Forward into the Past

Music with cultural context and history

One of the glories of classical music is the way it doesn’t just summon the sounds of the past — it helps recreate ancient worlds. A couple of April music events help history come alive through music and connect past and present.

Every year, Eugene Vocal Arts (EVA) garbs some of the state’s top singers in Elizabethan finery, adds period props and performs Renaissance music in a salon setting that briefly conjures the eras in which it originated — minus the plagues, horrific sanitation and other historical inconveniences, of course.

They’re doing it again this Friday at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall — but this time, they’re also going back to the future after intermission by switching to modern attire and performing today’s music.

The Renaissance section is really for the birds, featuring madrigals and other songs that use avian imagery, including the great French composer Clément Janequin’s “The Song of the Birds” and other soaring compositions by Thomas Morley, John Dowland, Thomas Weelkes and other English composers, plus more Renaissance masters like Arcadelt and Banchieri.

The second half’s contemporary music flutters on, from R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” to Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” to one of choral music rock star Eric Whitacre’s greatest hits: the inventive, dramatic “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine,” which draws on devices from madrigals to minimalism.

With their lyrics invoking dreams as metaphors for flight (or the other way round), those last two segue into the concert’s dream theme, led by William Averitt’s The Dream Keeper.

One of the most esteemed African-American choral composers, Averitt is coming to Eugene from Virginia to introduce his shimmering setting of Langston Hughes poems. Some address the dream of overcoming racial injustice, which the great Harlem Renaissance poet would probably be appalled (but maybe not surprised) to discover persists today. Far from hiding in the past, EVA’s final concert of the season is also one of the best and most relevant choral programs in years.

We sometimes imagine the past as a frozen portrait, but the early music movement that started a couple generations ago has revealed that our understanding of how music was performed and perceived centuries ago is ever evolving, thanks to the hard work of scholars around the world, including at the UO.

Next week, the UO hosts a major recurring conference devoted to the continuing rediscovery of ancient music. But unlike many such academic confabs, “Musicking: Cultural Considerations” has plenty to offer non-academic music lovers, including concerts, theater showcases, master classes, lectures, panel discussions, even an April 14 family event where kids and their families can dress in costume (like the EVA singers!) and learn baroque dance basics — all free and open to the public. It’s a splendid example of how academia can connect to and enrich its supporting community.

While you don’t need to know a lot about great music to enjoy it — that’s one thing that makes it great — knowing more about the cultural context that created it adds to our appreciation of not only the music but also our own history.

Or you can just go to hear splendid music, like next Thursday, April 12, when world-renowned early music singer and recorder master Peter Van Heyghen comes from Belgium to perform early 17th-century music from the Netherlands and Belgium with the UO’s own super-scholar/performer, baroque cellist Marc Vanscheeuwijck at the Oregon Bach Festival’s new Tykeson Concert Hall.

Van Heyghen will also lead the April 14 Beall Hall performance of a world premiere version of Mozart’s magnificent Requiem like you’ve never heard it before — because, well, you haven’t. And don’t miss the opening April 10 medieval music concert with frequent Eugene visitors singer Anne Azéma and multi instrumentalist Shira Kammen. There’s way too much more to chronicle here, so hie thee to the Musicking website and check out all the free music and knowledge:

The UO also hosts a recital of French vocal music at Beall on April 15, featuring singer Karen Esquival, pianist Gustavo Castro and other UO faculty members.

But the big chamber music concert of the season happens Monday, April 9, at Springfield’s Wildish Community Theater when Chamber Music Amici features more UO faculty members in more Mozart — the lovely piano and winds quintet the composer himself regarded as one of his finest creations — plus more French music (a characteristically sparkling piano trio by the great 20th-century composer Francis Poulenc) and best of all, the sunny Summer Trio by Oregon’s most venerated living composer, 76-year-old Portland legend Tomas Svoboda.

It’s yet another most-welcome concert that connects past to present, the then and there to the here and now. ■

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