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The N.C. HIP Music Festival revives some very old instruments

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When concertgoers think about "hip" music festivals, violas and harpsichords likely aren't the first instruments that spring to mind. But for a passionate subculture of classical musicians, "HIP" actually means "historically informed performance"—that is, using period instruments to perform works written anytime from the Renaissance through the 19th century.

The Triangle is home to a critical mass of performers dedicated to the HIP approach. One such group is Mallarmé Chamber Players, a Durham ensemble nearing its 30th anniversary. Artistic Director Suzanne Rousso spearheaded the inaugural weeklong N.C. HIP Music Festival, supported by a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts Fast-Track Grant. The performances pool the resources of five arts organizations specializing in Early Music—Aliénor (Durham), Baroque and Beyond (Chapel Hill), Ensemble Vermillian (Davidson, N.C., and Berkeley, Calif.), The Vivaldi Project (Washington, D.C.) and Mallarmé.

So just how different is HIP from more modern performances of classical music? Quite a bit, says Rousso, a violist who took up the Baroque viola four years ago. Instead of bright, high-tension steel strings, she uses more delicate gut strings to tune her A-string to a frequency of 415 Hz, or cycles per second. That's almost a half-step lower than the modern orchestral standard, where A is tuned to a frequency of 440 or higher. The result is more subdued, but also, Rousso says, "more sublime."

"At first I thought, 'This sounds very strange,'" she says. "But your ears get accustomed to it in a few minutes, and it's very pleasing."

To Rousso, the music is simpatico with the area's seemingly insatiable appetite for acoustic string and Americana music. Both forms take the emphasis off of vibrato, meaning that the articulation of notes and pitches is paramount. Rousso hopes some of the Triangle's indie music goers—those who might balk at the use of the word "hip"—will take a chance with these sounds.

"Vibrato is really good at disguising intonation issues," Rousso says. "You need to really know how to play in tune. When things are really in tune, you get this really pure sound."

It's a sound that's made for small venues.

"In the Baroque era, you didn't play for a concert hall of 500 people," she says. "You'd play in a room, or maybe a large gathering, but it would be much more intimate than a concert hall of today."

To that end, all festival events are booked into cozy, reverberating spaces—Nelson Music Room at Duke, UNC's Person Hall and various area churches. These halls bring listeners into close proximity with the musicians.

Indeed, a goal not only of the concerts but the festival at large is to help familiarize people who've never seen or heard these aged instruments with their peculiarities. Beyond differences in the instruments themselves—the viola's bow, chin rest and tailpiece have all been reshaped in modern times—Rousso says the techniques for producing sound are what make HIP so different, be it the way she articulates with the bow, ornaments notes via trills and turns, or emphasizes phrasing and improvisation. Local musicians—classical or non-classical, amateur or pro—will have a chance to learn about these instruments and techniques through a series of HIP workshops and master classes. So even if you don't know your viola d'amore from your viola da gamba, Rousso says that the festival should inspire new audiences to discover the pleasures of historical performances.

"I want to attract 20- and 30-somethings," she summarizes. "The hope is that we bring in some younger folks who might be intrigued by the concept."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Nostalgic hipsters."

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