Old musical instruments | Boston Early Music Festival | Amherst Early Music Festival | By Barbara Jepson

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A cacophony of sounds greeted visitors to the Boston Early Music Festival exhibit, as musicians, students and period instrument enthusiasts sampled the wares on display across two floors of the Revere Hotel. In booth F, a keyboard virtuoso played dazzling passages on a harpsichord in the Paris studio, while a student in the adjoining booth tried out the violins of Rhode Island maker Karl M. Dennis.

The double clavicytherium, developed by Steven W. Sørli.

Johana Vives

Suddenly, a shrill nasal cry pierced the auditory din. Across from Mr. Dennis, a representative from Cantux Research LLC was demonstrating a prototype of the e-Corder, an electronic soprano recorder. “I haven’t killed him yet,” Mr. Dennis said with serious falsehood, “but the idea crossed my mind.”

Esoteric yet spellbinding, this biennial four-day show was held during the recent Boston Early Music Festival, whose splendid opera productions and excellent period orchestra are deservedly receiving the lion’s share of attention. Nonetheless, the exhibition, which brought together 74 exhibitors from a dozen countries, has become the largest early music trade fair in North America. Think of it as a one-stop-shop for the increasingly influential historical performance ensemble, which advocates playing 17th and 18th century music with the instruments, tuning systems, and stylistic approaches of that era. Sheet music, books, CDs, and of course, painstakingly crafted baroque style flutes, violin bows, lutes and more were available to purchase or order.

Founded in 1980 by the family of wind instrument makers von Huene and their colleagues, the BEMF is now seen as comparable to similar events in Utrecht, London, Berlin and elsewhere. “I sell 50% of my instruments at fairs like this,” said Simon Polak, a flute maker from the Netherlands, “and 50% from a combination of mail order and visits to my workshop. . The next stop on his schedule is a little show this Saturday and Sunday at the more education-focused Amherst Early Music Festival in New London, Conn.

The overall quality of the offerings in Boston was impressive. This was the place to go if you were looking for a reproduction of an Italian Baroque harp; a sinuous replica of a 17th century snake horn; or 10 varieties of gut ropes. Made from the small intestine of sheep or cow, the gut strings help produce the soft, resonant shimmer characteristic of the sound of vintage strings.

The most unusual contraption was a double clavicytherium (a lyre, or ancient harp, with keys) developed by harpsichord maker Steven W. Sørli of Massachusetts. Nearly 7 feet tall, it resembles a keyboard with two vertical lyres perched on top, sounds like a cross between a harpsichord and a lute, and was inspired by a depiction of a single clavicytherium in a 17th century painting by Andrea Sacchi at the Metropolitan Art Museum. It sold for $ 10,000.

According to Peter Charig, exhibition director for BEMF, around 4,000 visitors have attended this year. About 64% of trade show attendees live in the United States. Those from Canada or overseas said it broadens their marketing reach.

“It’s important to be present at major exhibitions,” said Pieter Affourtit, a Dutch manufacturer of historic bows. “It’s a living advertisement. And you chat with other creators: “How do you solve this problem? “”

Indeed, the exhibition offers the opportunity to take a close look at the competition, exhibit new products, reconnect with old clients to determine future repertoire needs (which could influence production) and catch up. these partner’work. “It’s a summons of hermits,” said Mr. Dennis, who also makes violas da gamba (similar to cellos but with slanted necks and more strings). “Most of us who make instruments work alone or in small workshops.”

Overall, they don’t make “real fakes” – that is, exact copies down to the added wear marks. Today’s early instrument makers are more inclined to add tiny technical improvements where necessary, as they replicate the size, shape, and timbre of originals in museums or private collections. “The intonation of the originals is often horrible,” Polak noted, speaking of the woods. “They have been altered by weather conditions and use.”

Overall, the exhibition seemed rather low-key compared to, for example, the lavish stands and free-flowing promotional chocolates at Swiss watch shows in Basel. Because orders can arrive months or years after the show, it is difficult to determine the total amount of business processed. But many of the wind instrument makers interviewed had done well. L’Atelier de Paris sold a clavichord kit for $ 3,200 (similar to a harpsichord) in my presence. The ingenious Mr. Sørli left with orders for three single clavicytheria at $ 9,000 each.

The instruments themselves delight the eyes as well as the ears – prawns with beautifully carved animal or human figurines on their necks; graceful harpsichords with hand-painted decorations; an ebony flute with silver filigree inlay. Although modern tools and technology can be used, the instruments are still largely shaped using ancestral methods. Today’s baroque violins, for example, are made in the same way they were made during Stradivari’s lifetime.

Best of all is the synergy between salon and performance. After seeing baroque-style harps by exhibitor Claus Henry Hüttel, it was delightful to hear another of his instruments played by Festival Orchestra member Maxine Eilander in “Almira”, the centerpiece of the show. opera this year. Period flautist Christopher Krueger, lead actor of the Handel & Hadyn Society and the Boston Baroque, accompanied two students, helping them choose the appropriate instruments for the future. And, he admitted with a hint of guilty pleasure, he ended up buying a $ 3,900 replica of an 18th-century Grenser flute for his own use. Other performers browse the latest scholarly editions of music by obscure and well-known Renaissance or Baroque composers, in search of new works to program.

Events like this therefore have the potential to nourish the musical creation of the future. As Mr. Charig put it, “The exhibit brings these objects out of museums, manuscripts and history books, making them something you can hear as opposed to something you just read.

Ms. Jepson writes on classical music for the Journal.

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