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Early music fest tries to find authentic sounds

Some perfectly proper classical musical afficionados are indecorously peppering civilized conversation with words like sackbut, shawn, and curtal. And they are keeping a straight face.

The names of these once-obscure period instruments, along with the more familiar recorder, harpsichord, and viola da gamba, are entering the lexicon of the average classical music fan.

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Over the past 20 years, the "early music" phenomenon has exploded, and both connoisseurs and initiates alike are clamoring for more of this music born of dramatic settings and the time-machine aesthetic of historically informed performances.

"The goal is to put music back into its intended historical and artistic context," explains Paul O'Dette, artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF). "Once you understand the aesthetics, sounds, and styles that composers had in their ears, the music comes to life."

Many experts credit the BEMF, founded in 1981, with spreading the word about period music. Last week, the festival gathered together the world's most-talented musicians, musicologists, and instrumentmakers for its 10th biennial marathon of early music performances and symposia.

The theme was "Music of the Mediterranean" and focused on the pre-Romantic traditions of Spain, southern Italy, and the Americas. Along with Sephardic Jewish music from medieval Spain and giddy Neapolitan songs of the 16th century, the centerpiece was the ambitious production of Francesco Cavalli's 1662 "Ercole Amante" ("Hercules in Love"), originally commissioned for the sumptuous wedding of King Louis XIV and Spain's Infanta Maria.

The staging of the five-act opera, a joint labor by Mr. O'Dette, fellow lutenist Stephen Stubbs, and director Jack Edwards, boasted lavish costumes in purple and gold brocade and elaborate white-feather headpieces modeled after 17th-century sketches. Nonetheless, O'Dette enthuses that the score "speaks to us as if it had been written last week."

Skeptics may ask whether all this fuss is worth it: Can people really tell the difference, or is this just highbrow posturing?

"For years, everyone just assumed that what Michelangelo had created was dark and somber," O'Dette says, drawing an analogy to the painting of Rome's Sistine Chapel. "But after the restoration [of the paintings], we realized it was really bright and full of vitality - just like early music."

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Like sleuths, musicologists must reconstruct disconnected facts, foraging around like the Hardy Boys for clues. Attempting to get his hands on a legible score for "Ercole," Stubbs describes letdowns such as finding a microfilm version of Cavalli's score at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., only to discover that many notes had bled together and were tough to decipher. Eventually, Stubbs went to Italy to consult the original manuscript at Venice's Biblioteca Marciana.

Besides looking for performance clues in historical treatises and directing instructions, Mr. Edwards, the stage director, depends on period paintings to learn things like how ensembles were put together, hand position, and the construction of instruments.

"I've studied the paintings of Poussin, Tiepolo, and Veronese, examining gestures, how they evolved, and what they mean," Edwards says. He also looks at historical dance and dress to "attain authenticity of how people look on stage."

Mr. Stubbs debunks the notion that early music is still "something alternative played by hippy musicians in sandals.

"One trend ... is how this practice has moved later in time - Brahms, Berlioz, Wagner, even Bruckner. Now it's pre-Romantic as well, after 1750. The term 'historically informed' is all a matter of original intention."

Asked if early music needs a push from popular culture or celebrities in order to thrive, O'Dette says, "I don't think that what we have has to be cheapened in any way." He says no famous names are needed - no concerts in baseball stadiums. Early music "needs no apology, and it needs no gimmick. It is truly great art on its own terms...."

*'Ercole Amante' will be performed at the Tanglewood music festival this weekend, and will then tour Europe. For more information, check out

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