Tropical Baroque Music Festival to serve up a wide range of repertoire

By Aaron Keebaugh

Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau opens the Tropical Baroque Music Festival Friday night.

Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau opens the Tropical Baroque Music Festival Friday night.

To the leaders of the Tropical Baroque Music Festival, the strengths of the performances are enhanced by the location.

“Miami is a very extraordinarily beautiful place, filled with the most incredible nature, especially for someone like me who’s come from New York and Paris,” said Jay Bernfeld, co-artistic director of the Tropical Baroque Music Festival. “I think that looking at all those amazing banyan trees, all the poinsettias, all the amazing wildlife that’s there, you get the feeling that the word “Baroque” really comes to life down there, and I think the music just sounds that much more alive in the setting of Miami. ”

For the past fifteen years, the Tropical Baroque Music Festival, operating under the auspices of the Miami Bach Society, has brought some of the brightest stars in early music performance to Miami, a city known for its eclecticism.

“Miami is a type of off-beat place where you can present music that you can’t actually present in early music festivals elsewhere in the world,” said Bernfeld. “We’ve had steel-pan ensembles; we’ve had programs of Purcell and Gershwin. It’s at once laid back and wired enough to be able to have a different profile than other festival.”

In addition, “[the Festival] is a chance to keep up with European connections,” added Miles Morgan, who serves as co-artistic director of the festival with Bernfeld. “It’s not a very natural market for this kind of specialized music, but it’s exciting for everybody. So we’re working with now, finally, a great public after quite a long time.”

Though a little shorter than last year, this year’s festival, which opens this weekend, will showcase some energetic performances of music from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries and beyond.

The biggest draw will be Les Arts Florissants. Under direction of William Christie, the celebrated French ensemble will present a musical and dramatic rendition of seventeenth-century love and drinking songs on April 29 at New World Center.

It’s repertoire that Les Arts Florissants has made famous through their 1984 Harmonia Mundi recording of the music of Michel Lambert, seventeenth-century France’s chief composer of such songs. Their program will interweave works by Lambert, Couperin, Chabanceau de la Barre, and Charpentier.

The Tropical Baroque Festival opens Friday at the Renaissance at the Gables with French harpsichordist and pianist Jean Rondeau performing music by Bach, Scarlatti, and his own jazz improvisations.

The following evening at Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables, Bernfeld’s group, Fuoco E Cenere, returns to the Tropical Baroque Festival with performances of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerti.

“As with most masterpieces, they’re just so damn well constructed,” said Bernfeld of Vivaldi’s most famous works.

“Since I’ve avoided these pieces for most of my forty-year career, I didn’t realize that there were actually sonnets written by Vivaldi that were connected with these pieces,” he said.

Fuoco E Cenere’s performance will include recitations of the poems in English to introduce each piece and in Italian to accompany the music.

“That’s been our way into the Four Seasons, that [we’ve taken] the sonnets very seriously,” said Bernfeld. “In my opinion that is really a part of the music, and it tells you exactly what to do. It’s very exact program music, and I don’t think [these works] have always been understood as such, or presented quite in that light.”

The festival continues March 2 when mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital will join the Venice Baroque Orchestra in a program of Italian Baroque favorites. Two works will feature Avital as soloist: Vivaldi’s Concerto for lute in D major, RV 93 and the composer’s Double Concerto for mandolin and recorder, (originally for two mandolins) which will feature Anna Fusek on recorder. Geminiani’s Concert Grosso in D minor, the composer’s take on Corelli’s “La Folia,” and Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto from The Four Seasons are additional highlights from a lineup of works that will also include sinfonias by Marcello and Paisiello.

On March 3, Stile Antico, the conductor-less British a cappella ensemble, will present a concert of music from the Hapsburg Imperial Court. The program will feature such beloved masterworks as Josquin Desprez’s Mille Regretz and Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon fili mi along with pieces by Crecquillon, Morales, Tallis, Gombert, Lobo, and Isaac.

Such a lineup, no doubt, requires money, and the leaders of the festival, headed by the board of the Miami Bach Society, have figured out ways to attract high quality performances with limited resources.

“Everything we do is based on what I call a zero-based budget,” Morgan said. “We do each [concert] on a one-off basis, basing it on what money we have on hand or expect to confidently raise. We say how much cash we will need to have in hand in order to do that activity and the board announces that we will do that activity when they seem to feel we are close enough to having the cash in hand.” In all, the Tropical Baroque Music Festival operates with a budget of less than a million dollars per year, Morgan said.

To bring in Les Arts Florissants, the board pooled its money with support from other sources, such as the French Consulate, donations from Miami’s French business community, and the ensemble itself.

“This is a realistic way,” Morgan said. “It depends on the enthusiasm of the people who are close to us, our contributors, and the board or course. And as long as that enthusiasm continues, we are raising enough money to do what we do.”

Funding such performances isn’t the only challenge facing the festival.

“Miami is a difficult audience,” Morgan said. “The other arts organizations have some problems with audience. They don’t know quite where the audience is really coming from.”

“I was talking with people the other day and they say seventy years from now [Miami] going to be a real cultural center of the US. Well I don’t think most of us are going to wait seventy years,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll think of something a little sooner.”

“The problem with classical music has become a problem of access rather than of taste,” added Bernfeld. “I think that everybody who is in the field of presenting classical music is concerned with getting back in touch with young people.”

“My experiences in Europe have been that if you put the music before them, the kids can’t resist anything beautiful,” he said. “And I’m also aware that there’s a wonderful new generation coming up now [in Miami], and we try to mix and match a lot with people from my generation and people from the new generation. So we try to keep [the Festival] at about half and half now.”

“It’s not easy, but we’re very enthusiastic,” Morgan said of building an audience. “The board [of the Miami Bach Society] kind of decided to take over, and they have ideas, and we are going to make a continuity with the Festival, and at the same time renew a few things, try a few experiments.”

One such experiment will involve the presentation of the music in a more casual concert format, which is partially aimed at attracting a younger crowd. On one level, Rondeau’s program –a mix of Baroque and the musician’s own jazz works—is geared to younger listeners.

But there will be more to this event than the music.

“One thing we are doing with this first concert is that we will be in a place where we will be seated at tables and not in rows,” Morgan said. “Most of the venues available to us are churches, and with people in rows, I have found that is a no-no for younger audiences.”

The concert will also feature appetizers, a cash bar, and a “Meet-and-Greet” pasta dinner with Rondeau following the concert.

“This opens up the whole concert situation, let’s see if that works,” Morgan said. “It’s a little bit of a stunt, but we saw a different kind of audience [in the past], and we’d like to try that.”

Another way that the Tropical Baroque Music Festival is trying to recruit younger audiences is through the use of different concert locations. For the second season in a row, the festival will split its concert offerings between its home in Coral Gables and Miami Beach, which is the center of nightlife in the city. Two of the concerts—the Venice Baroque Orchestra and Stile Antico concerts—will be held at the Miami Beach Community Church.

These are just a few ways in which the artistic directors are trying to remake the festival.

“The board feels that they would like to go in this direction,” Morgan said. “As artistic directors we try very hard to cover as wide a spectrum as possible and produce as much excitement as possible in the hall. And that’s really the essence of it.”

“That’s where we are going,” he said. “And we will make it eventually.”

The Tropical Baroque Music Festival opens with harpsichordist Jean Rondeau performing music by Bach, Scarlatti, and more 8 p.m. Friday at the Renaissance at the Gables.

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Thu Feb 26, 2015
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