Festival Stakes a Claim for Houston's Early Music Scene

Four Houston early music groups team up for groundbreaking festival's second year.

By Michael Hardy February 11, 2014

The Mercury Orchestra

Houston Early Music Festival
Thru Feb 16
Multiple events and locations—check website 

Over the last few decades, Houston has been quietly developing one of the most exciting early music scenes in the country. Generally defined as music from the Middle Ages through the 18th century, early music has been attracting growing attention since the late-19th century, with a revival of interest in using period instruments and period performance practices to more authentically reproduce the sound of compositions by Handel, Palestrina, or Bach. Today, nearly ever major American and European city has at least one group devoted to early music—some of the most famous include the Academy of Ancient Music and the Tallis Scholars, both from England, and San Francisco's Chanticleer

"There’s a tendency to think of the early music scene as based on the East Coast, Seattle, and places like that, but not so much Houston. But it’s simply not true anymore.”

In addition to hosting visits by many of these groups, including the Tallis Scholars, Houston is home to several nationally recognized early music groups of its own. Four of those groups—Houston Early Music, the Bach Society Houston, Ars Lyrica, and Mercury (which used to be called Mercury Baroque but now plays music from the 19th century as well)—teamed up last year to launch the Houston Early Music Festival (HEMF). Now in its second year, the festival kicked off last weekend with Ars Lyrica’s landmark performance of La Sposa Dei Cantici, an oratorio by Italian baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti that hadn’t been performed since 1710.

“The early music scene in Houston is already so active—it’s really thriving,” said Sigurd Ogaard, the director of the Bach Society’s Bach Choir. “I think having this early music festival puts a magnifying glass on us on a national and international level. There’s a tendency to think of the early music scene as based on the East Coast, Seattle, and places like that, but not so much Houston. But it’s simply not true anymore.”

The Ars Lyrica ensemble

The festival continues tonight (Feb. 11) with a performance by The Orlando Consort, an English group that will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a program of works by late medieval composers, including selections from Guillaume de Machaut’s song cycle Le Voir Dit. The program is sponsored by Early Music Houston. Later this week, Mercury performs Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos, with acclaimed harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell replacing Richard Egarr, who had to pull out of the concert at the last minute for personal reasons. (The orchestra will perform the program twice, on Feb. 13 at UH–Clear Lake's Bayou Theater and Feb. 14 at the Wortham Theater Center's Cullen Theater.) Although now considered one of the pinnacles of Western music, the six Brandenburg Concertos were never performed by the person to whom they were dedicated, Christian Ludwig, the margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. “It’s one of the ironies of history,” said Mercury Executive Director Brian Ritter. “These pieces which have become icons of music were at first kind of dismissed.”

Aficionados can enjoy a second helping of Bach on Feb 16, when the Bach Society Houston performs the composer’s monumental Mass in B Minor, conducted by Dresden baroque expert Peter Kopp. Ogaard said that while the Brandenburg Concertos are arguably Bach’s greatest contribution to orchestral music, the Mass in B Minor is his last and greatest contribution to the sacred choral tradition. As in many of his compositions, including the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach creatively recycled earlier pieces of his music to produce the finished version. “All his experience in choral writing and composing culminates in this one piece of music,” Ogaard said. “It was written at a time when he was beginning to write music more for posterity than his usual ‘I need a piece for next Sunday’ method. You can tell that his whole composer’s soul was put into this project.” 

In addition to the four marquee concerts, the HEMF includes a Feb. 15 chamber music concert at St. Philip Presbyterian Church featuring tenor Daniel Mutlu and harpsichordist (and Ars Lyrica Artistic Director) Matthew Dirst, presented by Ars Lyrica and Music at St. Philip. The program features the music of François Couperin, Jean-Marie Leclair, C.P.E. Bach, and—you guessed it—J.S. Bach. 

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