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Everything Old is New Again: Historical Performance at Oberlin

A scene from Oberlin’s modern premiere of Le Pouvoir de l’Amour

The lavish production of Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer’s opera-ballet, Le Pouvoir de l’Amour at Oberlin’s Finney Chapel in winter 2002 was an “only at Oberlin” sort of event. There was the forgotten 18th- century score, discovered and reconstructed by Harpsichord Professor Lisa Goode Crawford (now emerita). To produce it, Crawford assembled a period instrument orchestra made up of Oberlin students and alumni, and collected enthusiastic assistance from the opera department as well as from distinguished outside experts in baroque dance and diction. There were stunning vocal performances by undergraduates and a handsome period-style production.

The intense campus attention—both performances of the Royer played to full houses—was also no surprise, given that interest in historical performance (HP) permeates the Oberlin environment. Michael Sponseller BMus ’97, AD ’00, a harpsichordist who worked with Crawford on the Royer edition and returned to Oberlin to conduct the performances, says of his undergraduate days, “Playing the harpsichord was not considered a freak thing. You do quantum physics, I play harpsichord.”

Dean of the Conservatory David H. Stull ’89 says that historical performance is an important aspect of the training of today’s music students. “In recent years, historical performance has become a phenomenon that is more than a passing interest of the academy, drawing critical acclaim and audience interest. I’m proud that Oberlin has played a significant part in that rebirth, and it is wonderful to see the high number of our graduates who populate today’s baroque orchestras.”

Today, historical performance thrives at Oberlin, with 15 to 20 students majoring in such instruments as harpsichord, recorder, and baroque violin. Yet the program also seeks to have an impact on the rest of the institution. Modern instrument players are encouraged to take their secondary lessons on period instruments, which are available for borrowing from Oberlin’s large collection. Every year, the baroque violin class and the winter-term viola da gamba class each attract about a dozen beginners, a number of whom go on to private study and ensembles. The Collegium Musicum, a Renaissance- style vocal ensemble directed by Professor of Musicology Steven Plank, attracts many composition and organ students, and about half of its 40-some members are students in the College. Those who are not historical performance majors take the course Introduction to Historical Performance.

Getting in on the Ground Floor

The critical mass of students working on historical performance means that undergraduates can discover the field early in their training and have others with whom to play and discuss HP. Students who play historical instruments can work together in ensembles and perform in weekly studio classes for the program’s faculty. For the third year in a row, the Conservatory has enough baroque violin players—14 out of a total of 58 violinists—to offer a four-week module in baroque orchestra led by Jeanette Sorrell AD ’90, founder of the Cleveland baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire. Several of the students have gone on to become apprentice members of Apollo’s Fire; indeed, two-thirds of the group’s members have some Oberlin connection.

With historical performance now ensconced as a valid music-career option, Oberlin’s HP faculty believe they are providing students with important skills and knowledge. Professional opportunities in historical performance are open to specialists as well as to musicians who can play both period and modern instruments. And the discipline of learning how scholarship affects interpretation is vitally important for the music of any era. Sorrell says, “At Oberlin, even the mainstream students have a much better understanding of stylistic issues, and of why you would want to learn something about the historical context of piece. It serves them well when they go out in the world.”

The students also recognize the advantages of a vigorous historical performance program. “Increasingly, we are getting very good first-year students,” says Professor of Viola da Gamba and Cello Catharina Meints, “not necessarily to be majors in historical performance, but because it is here and they know they can do it.” Sorrell agrees. “The top level students at Oberlin are in HP, at least tangentially if not full time. I think that’s what makes Oberlin unique,” she says.

A Scholarly Approach

First-year student Wei-Guo Chen works with Professor David Breitman on one of the Conservatory’s newest instrument acquisitions, a five-octave fortepiano by Paul McNulty, based on a ca. 1792 instrument by famed Viennese builder Anton Walter.

David Breitman’s description of the course Introduction to Historical Performance is a description of the program itself. “The aim is to explore what it means to base a performing style on historical information,” says Breitman, who is Director of Oberlin’s HP program and Associate Professor of Historical Performance. “The pioneers had no one from whom to learn and had to read for themselves, but now it is possible to study with someone who has already done that work and learn through oral tradition. Still, what distinguishes HP is the notion that each performer has the responsibility of being his or her own scholar, doing his or her own research, and coming up with his or her own conclusions. That is why the field is constantly changing. People keep going back to the sources and putting it together in fresh ways.” Lisa Goode Crawford adds, “It’s about investigating, using your own musical judgment within parameters you can learn about. It’s creative, and allows you to improvise, to contribute your own notes to what you are playing. It’s more than just being given a score and playing what people tell you.”

The HP program now offers a music-history sequence of four short courses that focus on the music of different national styles, with rotating faculty. As Breitman describes it, “In a six-week section on England, students learn the historical context, and have a week each of vocal, keyboard, and gamba music with a teacher who specializes in that. There’s a lecture in the art museum, a listening list, and discussion of performance issues. It’s interesting to look at how historical events affected the repertoire—fashions changed, for example, when Charles II returned from France and brought French artists back with him. Each teacher makes a point of assigning music of the period.” HP students are also drawn to the rich College courses that relate to their musical study.

Oberlin at the Vanguard

Historical performance is no opportunistic latecomer to Oberlin. It has deep roots here, reaching back to the beginning of the movement in the U.S. and even earlier. Edward Tarr ’57, hon. ’03, worked with Music History Professor Richard Murphy, who encouraged his interest in historical scores and instruments. Tarr went to Basel after graduation and became a preeminent player of historical brass instruments. Benjamin Bagby ’72 effectively invented his own program in medieval and Renaissance vocal music with the help of L. Dean Nuernberger, who at the time was Professor of Music Theory and Director of the Collegium. Bagby got a Watson Fellowship that sent him to Europe, where he founded Sequentia, the groundbreaking medieval music ensemble.

