By Ellen Rossetti
Lyle Nordstrom pulls a book from a shelf in his office and flips it open to show a line of music with just a few sparse notes.
"Here’s the original," says Nordstrom, director of the University of North Texas early music program, as he points to that nearly empty line of music. "And here’s how to play it." He points below to a line swimming with busy black notes.
Books such as these unlock some of the mysteries of early music, written between the 16th and 18th centuries. Because of the sparse notations in the original musical scores, faculty members and students in UNT’s early music program find clues in books, treatises, manuscripts and microfilm reels — at times ordered from libraries in Europe. Their detective work opens a centuries-old musical world, preparing them to perform seldom-heard pieces — some of which have not been played in 400 years.
These musical masterpieces are performed by UNT ensembles as the composers intended — on period instruments and with singers specially trained in the style of early music. Since Nordstrom took over the program in 2000, the orchestra has doubled to more than 30 players. Now, UNT’s early music program ranks as one of the largest in the country and has more than 250 period instruments representing the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Students in the program have presented early operas, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea in 2003 and Cavalli’s L’Egisto in 2007, and issued three CDs.
In 2001, UNT began capitalizing on this rich program by partnering with Dallas Opera Music Director Graeme Jenkins to present a series of Handel oratorios, in which students play alongside renowned UNT faculty members and distinguished guest soloists.
"The element of collaboration has been an important milestone," Nordstrom says. "Get these excellent students together with professional players, a world-class conductor and top-level soloists, and the results can be tremendous."
UNT’s program has caught the eye of the early music world. The collaboration between Dallas Opera Music Director Graeme Jenkins and the UNT program to present Handel’s oratorios has been featured in Early Music America, the publication of the premier North American early music organization. And Lyle Nordstrom, director of the UNT early music program, won the 2000 Thomas Binkley Award from Early Music America for his outstanding work at the collegiate level. In 2009, the Dallas Bach Society presented him with the Riedo Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to early music in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Lenora McCroskey, professor of music who retired in 2009, and Cecil Adkins, Professor Emeritus and the founder of UNT’s early music program, also have won the Riedo Memorial Award.
The UNT Baroque Orchestra and Collegium Singers have performed several times at the Boston Early Music Festival, the foremost gathering of its kind in North America. They earned a grant in a competition hosted by Early Music America to perform at the festival again in 2009. And in 2008, the UNT Baroque Orchestra was invited to perform at the biennial international “Misiones de Chiquitos” festival in Bolivia, making it the only student-based group from the United States to perform at the festival since it began in 1996. During that trip, the group members also performed at the San Antonio seminary in Cusco, Peru, where they played music that had gone unheard for centuries.
The idea for the Handel collaboration took root during a break in a Dallas Opera rehearsal for Ariodante in 1998. Jenkins mentioned to Lenora McCroskey, professor of music who retired in 2009, that he wished to conduct all of the Handel oratorios. McCroskey, a co-director of a local ensemble called Fort Worth Early Music, coordinated with Jenkins, UNT and local ensembles to bring Handel’s oratorios to the stage.
In 2001, UNT and Jenkins presented the first in the series, Israel in Egypt, in collaboration with Fort Worth Early Music, the Helios Ensemble of Dallas, faculty members and guest soloists. Jephtha followed in 2004 in partnership with the Dallas Bach Society, the UNT Baroque Orchestra and Collegium Singers.
Samson was presented by UNT in 2006 in conjunction with the Southern Methodist University Meadows Chorale and the Texas Choral Artists. And Saul was performed in 2009 with UNT ensembles and faculty and the help of about $20,000 in grants and donations.
Performers in the Handel oratorios have included such internationally renowned singers as tenor Richard Croft, professor of music, and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane, soprano Lynn Eustis and baritone Jeffrey Snider, all associate professors of music. Nordstrom and McCroskey played alongside their students in the Handel oratorios — Nordstrom on theorbo and baroque guitar and McCroskey on organ and harpsichord continuo.
"Student performers learn what it takes to make a performance really strong — what kind of concentration is needed to withstand three-hour rehearsals — and about the excitement and adrenaline rush from playing with such high-level performers," McCroskey says.
Staging early music performances first requires extensive research into the historical and political implications of the time to understand how the piece should be musically interpreted.
“It’s a matter of researching what was going on in every country and every period — what were the expectations at that point,” Nordstrom says. “It isn’t one-time research; it is a lifetime of research. What we see in the picture now is much clearer than it was 40 years ago. It’s taken a while for people to understand the instruments, their needs and playing styles.”
Indeed, playing the period instruments presents challenges. The wind instruments have fewer keys than their modern-day counterparts. The brass instruments have no valves, and the baroque violin has no chin rest.
The Handel oratorio performances — lasting about three hours and involving about 80 performers — also require intense levels of professionalism from the students.
“To perform a Handel oratorio is a huge challenge, not just in its demands of articulation and subtlety of expression, but in the length of the piece where new levels of stamina have to be found,” Jenkins says. “In time, it is like doing two Mahler symphonies back to back.”
Oratorios do not use costumes or scenery, as opera does. But students say Jenkins helps draw out the drama inherent in the oratorio.
Doctoral student Sarah Griffiths sang the role of the spiteful older sister Merab opposite Eustis, her voice teacher, in Saul. Griffiths learned to convey drama through small gestures, word articulation and musical choices.
“One of the things that Maestro Jenkins really brought to it was that you can still perform as though there is a full stage production happening,” she says.
She spat out the pointed words in her arias — “what abject thoughts” and “capricious man” — putting space between words and punctuating the more venomous lines to show the bitterness of her character.
“It was amazing to see the transformation in the choir the first time they worked with him,” Griffiths says of Jenkins. “The things he managed to pull out of the choir in terms of dramatic expression and musical detail were pretty phenomenal.”
Rebecca Beasley, who earned a master’s degree in 2004 and a doctorate in 2008, performed the role of the Israelite woman in Samson and now teaches voice at Belmont University in Nashville. She prepares many aspiring singers by introducing them to French baroque music, “which they think at first blush is terrible,” she says. But once they realize early music shares similarities to modern-day jazz, she hears students say, “Finally, music I can relate to.”
People tend to have a misconception about early music, she says.
“They think of the music as very old and rigid, and unfortunately it has been performed that way for years by people who didn’t fully understand it,” Beasley says. But the research and teaching at UNT helps break new ground, bringing early music to today’s audience.
“I get a kick out of going to the microfiche, pulling out pieces and transcribing them so we can bring them to modern use,” Beasley says. “They could have been collecting dust for untold years.”
As it brings early music to life for new generations, UNT’s program continues to attract excellence. Nordstrom says forte-pianist Christoph Hammer, founder and musical director of the Munich Neue Hofkapelle baroque orchestra who joined the faculty in fall 2009, has brought “a new excitement and expertise” to the program.
Also joining UNT in the fall was Richard Sparks, artistic director and conductor of Pro Coro Canada, who brings 30 years of experience to his new role as conductor of the Chamber Choir and Collegium Singers.
The performers already are looking forward to the next collaboration with Jenkins — Handel’s Theodora.
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