Keep Everything After 1800 to a Minimum (and Hold the Profane)
By ALLAN KOZINN
N EW YORK -- From her vantage point in a basement office at Corpus Christi Church in upper Manhattan's Morningside Heights, Louise Basbas has watched the early-music world in New York City expand, contract and expand again since 1975, when she started the Music Before 1800 concerts at the church. She has also seen period instrument performers and their listeners shift their gaze from medieval and Renaissance music, through the Baroque and Classical eras and well into the Romantic. And although she has not been entirely immune to the lure of modernity, she has mostly kept to the repertory described in the title of her series.
"There was a trend for a while of early music creeping up to early Stravinsky," said Ms. Basbas, who is also the organist and choir director at Corpus Christi, a Roman Catholic church. "And groups like Anonymous 4 are commissioning new works, as I have also done over the years, although when I do, I ask that the new work refer to an early text or melody. But I'd get my hand slapped if I did too much contemporary music. People come expecting a concert that's primarily early music.
"This year, we have Anner Bylsma and Malcolm Bilson playing some 19th-century music for cello and fortepiano, and for the millennium, Harvey Burgett is writing an organ fantasy on the German hymn 'Das Alte Jahr Vergangen Ist' for our Lessons and Carols program, which will cover 400 years of music, starting with William Byrd in the 16th century. It's fun to have a little bit of that mix. But if too much is tilted toward music after 1800, it becomes a contradiction of what the series is meant to be."
Ms. Basbas' series, which presents a varied sampling of American and European early-music groups, as well as two annual concerts by Corpus Christi's choir, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with the season that opens on Sunday afternoon with the New York debut of Musica Pacifica, a Baroque music ensemble from San Francisco.
Few early-music series in New York have been as durable as Music Before 1800, and those that have been around for as long are either presented by larger institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Frick Collection, or are the annual self-produced series by such tenacious groups as the Ensemble for Early Music, which is now in its 26th season.
In recent seasons, the Gotham Early Music Foundation has expanded the field considerably. Ms. Basbas regards Gotham, which she has described as "a class act," as friendly competition and noted that one of its founders, Douglas Dunn, had been on the board of Music Before 1800 for a decade.
"We collaborated with them on several projects," Ms. Basbas said, "but their style of doing things is very different from ours, and we have a much smaller budget, so it was an unequal relationship that was difficult to work out administratively. But I think things have settled down. Their commitment is mainly to cutting-edge early-music groups from Europe, and ours is primarily to American performers. Also, although Douglas presents concerts seven days a week, he has avoided having them on Sunday afternoons, when we have our concerts, so it's a nice and generous collaboration in that respect."
Ms. Basbas came to New York in 1968, after completing her graduate work in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was a time when New York's early-music world was in considerable ferment. Noah Greenberg, the founder of the pioneering New York Pro Musica ensemble, had died in 1966, and members of his group splintered off to form their own ensembles or to work as soloists and freelancers. City University had a thriving early-music program centered around the countertenor Russell Oberlin, and both Richard Taruskin and Alexander Blachly led student ensembles at Columbia University.
"It was just a wonderful, lively configuration of people," Ms. Basbas said, and for seven years she worked with many of them on freelance jobs while also holding a job as a church organist in Riverdale. "Then I landed the job here at Corpus Christi, and the pastor thought that having concerts on Sunday afternoons was just great. So it all came together"
In its first season, Music Before 1800 offered 16 concerts, mostly by New York ensembles, some with organized rosters (the Western Wind and Blachly's Pomerium were on that first bill) and some drawn from what Ms. Basbas called "an informal collective of Young Turks in the neighborhood," meaning primarily at Columbia University and on the Upper West Side. "We didn't even have a budget. The expenses were minimal."
Music Before 1800 quickly adopted a more formal structure. In 1978, Ms. Basbas put some distance between the church and the series by incorporating Music Before 1800 as a separate nonprofit organization. That made it eligible for government and foundation support, which it would not have received as part of the church.
As is typical of most performing organizations, about half of Music Before 1800's budget of less than $100,000 is covered by ticket sales; the rest comes from private donations and grants from the New York State Council.
Independence has also made it possible for Music Before 1800 to present concerts elsewhere; over the years, there have been occasional forays into Alice Tully Hall, St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University, the Church of the Blessed Sacrament and a downtown art gallery, the Drawing Space. Mostly, though, they perform at Corpus Christi, in an attractive and not overly reverberant space that holds an audience of 500.
"Needless to say, we couldn't have survived financially if I had to go out from the beginning and rent space," Ms. Basbas said. "We have a rental agreement for Sunday afternoons, to secure the sanctuary space, but the rest is just a very friendly agreement with the church."
But rising administrative costs and performance fees mean that Music Before 1800 now presents half as many concerts as it did in its early days. The changing needs of the church that serves as host to the series have had an effect as well. The sanctuary used to be available most Sunday afternoons; now there are lectures during Lent, which covers five Sundays in the heart of a concert season.
Ms. Basbas, diplomatically making a virtue of necessity, said that an eight-concert season is about right, with perhaps a return to 10 over the next few years.
"We like the pattern of starting in October, usually after the Jewish holidays, and going to April. We avoid the first Sunday in November, which is the marathon, and we try not to have too many concerts in the middle of the winter. We were stunned by a blizzard and a couple of stormy Sundays a few years ago, and although we didn't have to cancel any concerts, a stormy weekend is something I lose sleep over when I have a group that might be playing in Pittsburgh on Saturday night."
Presenting concerts at the church also has musical ramifications.
