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Trevor Stephenson was already a local performer on harpsichord, fortepiano and early pianos when, in 2004, he organized the Madison Bach Musicians as a period-performance group.
It was "a pickup thing," he admits, that drew upon fortuitous pools of players both local and transient. The group has staged a series of landmark successes, including pioneer period performances of Bach's "Mass in B Minor" (2008) and "St. Matthew Passion" (2009). On March 12, Stephenson will sit at a harpsichord in Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to perform, under the Madison Bach Musicians banner, music by Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.
Stephenson isn't alone in his efforts. Early music - generally, music composed starting in medieval times and up to 1750 - has become a familiar commodity hereabouts, thanks in part to the Madison Early Music Festival. Inevitably linked to the music is the concept of "period performance" style: the attempted recovery of earlier sonorities and playing techniques.
While many larger cities have nurtured groups devoted to period-performance practice, Madison is unusual in having grown in this area on a scale quite beyond what might be expected in a city its size, and over little more than two decades.
Missouri-born, Trevor Stephenson pursued a master's at the University of Illinois, where he trained in piano but was introduced by the eminent Malcolm Billson to Mozart on the fortepiano, an 18th-century precursor of the piano that is smaller and softer. Stephenson settled in Madison to write his dissertation on 18th-century performance practices, and through Farley's House of Pianos he met instrument-builder Norman Campbell and was caught up in the study of historical tuning systems.
Thanks to widening contacts with period performers around this part of the country, Stephenson has since become a one-man networking center for musicians local and visiting - and increasingly youthful ones. Distinguished recruits have rallied to his cause, like local resident Marika Fisher Hoyt, who, trained as a professional violist, has played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and is a founding member of the blossoming Ancora Quartet. Drawn by Stephenson (and love of Bach's music) into period playing and literature, she has also become a kind of "procuress" for players for local ensembles.
Stephenson's efforts have prompted emulation. Robert Geherenbeck, after just three years as conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, and not previously an early-music specialist, will venture a period-style performance of Bach's "St. John Passion" on April 2.
Those who work with Stephenson are full of praise for his initiative, knowledge, energy, administrative and promotional skills, and charm in talking to audiences. He is, says one, "a miracle."
What are the features of the early-music effort? Generally: reduction in ensemble sizes, often to one singer or player. Reduction or elimination, in singing or playing, of vibrato, which became conventional only in the 20th century. Use of gut strings instead of metal ones, and wind instruments of earlier design, mostly valveless. Finally, escape from modern "equal" temperament into exploration or earlier tuning systems.
Revival and re-creation of early instruments began in the late 19th century but surged in the later half of the last century. Musicians learned the earlier playing and singing traditions. Audiences for period performances spread steadily, even though some listeners and critics rejected what they consider dry, scrawny, scrapey sounds.
"Historically informed" practices have prevailed widely. One can even hear Brahms' symphonies played in the sounds of his day now. At a recent Madison Early Music Festival, Robert Wiemken of the Piffaro wind ensemble capped the long struggle he and his colleagues have fought for the acceptance of period instruments, crying, "We've won!"
Along with Stephenson, Anton Ten Wolde is an elder of the local movement, perhaps ranking as the patriarch. He came from his native Holland in 1973 seeking a graduate degree in environmental studies. He is now retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Lab, but playing the cello is his lifetime avocation.
He first trained amid the pioneering early-instrument revival in his homeland, where the use of gut strings had become standard. In his early Madison years he worked with UW violinist Tom Moore, and together with Jess Anderson, they began performing in the 1980s as the Musical Camerata. They were eventually joined by flute player and maker Thomas Boehm and harpsichordist Alexander Silbiger, whose departure from the UW School of Music Ten Wolde considers a terrible setback.
Initially in Milwaukee, then here, Ten Wolde launched the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. Its first regular program was in 1997, on Ten Wolde's 50th birthday. David L. Crosby, the group's harpsichordist until his death, was replaced by Max Yount of Beloit College. Other players were drawn in along the way, and from the outset, guest singers were involved.
