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Everything Old is New Again: Historical Performance at Oberlin (continued)

The Oberlin Baroque Ensemble (from left: Michael Lynn, Marilyn McDonald, Lisa Goode Crawford, and Catharina Meints) at the Smithsonian Institution. The ensemble was one of the first groups in the U.S. to specialize in the performance of early music on historical instruments.

Getting There Is Half the Fun

Most historical performance players who graduate from the Conservatory, however, arrive as modern instrument players. For Jed Wentz ‘81, the move started with technique trouble on the modern flute. “I was frustrated and needed an outlet, so I joined the Collegium [which at the time incorporated both voices and instruments] and played the hurdy-gurdy. I tried the harp, too. Then I saw the medieval flute, and fell in love with the sound of the wooden instrument.”

By the time his junior recital came around, Wentz was playing both modern and baroque flute—a remarkable switch for someone who once loathed baroque music because he couldn’t stand how it was played. After graduation, Wentz went to Amsterdam to study with Barthold Kuijken, eventually joining Musica Antiqua Köln and founding his own ensemble, Musica ad Rhenum. He is now studying for a PhD through DocArtes, a doctoral program in the creative and performing arts organized jointly by four Dutch and Belgian universities. Wentz is investigating the effect of 18th-century staging techniques on opera performance, a project that will culminate in a production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie presented by De Nationale Reisopera in the Netherlands in 2009.

The Collegium was also the route into early music for Derek Lee Ragin ’80, a music-education major and pianist. Turned down for the regular College choir, he was accepted into the Collegium by L. Dean Nuernberger. Ragin’s unusual countertenor voice caught the ear of Ursula Stechow, widow of renowned Art History Professor Wolfgang Stechow and a regular attendee of Collegium rehearsals. With her encouragement, Ragin auditioned for—and won—the role of Oberon in an Oberlin Opera Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spent a summer session at BPI working with singer Max van Egmond, and then went off to Europe to become an early success in the expanding field of baroque opera.

Since Oberlin takes academic study seriously, it is an ideal place to explore a discipline with academic roots. Jed Wentz chose Oberlin because of the College. “I was busy with my brain in an academic way, as well as playing, which is essential for early music. It was such a joy in those days—you were discovering something for yourself. Before Oberlin, I would never have questioned the notes on the page.”

The Play’s the Thing

Ensemble playing and special projects also prove highly rewarding for HP students. After finishing a master’s degree in conducting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Jeanette Sorrell decided to obtain an artist’s diploma in harpsichord. She chose Oberlin because “it has a real program with players of baroque instruments. I could go there and truly learn to play continuo and function in an ensemble.” Sorrell cites two winter-term projects as being especially influential: She was assistant conductor and played harpsichord in a staged production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea—“my first time playing continuo in a baroque orchestra”—and then played lead harpsichord for a staged production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

Oberlin regularly enlists outside experts to complement its HP offerings. In addition to Sorrell’s leadership of the baroque orchestra, choreographer Catherine Turocy, Artistic Director and cofounder of the New York Baroque Dance Company, is a regular guest (an understanding of dance forms is, after all, of critical importance to understanding baroque music). The brass ensemble Concerto Palatino anchored a production of the Monteverdi Vespers. The violin band the King’s Noyse has also been in residence, and several distinguished Oberlin graduates, like Skip Sempé and harpsichordist Jillon Dupree ’79, have been back to work with current students.

Visiting soprano Christine Brandes has helped introduce voice students to the style and the repertoire. “There used to be some animosity between HP and the voice department,” says David Breitman. “Someone, in working with singers, must have insisted on straight tone, which upset the voice teachers. Now the early music field as a whole has gotten looser, and Christine Brandes has been able to bridge the divide and has the complete confidence of the voice faculty. We’ve had a steady increase in singers who, with the encouragement of their teachers, have sought out opportunities to sing with us.” Another catalyst was a program of baroque arias, Scorn, put together by Michael Sponseller and singer/director Lydia Steier ’00, that got singers, voice teachers, and the opera department excited about the repertory. Oberlin Opera Theater staged its own production of Alcina, bringing in Sorrell to “baroque” the orchestra, which in turn led to the creation of the baroque orchestra module. Breitman is expecting Webb Wiggins, who succeeded Lisa Goode Crawford in 2005 as Associate Professor of Harpsichord and member of the Oberlin Baroque Ensemble (he studied with Crawford at BPI) and has extensive experience working with singers, to expand this activity.

