One of the most exciting components of every Berkeley Festival is the Fringe—that superfluity of self-produced concerts by ensembles and solo artists from near and far that spring up like wildflowers around our Main Stages every two years. The Fringe established itself at the first Festival 24 years ago and never has lost its edge or importance. It remains as crucial to the success and survival of BFX as any of the brilliant Main Stage concerts that deservedly draw praise from press and patrons. Those of us who have followed BFX from its inception will remember 2004, when the state of California was in deep financial crisis and Cal Performances lost the funding necessary for sponsorship. Without its principal underwriter, the Festival nearly died. It was the groundswell of support from Fringe artists and their audience, as well as the intervention of SFEMS, EMA, and a few other national service organizations such as The American Recorder Society and Western Early Keyboard Association, which kept this beloved celebration alive.
There is much to celebrate and praise about the Fringe, many reasons it deserves our support and attention. The Fringe always has been the people’s festival—a place for early-music lovers of all kinds to share, and share IN the music they love. In doing so they affirm the inherent accessibility and participatory nature of early music, as well as the seminal and ongoing contribution grass-roots activism has made to its rediscovery and popularity. Old friends, like cellist Barbara Krumdieck, flutist Stephen Schultz, and soprano Zoe Vandermeer, return to Berkeley not just to attend Festival concerts but to perform themselves and to see their friends perform; community-based groups from our region share their accomplishments; Bay Area musicians who rarely perform because of other work commitments come out of “retirement” to give concerts—all to the warm appreciation of our audiences. This is a different ethos from that espoused by our friends and counterparts at the Boston Early Music Festival, where even so-called Fringe concerts are carefully auditioned and selected. Happily, such vetting is still abhorrent here on the Left Coast; may it always remain so.
The Fringe is a place for experimentation, for taking risks, and for discovery—whether of new repertory, new artists, new instruments, or new interpretations. A quick perusal of the calendar will reveal any number of performers, including some of the most distinguished, who have put together innovative programs or thrown unusual twists on deceptively familiar repertory or composers. A hallmark of the early music scene has been the willingness of our artists to move back and forth between ensembles and musical projects, and this year’s Fringe will showcase many of the Bay Area’s core of historical performers (Gilbert Martinez, David Morris, Shira Kammen, Josh Lee, JungHae Kim, Julie Jeffrey, Elisabeth Reed, Anthony Martin, Yuko Tanaka, Farley Pearce, and Katherine Heater, to name a few) playing in different combinations.
The Fringe also offers more chances to hear the next generation of artists, often at the most exciting times in their careers, as they experiment in new groups, singing and playing with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement. Even with the wonderful offerings of EMA’s Young Performers Festival, there is so much more of their boundless energy to be captured. At the 2000 Festival, for instance, my favorite show the entire week was a Fringe concert of 17th-c. Italian music by a young ensemble from Southern California called La Monica, whose raw power almost blew the back wall off Loper Chapel. Fourteen years later, their members have become central players in the field, both here the Bay Area and at the national level.
Moreover, many of the same ensembles appearing on the main stage one year may show up on the Fringe other years. The Fringe provides an opportunity to see some of our most respected groups and artists—Musica Pacifica, AVE, Karen Clark, Carla Moore, Elaine Thornburgh, among them—performing for the sheer joy of it. The same is true of some of the rising stars of the Bay Area scene, including Agave Baroque, Jarring Sounds, and Passamezzo Moderno. True musicians are much like songbirds: you don’t need to present them; when the sun comes up, they naturally want to sing.
To date, the Fringe boasts almost 60 concerts, with more still being added. As usual, their musical variety is vast, spanning our musical heritage from the chant of Hildegard and medieval motets through masterpieces of baroque and Classical repertory, even into the 20th-century avant-garde.
While fringe concerts are self-produced, SFEMS has provided some broad guidelines as well as organizational and administrative services that help both performer/presenters and audiences get the most out of the rich and diverse musical experiences they offer. Fringe venues—mostly located in the South Campus area in Berkeley—are near our Main Stage events, the majority within a block or two, allowing an easy stroll from one concert to another. These are small, some quite intimate settings, which guarantee excellent sound and sight; the concerts themselves are usually short, usually an hour or less, and ticket prices are accordingly modest; All are scheduled so as not to conflict with Main Stage events.
Over the years the Berkeley Festival has brought to the Bay Area some of the world’s greatest artists and exponents of historical performance. Through its many legendary concerts, including more than a few modern premieres of great music, it has shown the world the best of what early music can be. The Fringe shows us something equally important: not only the depth and vitality of our community, but the soul of early music—what the movement has been from its beginning, is today, and will be in the years to come—fluid, experimental, self-generating, cooperative, generous, and celebratory.