Ten Wolde considers the group a democratic collective, with himself "more an enabler than leader." But the ensemble has become the longest-lasting laboratory in Madison for exploring period performance style, while Ten Wolde himself is Madison's indispensable Baroque continuo cellist.
Next in impact among the elders are the husband and wife Paul and Cheryl Bensman Rowe. They met in New York City while singing in such groups as the Waverly Consort and the Western Wind, pioneer early-music groups. They already had dreams of an educational program in the field when they arrived in Madison in 1998, Paul joining the UW voice faculty.
He soon noted how empty and unused were the UW Music School facilities in the summer. In collaboration with Chelcy Bowles of Continuing Education in Music, herself a dab hand at organizing music conferences, he developed the idea of the Madison Early Music Festival. It was launched in the summer of 2000, at first of two week's duration, since then reduced to one.
Initially planning a program of teaching workshops in early music, the Rowe-Bowles team was surprised by the emergence of an enthusiastic public for concerts by the festival's staff and participants. Ten Wolde stresses the festival's timing: It turned the corner in public attitudes after early struggles for acceptance.
For Ten Wolde, the festival was a decisive catalyst for Madison's period-music scene. His own Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble played a concert in the first festival. In over a decade, thanks greatly to the Rowes' vast connections in the world of early music-making, the Madison Early Music Festival has achieved national and international recognition, drawing outstanding performing faculty and eager students of all ages.
Two remarkable young Madison violinists illustrate the choices available to players nowadays. Both came to study with the UW's David Parry. Both play in the two modern-instrument orchestras as well as with the two period-instrument ensembles.
Michigan-born Edith Hines, who recently finished her doctor of musical arts degree, parlayed a minor in Baroque studies into intense study of Bach through work in the UW's Early Music Collegium Musicum. An opportunity to work with period violinist Robert Mealy at the 2005 Madison Early Music Festival allowed her to discover what she calls her "mother tongue" in early playing, prompting her to "unlearn modern baggage" and become a brilliant early-music virtuoso. She would like to make that work her career.
Minnesota-born Eleanor Wiley Bartsch, currently an undergraduate junior, but a dazzlingly mature and enterprising violinist, was introduced to Baroque playing by Hines. Bartsch calls the modern violin "my love," and she hopes to make a professional career in teaching and orchestral playing.
She appreciates the early style for deepening her awareness of the scope of literature and technique. "I always like having to dabble in different things," she says, "but when I pick up the modern instrument I feel relief." She herself is little influenced by the Madison Early Music Festival, since she is away from Madison in summers.
Both Hines and Bartsch insist they miss Brahms when involved in early music, and at least Bartsch plans not to forsake him.
Though period playing has yet to become standardized in American musical curricula, the fact that musicians now accept it as a reality, not some fad, means that it can be beneficial even for performers who are not specialists.
All our musicians have faced up to the question: Why has Madison become so outsized an early-music center?
There is, of course, the rich musical world of the UW. Particularly important has been the long operation of the Music School's Collegium Musicum. Run in the past by the likes of David Fallows and Alexander Silbiger, it is now rotated between John "Chappy" Stowe and Jeanne Swack. It has proven a training ground for students who may specialize, like Edith Hines, or may integrate early music into a broader scope, like Eleanor Wiley Bartsch.
Local musicians also speak of the Madison audience as highly educated. Fisher Hoyt, mother of two children, is particularly impressed by the school string programs and the community support that values the arts.
"It's like heaven in Madison," she says. "Madison attracts creative and intelligent people." These people work together congenially and include good sparkplug personalities. There are stable ensembles and organizations, blending long-term oldsters with gifted youngsters.
"They come," Fisher Hoyt says, "they light up, then they go!"
Upcoming early music events
Madison Bach Musicians: Keyboard music by Bach, Handel and Scarlatti (Trevor Stephenson, harpsichordist)
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Friday, March 12, 7:30 pm
Wisconsin Chamber Choir: Bach's "St. John Passion"
First Unitarian Society, Friday, April 2, 8 pm
Madison Bach Musicians: Bach's Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6
Trinity Lutheran Church, Saturday, April 10, 8 pm
First Unitarian Society, Saturday, April 24, 8 pm
Madison Early Music Festival
UW-Madison, July 10-17