Oberlin encourages all sorts of non-HP majors to experience historical performance. James David Christie ’74, who joined the faculty as Professor of Organ in 2002, urges his students to study harpsichord; Flute Professor Michel Debost is also supportive of students who take up baroque flute. Now that Collegium has grown to include 40 singers, Steven Plank has not only programmed “extravagantly scored pieces, 12- and 16-voice motets,” but he has also assembled smaller ensembles out of the group, for the one-on-a-part experience of Renaissance polyphony.

Five Collegium members formed an independent ensemble, coached by Plank, called Uncloistered. All five are now studying at York University in England with John Potter; two are Marshall scholars and one was recently named to the vicar choral position at York Minster. Interestingly, only one of those five singers was a voice major at Oberlin; one was an organist, two were scientists, and one, composer Mary Larew ’05, was so intrigued by historical performance that she staged medieval mystery plays during two winter terms.

Jeannette Sorrell ’90 brought her baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, to Oberlin in February. Catherine Turocy and Carlos Fittante, artistic directors of the New York Baroque Dance Company and BALAM Dance Theatre, respectively, played various characters in the Suite from J.P. Rameau’s Les Indies galantes. 

Plank says that Larew’s experience is characteristic of what Oberlin has to offer. “One of the really exciting things we do is provide a great deal of room for students to learn experientially. This is a key component with early music, especially in the earlier repertories. I don’t think an undergraduate at any other college would have received the support and the nurturing that Mary did in mounting her productions of Ludus Danielis and Ordo Virtutum, where she empirically developed ideas about this repertoire.”

Recent Oberlin historical performance graduates have begun to work their way into the professional world. String players such as Heidi Powell ’01 and Joseph Tan ’97 play in U.S. and European ensembles. All the first prize winners of the American Bach Soloists International Young Artists Competition have been from Oberlin: Michael Sponseller in 1998, violinist Simos Papanas ’99 in 2000 (along with Heidi Powell and Emily Fowler ’01 in second and third place), and flutist Amy Guitry ’98 and oboist Debra Nagy BMus ’00, MM ’02 in 2002. Guitry, who played both modern and baroque flute at Oberlin, was working on a masters in modern flute at Ohio State at the time; winning the competition, she says, “made me feel that I could still play baroque flute in a serious way.” A Fulbright took her to London in 2002, and she is working on a DMA there, developing contemporary and extended techniques for baroque flute for contemporary music and improvisation.

Violinist Emlyn Ngai MMus ’96 has put together a career that combines modern and baroque playing—he is concertmaster for the Philadelphia baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare and plays with the modern instrument Adaskin Trio. He believes that with the current economic strains in the symphony orchestra field, “smaller groups, like historical performance ones, that don’t offer permanent positions are the wave of the future.” He adds, “More people are getting interested in historical performance, trying to cross over and become more flexible, well-rounded musicians.”

The Oberlin impact on the world of historical performance goes beyond its status as one of the oldest teaching programs in the country. Sheer numbers are part of it: Marilyn McDonald estimates that more than half of the people in the early music field in the U.S. have at some time passed through Oberlin, BPI, or both. But there’s also the special nature of an Oberlin education.

“Oberlin students, by their very nature and by virtue of being here, have a particular curiosity and inquisitiveness,” says Lisa Goode Crawford. “Consequently, alumni throughout Europe and the U.S. who are playing in groups, as soloists, and in small and large ensembles, are characterized by a thinking person’s approach to playing music of the past because of the first-rate teaching they got at Oberlin and in the HP program. Asking questions—it goes along with the personality of Oberlin."

Heidi Waleson is a New York-based writer and music critic. Her articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Early Music Magazine, Symphony Magazine, Opera News, and BBC Music Magazine. Her article on Oberlin-trained chamber musicians appeared in the 2005 issue of this magazine.

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