"When I talk to a group about programming, my most consistent request is that they consider that this is very clearly a sacred space. Profane music is not appropriate. And I discourage theatrical presentations, because the sightlines in the church are not good.
"Otherwise, I don't make programming suggestions. Other places work differently -- they may have a piece in mind that they want to hear, and can pay a fee for a group to learn new music. But I defer to performers' judgment and present what they do the best. I'm more interested in programs that have been worked on and carefully developed. I guess that's one reason I enjoy Anonymous 4, Pomerium and Lionheart so much."
All three are vocal groups, and all are performing at Music Before 1800 this season. Anonymous 4, in fact, has just become a resident ensemble at Corpus Christi. The Clerks' Group, from England, is to bring another choral program to the series, and there are the two concerts by Corpus Christi's choir, billed for these performances as Music Before 1800 Productions.
In fact, Musica Pacifica's performance and the concert of 19th-century cello works by Bylsma and Bilson, are the only programs of instrumental music on the series, and although instrumental groups have been plentiful at Music Before 1800 over the years, Ms. Basbas prefers this season's balance.
"I have a particular loyalty to vocal music, partly because it's the music I work with and enjoy the most," Ms. Basbas said. "But also, I think there are other concert spaces that are more congenial to instrumental music. Another of the limitations of Corpus Christi is the size of the ensemble we can have. We've had small-scale performances of Bach's 'St. John Passion,' and years ago, we even had a chamber production of Handel's 'Julius Caesar.' But if you have more than 15 musicians, they're going to be crowded, and the sound isn't going to be wonderful."
Ms. Basbas' programming philosophy seems to be a careful balancing of her personal preferences with an ear toward stylistic variety and the tastes of what has become a loyal following. Concerts with recorders have been a consistent draw, she said, so she tries to have one every season. This year Musica Pacifica -- a quintet with recorder, violin, oboe, cello and harpsichord -- fills that slot. It also meets Ms. Basbas' desire to have a group that specializes in Baroque works.
The Baroque is also represented in a concert by Ms. Basbas' own Music Before 1800 Productions, built around a rarely heard Passion setting by Cipriano de Rore from 1557. The concerts by Pomerium and the Clerks' Group cover interesting corners of the Renaissance literature, and Bylsma and Bilson press into the 19th century.
Ms. Basbas acknowledges that having a concert series on a Sunday afternoon in this neighborhood is a challenge in some ways. "But we are committed to making Morningside Heights more interesting and even glamorous to people who don't know it," she said. "Our latest effort is to have advertising from restaurants and bookstores in the neighborhood that are open on Sundays."
Given that, is Ms. Basbas not worried by the emergence of organizations like the Gotham Early Music Foundation, which presents an expansive season in more centrally located churches and halls, or the New York Collegium, a new Baroque orchestra that also draws on the early-music audience? "Not at all," she said. "A lively proliferation of concerts is all to the good, as is the increasing amount of Baroque opera we're seeing now. New York should be a star place for early-music groups to perform, and it is. European groups, even more than American groups, are dying to play here."
But, she added, New York is a difficult place for people to exist as early-music performers. "Most of the instrumentalists and singers I work with have day jobs or part-time jobs doing something entirely different. Maybe if the New York Collegium becomes established, it will provide a big chunk of work for people.
"But no, we don't want to be the only people in town doing this. If we were, people would really think early music was a small and insignificant part of the music scene."
Music Before 1800 presents its concerts on Sundays at 4 p.m. at Corpus Christi Church, 529 W. 121st St., Morningside Heights, (212) 666-9266. Individual tickets are $20; $15 for students and the elderly. There are also several subscription options. Here is the Music Before 1800 schedule for this season:
The True and Congenial Sounds of Yore
SUNDAY: Musica Pacifica, a quintet based in San Francisco and drawn from the ranks of Nicholas McGegan's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. The ensemble's program, called "Viva Venezia," includes two Vivaldi concertos and sonatas by Platti, Legrenzini, Fontana, Castello, Uccellini, Albinoni and Veracini.
NOV. 14: The Clerks' Group, a British chamber choir formed in 1992, makes its New York debut with a program of sacred settings by Ockeghem and Josquin.
NOV. 28: Anonymous 4, the exceedingly (and deservedly) popular vocal quartet, offers "Legends of St. Nicholas," a Christmas program that includes chant and motets composed between 1200 and 1350.
DEC. 19: Lionheart, a vocal sextet that sings with a ravishing blend and has given some splendid programs in recent seasons, is to present "Tydings Trew: Feasts of Christmas in Medieval England," a cycle of works that commemorate the 12 days of Christmas.
JAN. 9: The first of the season's two concerts by Music Before 1800 Productions is the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols. This year's program is devoted to English and American composers, from Byrd through Harvey Burgett, whose organ fantasy, "Das Alte Jahr Vergangen Ist," is to have its premiere.
FEB. 6: Pomerium, the most venerable of New York's early music vocal ensembles, is to sing a program of music written for Charles V, the Duke of Burgundy, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, in honor of the 500th anniversary of his birth. The composers on the program include Lassus, Manchicourt, Morales and Gombert.
MARCH 5: Anner Bylsma, the cellist, and Malcolm Bilson, the fortepianist, are to play Beethoven's Cello Sonatas in F and A, Haydn's Piano Sonata in C and Duport's Etudes for Cello.
APRIL 16: Music Before 1800 Productions closes the season
with the "Beati Christi Passio: Music for Lent and Holy Week," with a setting
of the "St. John Passion" by Cipriano de Rore and works by Monteverdi,
Selle, Schein and Schutz.
Click to return: