Soaring out of the Space City
The growing importance of early music in the United States over the past generation is evident in how far and fast appreciation, participation and support have spread beyond the original centers of Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area. Major American universities and conservatories across the country regularly offer courses and programs in period instruments and historical performance, and most of our larger cities now have achieved a “critical mass” sufficient to support professional ensembles and concert series.
This June, the Berkeley Festival is proud to present what is coming to be regarded as a major new American ensemble, one taking flight from the fourth largest city in the US. Ars Lyrica Houston makes its BFX debut the evening of Tuesday, June 3, with a program of music inspired by flight, from the musical evocations of birds and bees in Jean-Baptiste-Féry Rebel’s pastoral suite Les plaisirs champêtres to the rhetorical invocations of Dædalus and Icarus in George Frideric Handel’s dramatic cantata Tra le fiamme.
Ars Lyrica Houston was founded in 1998 by harpsichordist, conductor, and musicologist Matthew Dirst, Associate Professor at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. Dirst is himself a formidable musical presence in his own right, praised as a harpsichordist “of irresistible rhythmic impulse [and] dazzling virtuosity” and as a conductor for his “crisp but expressive direction” (Dallas Morning News). A former Fulbright scholar at the Conservatoire National de Reuil-Malmaison, where he was awarded the Prix de virtuosité in both organ and harpsichord, he holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University and remains an active musical scholar as well as a performer and director. His book Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn was published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press.
Many of Ars Lyrica’s members also have strong Bay Area connections and already are known and much loved by regional audiences. Some, such as gambist Mary Springfels and lutenist/guitarist Richard Savino, are artists of great maturity and insight with long and celebrated histories in their own right as performers, teachers, and even ensemble directors. Others are rising stars, including violinist Adam LaMotte and soprano Céline Ricci. The colorful and varied programming of this concert promises that each member of the ensemble will have the chance to soar.
Variety, indeed, seems to be a hallmark of this group, whose concert repertory covers an unusually broad range for a baroque ensemble—the whole of the 17th and 18th centuries, from the madrigals of Monteverdi through the works of C.P.E. Bach and Mozart. And they are not just dabblers in diversity. The Dallas Morning News called their performance of Monteverdi’s monumental 1610 Vespers the “Best Classical Performance of 2010.”
One of their most distinctive and admirable features, however, is their dedication to lesser known works of the period, a kind of musical advocacy that not only brings to public attention some extraordinarily worthy yet unknown music but also often sheds light on unexpected aspects of their composers’ personality. An example of Ars Lyrica’s contribution to the canon of early music is their world premiere recording of Johann Adolf Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, nominated for a Grammy Award® for Best Opera 2011. This CD was hailed recently by Early Music America as “a thrilling performance that glows in its quieter moments and sparkles with vitality.” An example of showing us a little-appreciated side of a great composer is their most recent recording, Domenico Scarlatti’s comic intermezzo La Dirindina (how many of us even knew Domenico wrote opera like his papa?), featuring mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton—recently crowned Cardiff Singer of the World 2013—and the distinguished soprano Céline Ricci, who will appear in their BFX performance.
Here’s a short clip from their Scarlatti recording, in which Barton sings “Vo’ cantar come a voi piace” from La Dirindina.
And for a taste of how they handle Handel, check out this delightful set of excerpts from their recent, semi-staged performance of the composer’s Acis and Galatea.