to play and get instruments to perform the music, the public started to recognize how exciting this music was."

One important goal of the Boston Early Music Festival is to present a context in which listeners can hear a sampling of the wealth and diversity within the field. "Collaboration is one of the most exciting aspects," O'Dette says, "combining expertise and knowledge and styles. The idea is to bring together the best players to do things you wouldn't ordinarily have the opportunity to hear. That's really what a festival like this should be."

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