Arts & Culture

Tacoma gets musical feast with Salish Sea Early Music Festival

It’s not your standard music festival: The Salish Sea Early Music Festival offers 54 performances spread out over six months and nine cities dotted around the Puget Sound.

But the festival, which kicks off its Tacoma series on Monday (Jan. 12), has proved that you don’t have to be conventional to be top-notch. With a wealth of international performers on period instruments, the festival brings more of the same high-quality playing this year to cities from Tacoma to Vancouver, and music that ranges from Renaissance winds to Beethoven’s guitar.

The first performance Monday at Trinity Lutheran Church features a combination unusual even for those who know early music well: voice, flute and baroque guitar. The flutist is festival founding director Jeffrey Cohan, and he’s joined by two musicians who have connections to Boston and Berlin — soprano Lydian Brotherton and lutenist Stephen Stubbs.

“When Lydia was studying here (at Boston University) two or three years ago, she auditioned for the Boston Early Music Festival,” says Stubbs, a Seattle native who returned here in 2006 after a 30-year career in Europe and who co-directs the Boston-based festival. “We’ve kept in touch. She was part of our group of singers in Boston that we’ve cultivated over the years. We also made a recording together in Germany recently.”

But Monday’s concert will be their first performance together for a while. After studying in Switzerland on a Fulbright scholarship in 2010-11, Brotherton is now based in Berlin, where she performs with many of Europe’s preeminent early music ensembles like Sequentia and Berlin Baroque. Monday’s program, “Airs of the Baroque,” features cantatas and arias by Vivaldi, Handel, Nicolas Bernier and Le Sieur Bouvard.

And if you haven’t heard of most of the works, that’s quite understandable.

“The repertoire for flute and voice is somewhat restricted,” says Stubbs. “The obvious place to look for it was France, since the flute was such a popular instrument there (in the 18th century). They’re not the most well-known of composers, but it’s very high-quality music.”

For Tacoma audiences, it also means a rare chance to hear continuo (baroque accompaniment lines) on an unusual instrument: the baroque guitar. While Stubbs is best-known for his lute playing and plays the theorbo (a kind of bigger lute with extra double-bass pitch strings), he decided to play the continuo for this concert on the baroque guitar, as it was suited more to both key and style.

“The French weren’t fond of (very low) bass lines anyway, so I’m not losing any dimension there,” Stubbs says. The baroque guitar, a direct precursor to the modern concert guitar, has five pairs of strings instead of six single ones.

“It’s actually louder than the modern concert guitar, partly because of the vaulted, lute-like back,” Stubbs says. “And it’s easier to carry around than a theorbo.”

The Salish Sea festival continues in Tacoma on Jan. 26 with a concert of baroque wind music featuring Tacoma native Anna Marsh back on baroque bassoon, Cohan on flutes, and Jonathan Oddie on harpsichord. On March 5, Cohan will play Bach flute sonatas with harpsichordist Hans-Juergen Schnoor and Susie Napper on gamba. March 26 sees a flute/viola/guitar trio playing Beethoven. May 11 features Renaissance wind instruments like dulcian and transverse flute, with lute accompaniment; and on June 18, baroque strings, flute and harpsichord combine for “The Art of Modulation.”

All concerts are at 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran, and repeat at venues around Puget Sound.

As with every Salish Sea concert, Monday’s performance offers Tacomans the chance to hear the silvery, nuanced sounds of baroque music played on period-style instruments. But it also brings the possibility of more early music for Tacoma. Stubbs, founding director of Seattle’s Pacific Masterworks ensemble, recently toured Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” to great acclaim in concerts from Portland to Vancouver, and is keen to check out Tacoma venues for a future base for Masterworks concerts.

“I recently saw (Tacoma Opera’s) ‘The Magic Flute’ in the Rialto Theater, and I really like the hall; I’d like to do an opera there,” Stubbs says.

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