The Guild for Early Music unleashes 14 different musical ensembles at Grounds For Sculpture, the sculpture park in Hamilton, for its 2015 festival. Titled “Ebb and Flow,” the marathon of music runs on Sunday, October 18, from 12:30 to 5 p.m. and includes chamber music from the 12th to the 19th centuries. The event also includes tours of Grounds For Sculpture works having to do with the theme and a “petting zoo” where visitors can meet the instruments.
Lewis Baratz, host of radio station WWFM’s “Well-Tempered Baroque,” opens the festival with a discussion of early music performance. Hosts from WWFM will introduce performers and greet audiences.
Recorder player John Burkhalter, a founder of the Guild for Early Music (GEM), and a participant in all of its performances at Grounds For Sculpture since they began in 2004, talks about GEM and its annual festivals in a telephone interview from his Princeton home. He has seen attendance grow from 100 at the first festival in 2004 to 3,000 in 2014.
“Performance is the collaboration between performers and listeners,” he says about concert giving. “In the concert hall it is important to integrate the music into the world of the listeners by giving it a frame and showing it in its context. Performers need to show the socio-cultural-historic matrix in which the music is set. Listeners need to understand the culture. I want to provide an entry point for an interested audience to join with me in the musical experience. I like to present music with a hook. I might choose Thomas Jefferson or the court of Louis XIV, for instance, and make the link between a particular composer and such leaders. I want to show composers’ connection to painters and writers. I’m both macro and micro at the same time.”
Burkhalter takes into account that publicly performed music was often published and available to a wide audience of music consumers. He aims to have contemporary audiences re-live that experience. “The music that I play consists of hit tunes from popular theater, operas, and oratorios that could be played at home,” he says.
A handful of musicians interested in early music created the Guild for Early Music, which encompasses both professionals and amateurs. “A small group of us got together and formed a consortium,” Burkhalter says. “We thought that if we had an organization with a shared calendar, we could avoid planning conflicting events. Grounds For Sculpture agreed to host us because they recognized that we could offer an interesting component to their public programs, and we settled on an annual event.” WWFM was involved early, and the station became the media advocate for the Guild.
Burkhalter plays in two separate ensembles during the 2015 festival: the Practitioners of Musick, which specializes in American music of the colonial period and the early federal period (1732 through 1812), and the Agrements de Musique (Ornaments of Music) which focuses on music from the courts of Louis XIII, XIV, and XV in France (1610 to 1774). “During the period in which the Practitioners specialize, churches and taverns were the meeting places where music was exchanged,” Burkhalter says. “They were the Internet of the 18th century.”
The older ensemble is the Practitioners of Musick, which Burkhalter founded in 1999 with the late Eugene Roan. Professor of harpsichord and organ at Westminster Choir College, Roan was also one of the founding members of the Guild for Early Music. Donovan Klotzbeacher is now the Practitioners’ harpsichordist and co-director. Consisting of recorders and harpsichord, the Practitioners add other instruments or singers as needed. Klotzbeacher has other links to the region and is the organist and choral director at the First Presbyterian Church in Cranbury. His musical training was at the University of Minnesota and at Westminster Choir College.
At the GEM marathon Burkhalter’s Practitioners will play music from 18th century Scotland. Burkhalter calls it a Caledonian program (using the Romans’ name for Scotland). The pieces are 18th-century arrangements of popular tunes and English and Scottish country dances from Edinburgh, Perth, and Aberdeen, where music societies existed. Burkhalter points out that Perth Amboy, New Jersey, founded in the late 17th century, was the first Scottish settlement in North America. The settlement was named Perth, after the Scottish city. “Amboy” is of Native American origin.
More than 60 percent of the Caledonian program comes from original 18th-century editions of music, Burkhalter says. “We’re doing about 15 pieces. We only have 23 or 24 minutes in which to play. We chose pieces for their musical color, shape, and context in order to give the flavor of 18th-century Scotland.”
For the Caledonian program Burkhalter plays modern replicas of 18th-century soprano and alto English recorders dating from the 1740s. Although the pitch in 18th-century London and America was lower than what is accepted today, the Practitioners use the modern A=440 (or today’s standard concert pitch) for convenience at the Grounds For Sculpture festival because other groups will be using Burkhalter’s harpsichord. “The pitch of my recorders will be brighter than is historically correct,” Burkhalter says.
In 2013, more than a decade after the Practitioners came into being, Burkhalter founded the Agrements de Musique, a harpsichord and recorders ensemble, with harpsichordist Minju Lee.
The Agrements program at Grounds For Sculpture, “The King’s Dances,” consists of dance music from the court of Louis XIV. “Louis performed dances as a regular performer,” Burkhalter says. “He played Apollo, the god of the sun. That’s why he’s known as the Sun King.” With Agrements, Burkhalter plays copies of original French recorders with pitches at the low standard accepted at Paris and Versailles at the end of the 17th century. “Those recorders will sound darker than what we’re now used to,” Burkhalter says.
Burkhalter’s partner in Agrements, Lee began her musical training in her native Korea and continued her studies at the State University of New York (Stony Brook) and Ohio’s Oberlin College.
Burkhalter will provide both a harpsichord and recorders for the “petting zoo,” which he considers a significant part of the festival. In addition to harp, harpsichord, violin, cello, guitar, percussion, and recorders, the “zoo” includes the extinct gittern, a plucked instrument with double strings and a pear-shaped body that fell into disuse in the 17th century; the vielle, a five-stringed bowed medieval instrument; and the viola da gamba, a six-stringed ancestor of the cello.
“We all talk about our instruments,” Burkhalter says, “and the instruments are interesting visually.” Burkhalter’s brightly colored Korean plastic recorders are vivid shades of blue, orange, and green. “Just say that they have the colors of the spectrum,” he says. When I wonder whether sharing a recorder is something like sharing a toothbrush, he explains, “You can clean them easily, and they sound great.”
The reaction of children encountering a harpsichord for the first time at previous “petting zoos” delights Burkhalter. “Kids who play piano sometimes try the harpsichord for the first time at the festival,” he says. It’s a novel musical experience for them. They not only see and touch the instrument, but also play. Warming up to the harpsichord keyboard for them is like dipping a toe into water at the beach. Then they wade in with Scarlatti, Bach, and Mozart. The adults with them are ecstatic.”
Born in 1951, Burkhalter grew up in Trenton and Lawrenceville. He attributes his interest in baroque music to his parents, avid church musicians, who took him to concerts. “I heard ‘Messiah’ in Trenton because my dad sang in it,” he says.
Burkhalter started studying recorder before the age of 10. In school ensembles he played clarinet and oboe. He then attended Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied the performance of early music with composer and respected musicologist Daniel Pinkham. At Harvard he studied baroque performance practice with Frans Bruggen, a recorder virtuoso and one of the pioneers of the early music revival. Burkhalter’s expertise also includes the ancient musical cultures of the Americas, and he collects and plays ancient Mesoamerican instruments.
As a performer, Burkhalter’s outlook has roots in the history of his family. “My dad’s family came to the U.S. in the 18th century,” Burkhalter says. “My ancestors made history. They fought against the British, and didn’t know what the outcome would be. Surrounded by 18th century furniture, literature, and visual arts, the American Revolution was a part of their world. It was a world that included music.” That totality is what Burkhalter will strive to convey at this weekend’s festival.
Guild for Early Music Festival “Ebb and Flow,” Grounds For Sculpture, Hamilton. Sunday, October 18, 12:30 to 5 p.m. Free with paark admission, $10 to $15, children under 5 free. Grounds For Sculpture is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. www.groundsforsculpture.org or 609-586-0616.