Sackbut, vielle, violone, krumhorn, cornetto, lute, hurdy-gurdy — all are musical instruments no longer in common use. But they thrive among lovers of early western music. The Guild for Early Music, a consortium of ensembles in the Princeton area, brings a phalanx of such instruments to Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton for its fifth annual marathon program. The program runs from noon until 5 p.m. on Sunday, October 25, and includes music from the 12th through 18th centuries. Three vocal ensembles join seven instrumental ensembles for performances indoors. Strolling singers from the Rutgers University Collegium Musicum perform outdoors. Audience members will be able not only to hear music played on vintage instruments but also to try them out themselves at what the Guild calls “a petting zoo” at 5 p.m.
The theme of the extravaganza is “In Love and War.” Grounds For Sculpture enhances the musical events by offering sculpture tours featuring works on the theme during the afternoon.
The Mercer County College radio station WWFM, the Classical Network, which nourishes strong ties with its community of listeners, is a media sponsor. Allan Kelly, host of WWFM’s “Distant Mirror,” which broadcasts medieval, renaissance, and baroque music, will be on hand. WWFM program director Alice Weiss provides an hour-long on-air preview, including interviews with musicians, beginning at 10 a.m.
Bliss Michelson, WWFM production manager and host of its 7 to 10 a.m. morning program, will serve as master of ceremonies, introducing each group as it plays for its allotted half-hour segment. Invited by John Burkhalter, recorder player, and a leader among early music performers in the area, Michelson happily signed on as host for the Early Music Festival’s first gig at Grounds For Sculpture in 2005. He has been with the annual festival as master of ceremonies ever since.
“Burkhalter asked me, and I did it for the fun of it,” Michelson says in a telephone interview from his WWFM office at Mercer County Community College.
This year Michelson is involved, both as host and as a performer, playing hurdy-gurdy with the Engelchor Consort, a Princeton-based medieval music group. The instrument was first depicted in the 12th century. The sound is made by a wooden wheel, driven by a crank, moving against the tuned strings of the instrument, which is somewhat larger than a modern viola.
Michelson, whose primary instrument is the double bass, claims no musical credentials for his appearance with Engelchor. “I’ll just turn the crank, and a drone will come out,” he says. “They’ll decide the music for me. They’ll program it.”
The festival has refined its operations since its inception, Michelson says. “It was feeling its way along at first. Now it’s well-organized.” Roughly 100 people attended the first festival four years ago. The fourth festival, last year, attracted an audience of more than 500, with some listeners dropping by for a few minutes and others remaining in place for the full five hours.
“The ‘petting zoo’ started two years ago,” says Michelson. “People handle the instruments under the supervision of the musicians themselves. So nobody can break or damage anything.
‘Grounds For Sculpture is taking more of a hand in the festival,” Michelson continues. “At first, Grounds For Sculpture was merely a venue. They’ve come to realize that the two organizations can work together and be consistent about following the same theme. The left hand now knows what the right hand is doing.”
WWFM is now an official participant in the festival for the second time. “Being involved with the Festival has become a station function.” Michelson says. “At first it was just me. The station became officially involved in 2008, when it became a media sponsor of the event. It gives station people a chance to mix with the public. We’re here to listen to folks and respond to their concerns.
“We’re public radio,” Michelson says. “Everything depends on public support. Being responsive to the community’s needs is essential. We want public support and we want to support the public’s needs.”
Peter Fretwell, WWFM general manager since 2007, confirms the station’s commitment to its listeners. “I started to listen to WWFM online in Spokane, Washington,” he says, “and got the impression of highly-skilled, passionate, classical music professionals who cared about doing radio the way I think it should be done, that is, with local and community involvement. I made the transition from commercial to non-commercial radio because commercial radio had lost its sense of community service and localism. That used to be the norm. Now, it’s the exception.”
“Classical music professional”: the phrase is an accurate description of Early Music Festival host Michelson, borrowed from WWFM for the afternoon. His instrument is the double bass. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Music from Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University in 1971.
Michelson, 60, was born in West Chicago, Illinois, 30 miles west of Chicago. His mother, a home economics teacher, played piano and flute. Her father played trumpet and cornet. Michelson’s father worked for the Northern Illinois Gas Company in finance until he retired in 1972. “He’s 95 and lives with my sister,” Michelson says. “He’s doing well. He’s a grumpy old Swede who broke his hip two years ago.”
In high school, Michelson played flute. “I hated it,” he says. “I thought of it as a girl’s instrument and didn’t feel an affinity for it. At 13, I started bass. My teacher, Henry Howard, needed somebody tall and skinny who could hold up the instrument and reach around it.”
As a high school graduate in 1967, Michelson followed teacher Howard’s example and studied at Chicago Musical College. Having earned a bachelor’s degree, he joined the U.S. Army.
In 1971 the Army sent him to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. “We called it ‘Fort Lost in the Woods’ because it was in the middle of nowhere,” Michelson says. “It was a 125-mile drive to St. Louis for culture. I played bass tuba and sousaphone in the Army band. I had played both in high school. I was also a supply clerk. A big river ran through the camp. The fishing was good. Life was pleasant there.
“I had a car,” Michelson says. “I drove to St. Louis to study double bass with Henry Loewe, who was on the faculty at Washington University. That got me into the San Antonio Symphony.”
Michelson was a member of San Antonio’s double bass section from the time he left the Army in 1974 until 1987. “I got into broadcasting because the San Antonio orchestra had a short season — 36 weeks. In the summer I stayed home staring at the four walls. My wife heard station KRTU [the radio station at San Antonio’s Trinity University] asking for volunteer announcers. They took me. It was a great way to spend the summers.”
Michelson worked at San Antonio’s National Public Radio 24-hour classical station KPAC-FM beginning in 1982. In 1987 he became a full-time announcer/producer with NPR’s classical station WNED-FM in Buffalo, New York. In 1992 he came to WWFM.
Michelson continues to free-lance as a double bassist in orchestras in New Jersey and neighboring areas in Pennsylvania and New York State. Primarily, he plays an acoustic bass. But he also plays an electronic instrument. “I have a Fender bass at home,” he says. “As a free-lance bassist I’m called on to use it occasionally.”
Asked to compare hosting a radio show or an early musical festival with performing, Michelson says, “There’s an overlap in the sense that I have a good background in music theory and history, a knowledge of musical instruments and a good grasp of foreign languages. I can handle just about anything pronunciation-wise.”
As for the appeal of the double bass, Michelson says, “Partly, it’s the enjoyment of playing in a low register. Partly, it’s fun to play such a large instrument.”
But something else is at the root of Michelson’s attraction to the double bass. “It’s a power thing,” he says. “The bass is the fundamental instrument of the orchestra. If the basses are out of tune, everybody else is out of tune.” Maybe the same statement applies to being the production manager for WWFM. As production manager his role is seeing that what is meant to be broadcast actually gets on the air.
Guild for Early Music, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Sunday, October 25, Noon. to 5:30 p.m. Fifth annual festival with the theme “In Love and War” features both vocal and instrumental music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras presented by regional performance groups. Visitors may try out some of the unusual instruments that have been played in the instrument “petting zoo.” Strolling minstrels and tours throughout the grounds. Free with $10 park admission. 609-689-1089 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.
Performing in the Seward Johnson Center for the Arts: John Burkhalter for the Princeton Recorder Society, recorder; Delaware River Consort, vocal quartet; Practitioners of Musick, Baroque instrumental ensemble; Mostly Motets, vocal ensemble; La Fiocco, Baroque instrumental ensemble; Engelchor Consort, Medieval instrumental ensemble with voice; Princeton Pro Musica Chamber Group, vocal; Gloria Consort, Baroque trio sonatas; La Spirita, viola da gamba ensemble with voice, Renaissance; and Musica Dolce, Baroque instrumental ensemble. Performing outdoors and/or in the Domestic Arts Building: Rutgers University Collegium Musicum, Renaissance.