Historical performance began to gain institutional momentum with the arrival of James Caldwell and Catharina Meints in 1971. Caldwell, who died in February 2006, was the principal oboist at the National Symphony and a passionate convert to the idea of historical performance; he had taken up the viola da gamba. He and his cellist wife, Meints, traveled to Basel, Switzerland, to study with August Wenzinger, hon. ’81, then the leading teacher of the instrument. They began to collect period instruments, and brought them along to Ohio, where Caldwell would teach oboe at Oberlin and Meints would join the Cleveland Orchestra.

Caldwell and Meints wanted to bring Wenzinger to the U.S. to teach. “When we arrived in Oberlin, we thought ‘Oh boy, this would be perfect,’” Meints recalls. “Jim persuaded Emil Danenberg, who was then Dean, and he backed it all the way.” The Baroque Performance Institute [BPI] was launched in the summer of 1972 with six faculty, 36 students, and Wenzinger as director, a position he held for 18 years. “It was phenomenal,” Meints says. “There was nothing standard about what we did—it was all new to everyone.”

In 1973, a year after the founding of BPI, Lisa Goode Crawford arrived as the first full-time professor of harpsichord at Oberlin. Crawford had discovered the instrument while she was a student at Radcliffe—practicing at night at the shop of harpsichord maker William Dowd—and had studied in Amsterdam with the renowned player Gustav Leonhardt. “The Oberlin organ department was interested in historical keyboard instruments,” Crawford recalls. “[Professor of Organ] David Boe had studied with Leonhardt. Students were asking for harpsichord. [former Professor of Flute] Bob Willoughby had taken a sabbatical and studied with Franz Brüggen—it was wonderful to have a sought-after professor of modern flute go and study baroque flute and teach it to modern players. Oberlin faculty and students were integrating modern and historical playing in a way that no one else was doing. In Boston, early music was in its own ghetto, and the big conservatories were turning up their noses and saying ‘those people can’t play.’ Oberlin was really different.”

The Wonder Years

By 1976, the faculty’s Early Music Committee had decided that more early instruments should be available for study, so part-time teaching positions were created for recorder, viola da gamba, lute, and others. Meints offered gamba; Michael Lynn came to teach recorder and, when Robert Willoughby retired, took on baroque flute as well. Today Lynn is a Professor of those instruments and an Associate Dean of the Conservatory. Marilyn McDonald, who had been introduced to the baroque violin by Caldwell, joined the faculty in 1979 to teach both modern and baroque violin.

Jed Wentz ’81 was introduced to the baroque flute while he was at Oberlin and “fell in love with [its] sound.”

“Faculty members as well as students were making discoveries,” says McDonald, who is Professor of Violin and Teacher of Baroque Violin. “Now the students are more sophisticated, and they have heard a lot of early music recordings. It’s not a shock for them, but in the early years, it was a shock.

Just learning to play the instrument technically led to other discoveries. “As we learned how to manage the beast, we learned a lot musically about how compositional decisions were made with the instrument in mind,” McDonald says.

By the 1980s, interest in period performance had exploded. English conductors like Christopher Hogwood and John Eliot Gardiner emerged, creating period instrument orchestras. The recording industry had discovered it, and period instrument groups became the ensembles of choice for repertoire before 1800. American activity also increased, and the annual Early Music Festival, alternating between the Bay Area and Boston, the two main centers, drew musicians, audiences, and instrument makers. Kathleen Fay ’82, an Oberlin pianist, discovered the fledgling Boston Early Music Festival and went from being a volunteer usher to its executive director, a position she still holds. Oberlin sponsored a symposium on historical performance in 1986-87; the following year, HP officially became a program at the Conservatory, and Thomas Kelly arrived to take the first teaching chair to combine scholarship and performance.

The Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute

The Baroque Performance Institute also grew quickly. Now running for two weeks with 80 to 100 students each year, it is a yeasty mix of musicians of all ages and experience levels, ranging from devoted amateurs to high-level modern instrument players—the assistant concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera, for example—who want to deepen their understanding of period playing.

Karen Gebhart Flint ’64, an Oberlin organ major, studied harpsichord with her regular teacher’s sabbatical replacement and got hooked. She went on to graduate school in harpsichord and became a regular BPI attendee. “The most wonderful thing about it was getting to know so many musicians from all over the country who were interested in the same field,” says Flint, who teaches harpsichord at the University of Delaware and leads her own ensemble, Brandywine Baroque. In the early years, BPI was the only workshop where historical performance musicians could get together. Although there are more opportunities today, Flint urges her students to choose BPI.

“I send my harpsichord students there for the experience of playing in an ensemble,” she says. “Even schools that have period performance ensembles often don’t have the instruments, so they are playing on modern instruments.”

Harpsichordist Skip Sempé ’80, now based in Paris and director of the ensemble Capriccio Stravagante, started attending BPI while he was in high school, then decided to enroll in the Conservatory to study with Lisa Goode Crawford. “There was no where else to go in 1976, except maybe the New England Conservatory or Juilliard,” he says, “but you couldn’t get a liberal arts education, and you couldn’t have any contact with any other [period] instrumentalists.”

Sempé studied several other period instruments, including harp and recorder, in addition to harpsichord, and took many medieval and Renaissance art history courses with Mildred C. Jay Professor of Art William Hood. “There was very little resistance to my doing what I was doing the way I did it,” he says. “I received an enormous amount of encouragement. It’s a most unusual thing in a music conservatory. Most of them are Germanic and inflexible, run by administrators, not musicians.” After graduation, Sempé went to Europe to study with Gustav Leonhardt and settled there.

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