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A festival explores ancient music played on ancient instruments, plus new possibilities



It begins with a farewell, William Cornysh's stark 15th-century goodbye "Adieu mes amours," and ends with a prayer—choral vespers, from 17th-century Rome.

It sprawls across 14 days, skipping through churches and concert halls across Durham and Chapel Hill. And it spans 800 years, from music copied into manuscript in the 1200s to music composed with notation software last fall. This is the codex Coachella, the hocketing Hopscotch: It's the 2014 HIP Music Festival.

Last year, the Mallarmé Chamber Players launched the inaugural HIP—a convocation of "historically informed performance" by local ensembles that specialize in performing early music on period instruments. This year, 10 ensembles and two universities participate. Listeners can experience the vocal pyrotechnics of Baroque opera, the colorful madrigals of the Renaissance, the rollicking concertos of the 18th century and, surprising as it may seem, work from living composers, too.

"We've had a really overwhelming response from performers," Suzanne Rousso, Mallarmé's artistic director and the festival's supervisor, says. Four years ago, Rousso, a violist, started dabbling in Baroque performance. She quickly realized the strength of the local HIP community. The festival taps these area assets, combining storied area groups like the Duke Vespers Ensemble with newcomers such as the Voices of a New Renaissance.

"There are a lot of really wonderful Baroque and Renaissance period instrument players in the area," she says. "I had no idea until I started playing myself that there was such a high caliber of players in North Carolina."

HIP is a two-pronged concept, comprising a repertory and a way to approach it. The focus is music written from the 600s, or before today's system of notation originated, to the late 18th century. The mainstream classical industry often overlooks that lengthy span. Vocalists downplay the vibrato central to canonic opera, instead emphasizing a transparency of sound and drawing attention to the secular and sacred texts. Instrumentalists employ old-fashioned setups—violin strings made of gut rather than steel, trumpets without valves. (Rarely does a HIP concert pass without a squawk or two from a Baroque oboe.)

The HIP approach dates to the beginning of the last century, when performers experimented with playing Bach on harpsichord, not piano. The movement subsequently exploded under the auspices of American universities. From the start, the HIP movement allowed a rare opportunity for scholars and performers to collaborate, rediscovering neglected repertories and resurrecting them for modern audiences. Scholars resuscitated manuscripts of forgotten works of the Renaissance, and luthiers manufactured instruments based on old models. New ensembles dedicated themselves exclusively to works so old they stretched from the era of Gregorian chant to the birth of Mozart.

Today, HIP is a broad movement. Full-size orchestras with period instruments rethink the Romanticism of Brahms and Schubert while opera companies stage radical reinventions of foundational operas by Monteverdi and Cavalli. The HIP festival reflects that wide approach, with classics like Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 abutting rarities that include vocal music of the Polish Renaissance.

HIP doesn't necessarily mean old, either: The ensemble Alinor, which performs at Duke on Feb. 4, dedicates itself to cutting-edge music for ancient instruments. Since 1980, they have sponsored a competition for composers to write new music for the harpsichord. The Hilliard Ensemble sings not only the medieval polyphony of Pérotin—the composer who opens most music-history textbooks—but also the contemporary minimalism of Arvo Pärt and Gavin Bryars. Mallarmé has commissioned Duke professor Steven Jaffe to write a "HIP Chamber Concerto" for Baroque instrumentation.

"It's not Baroque in style. It's very contemporary," explains Rousso. "But it uses the instruments in ways that really let the instruments shine."

This year's festival adds several marquee performers, thanks to Duke Performances and Carolina Performing Arts. The latter presented the festival-beginning Hilliard Ensemble, while the latter offers Handel's opera Theodora by the all-star group English Concert next week. The confluence of these touring ensembles and the HIP festival was a happy scheduling accident—and one that could give Mallarmé's HIP festival wider spotlights both nationally and locally.

"Including Carolina Performing Arts and Duke Performances is a real coup for us, because they have wider audiences," says Rousso. "We're able to promote the festival to some of their audiences as well."

So where should an HIP newbie begin? Fans of The Four Seasons might check out the "Baroque and Beyond" concert on Sunday, which features a mixture of strings and winds in vigorous works by Vivaldi and Telemann. Next Tuesday, UNC faculty will provide an introduction to the opera of the English Baroque, featuring Purcell and Handel; that's chased, naturally, by Theodora. And on Feb. 1, the Voices for a New Renaissance offer an overview of early vocal music. They center the program on Monteverdi's Sestina, a tour de force lament that commemorated the death of one of the composer's pupils.

And for those prepared to dive in all the way, Mallarmé offers a "Hipster" pass—$100 gets you into everything. That's $12 per century of music, or a steal of historically impressive proportions.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Earlier stuff better."

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