Eric Scheider was 17 when he first heard a live performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” Williams’ homage in strings to his 16th century musical predecessor lasts a little longer than 15 minutes, but it was time enough to send Scheider to a rapturous place.
“That was the first time I’d ever heard music like that,” Scheider recalls. “I remember going out of there and it was if I could see the individual snowflakes flying through the sky and the individual rays of light and could feel every cell of my body. I felt completely washed over by something. That was my conversion experience.”
Scheider, whose day job is playing cello for the Asheville Symphony, is the organizer of the ECHO Early Music Festival, a seven-day, four-venue event that begins this Saturday, Jan. 26. And while he can’t promise festivalgoers a similar transformation, Scheider and his fellow musicians will try their level best.
“There is some phenomenal talent coming to town for the festival,” he declares.
There is no formal definition marking when music stopped being “early” and began being “classical,” but Johann Sebastian Bach is often held up as a milestone. After Bach, who died in 1750, music was generally arranged for string orchestra, which represented a veritable musical sea compared to the intimate wading pools that previous ensembles amounted to. And even Bach, with his mastery of form and forward-leaning lyricism, was himself a throwback by choice. He wrote for instruments already forsaken by his contemporaries, including the lute and viola da gamba, and his final work, The Art of the Fugue, was a send-up of a compositional style consigned long before to the artistic scrap heap.
There will be a sprinkling of Bach at the festival, but other performances promise to be far more exotic. The Rossignol Duo will dust off its lace collars and present a program of lute music from the Elizabethan age, preceded by an informal talk titled “Everything You Wanted to Know About the Lute but Were Afraid to Ask.” And the festival will be led off by Benjamin Bagby, who arrives from his home in Paris to perform the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, accompanied by medieval lyre. About his rendition of the poem, The New York Times says: “Mr. Bagby comes as close to holding hundreds of people in a spell as ever a man has” (and without the help of Angelina Jolie’s pixilated torso).
Asheville has long supported a loose-knit early music “scene,” including lute makers, recorder tooters and madrigal singers, but Scheider believes the upcoming festival represents a new level of focus and ambition for the genre here.
“The early musicians that I know here tend to travel elsewhere to play,” he says. “For Asheville, this music is kind of a missing link. In New England and New York state, where I grew up, early music is really common and it’s really popular. There are a lot of real die-hard fans.”
One thing helping the event is the fact some of those die-hard fans have moved here in the past several years. Viola da gamba player Gail Ann Schroeder recently moved to the Asheville area from the Netherlands, where she was assistant to famed early music performer Wieland Kuijken at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. (Schroeder also plays the lirone, an ancestor of the bass viol with a perplexing number of strings.) Barbara Weiss, one of the country’s premier harpsichord players, recently retired to Asheville. Weiss’ resume is formidable, having taught at the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute, the Madison Early Music Festival and at both the Indiana University Recorder Performers Seminar and the Indiana University Recorder Academy. She has served on the faculties of the University of Minnesota and Concordia College, and as visiting professor of harpsichord at Oberlin Conservatory.
Many other performers, though, are longtime residents of the region. The kernel at the center of the festival, in fact, is a conversation Scheider had a few years ago with Michael Porter, director of choral activities at Brevard College. “Michael was conducting a performance at Cathedral of All Souls and I said to him, ‘Hey, we really need to have an early music festival around here, don’t you think?’ And he gave me a few of his friends to talk to, and they gave their friends a couple of people to talk to and it just sort of mushroomed.”
The music’s intimacy and long-of-tooth status, Scheider believes, fit neatly with Asheville’s other musical leanings. “Asheville has such a folk-music connection,” he notes. “Early music is kind of like the folk music of the classical-music world. It’s improvisatory, it’s intimate and the music tends to be softer. And, as far as Asheville goes, it just seems like its time has come.”
who:ECHO Early Music Festival
what:Pre-classical music for the masses
where:Brevard College, Cathedral of All Souls, Jack of the Wood and Laughing Seed
when:Saturday, Jan. 26, through Friday, Feb. 1 (7 p.m. Cost varies by event. www.eemf.net or 505-2858)