Though composed hundreds of years ago, the “old” music Skagit-based Jeffrey Cohan and the Salish Sea Early Music Festival ensemble play feels fresh, engaging, inspiring … anything but old. Cohan and a rotating set of musicians perform both well-known and newly rediscovered pieces from famous composers such as Johann Joachim Quantz, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Sebastian Bach.
Launched 10 years ago, the festival resumed this year after a two-year hiatus forced by the pandemic, with performances in 10 Puget Sound locations, of which five are in Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties and one in Vancouver, B.C.
This year the festival has featured 45 performances of baroque and classical music, from the 15th through the 19th centuries, in four programs. The season culminates with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Triple Concerto May 23 through May 31 at various venues in the area.
In each performance, a rotating set of accomplished musicians from farflung locations play instruments either crafted during the period or reproductions of those—the harpsichord, dulcian, theorbo, Cohan’s baroque flute and others.
Engaging with history
To the unfamiliar, the Salish Sea Early Music Festival might feel fixated in the past. But for flutist and artistic director Cohan, drawing from history allows for both musicians and audiences to engage with old music in a completely new way.
“We do a lot of things that you will not hear elsewhere, like the Quantz concerto,” Cohan said. “I don’t know if anyone else has it.” To get the score, he recalled, “I slapped it on the Xerox machine at the Library of Congress. You can’t download it digitally. [In some cases] we’re playing music that’s not heard because it’s not published. And we’re playing new instrumentation of music that’s more well-known.”
The performances feature renowned musical talent, such as David Schrader of the Chicago College of Performing Arets at Roosevelt University on harpsichord, Martin Bonham of the Victoria Conservatory of Music on cello and Susie Napper of Montreal University’s Schulich School of Music on viola da gamba. Each program employs a different lineup of performers with Cohan being the only constant musician across all the festival’s scheduled dates.
The sheer number of performances means that talent can be pulled from across the globe, Cohan said. And despite being a relatively short festival, the pace is extreme.
“We do several days of two performances with a ferry in between,” Cohan said, noting that venues like Tacoma and Vashon Island or Lopez and Orcas islands, though only a few miles apart, are “completely different concert communities. Usually, you give one concert and you’re done, but we give 10.”
For the musicians, the schedule is rewarding. “Exhilarated!” is the response Cohan has heard after asking his fellow players how they felt at the end of a performance.
No two alike
For an average concert series, musicians would play a single set of programs through once or twice. Due to the level of repetition and improvisation in a festival format, no two performances are the same, meaning each audience experiences the pieces differently.
“It’s a conversation; very different things are done. And each time we might have a little bit of a problem here and there, but the problems are always new. If they were predictable, we’d fix them,” Cohan said. “The audiences have their own character in each location, and they’re just as anxious to hear this stuff as we are to perform it. But the very first performance has its own special freshness. So it’s all very exciting.”
Despite playing pieces that are hundreds of years old, the performances require an improvisational technique that only high-level musicians are capable of.
“It’s really kind of necessary,” Cohan said. For example, harpsichordist Schrader “will improvise it differently at different times and also give the chords different character depending on what turn of a phrase I give it. If I do it more lyrically or more punchy, he’ll change what he plays, and everybody else does. We feed off of one another … you have to provide color and input, and that’s why you need strong players.”
Adapt to the instrument
SSEMF’s performance April 22 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham reflected an 18th century concert in the court of Frederick the Great II of Prussia. It featured pieces for harpsichord and flute, with Cohan playing a replica of the baroque flute Frederick used.
The instrument requires a different technique compared to a more modern flute, which is the kind of challenge an enthusiast like Cohan loves.
“At first, it seems to be wrong,” Cohan said of the baroque flute. “It seems to be out of tune.” In such a case, “flute makers often make it work for the people who are playing it. And that’s a mistake. I’m seeing more and more the genius of making the flute this way. It takes a completely different way of blowing for the high and low registers.”
Cohan has been playing flute since the age of 10, after an elementary school assembly sparked his interest in the instrument. “In fifth grade when I started in Texas I just played all the time,” Cohan said. “I was excited about it. I would say in a way that that hasn’t changed.”
Since then, he’s performed in over 25 countries and has directed several festivals including the Black Hawk Chamber Music Festival, the Cascade Early Music Festival and the Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival.
He spent the downtime during the COVID-19 shutdown practicing intensely and coping with a wrist injury that had hampered his playing. Because the pandemic delayed a planned surgery, he found he could regain full function through physical therapy, an unplanned consequence for which he is grateful.
His own interest in unexplored music led him to the Library of Congress where he spent time getting his hands dirty scanning and saving manuscripts, such as the Quantz concerto. “It’s so, so beautiful, and it’s totally unknown,” Cohan said.
Despite his title as artistic director, Cohan says creating and performing these musical programs is an inherently collaborative process. It requires a deep consideration of each musician’s individual talents as well as confidence in his peers. Gathering musicians from across the early music world ensures that each piece they perform is done justice.
“I don’t feel like the director, I feel like a colleague,” Cohan said. “I feed off of others to make those program ideas. And I certainly put together the programs in accordance with other people, what their strengths are and what they can do … I was no more than a fourth of the decision-making.”
The talent of all the sections is key to maintaining the level of quality that SSEMF looks for. At the St. Paul’s performance, the string section made up of violinists Elizabeth Phelps and Courtney Kuroda, violist Lindsey Strand-Polyak, and cellist Annabeth Shirley provided rhythmic and melodic accompaniment to what were primarily flute and harpsichord pieces.
“These four really made a beautiful sound together,” Cohan said. “And I’m not in the picture, you know, when they introduced me at the beginning of the concerto … they really dove into one another’s sound and that’s kind of priceless.”
Funding for the festival comes from audience donations and some private patrons, and incorporation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is in the works.
The players function as a co-op, with the proceeds split equally among the musicians, including Cohan. He performs his administrative duties, including travel logistics and adding new venues—he has plans to expand to Spokane and Colville—as a volunteer. Audiences tend to be small, 50 or fewer. The post-COVID-19 season is seeing some bigger groups and younger faces.
For Cohan and his fellow players, their main reward is listeners’ responses.
To entertain audiences, to work with peers and delve into new musical territory is at the heart of what the SSEMF is trying to do. According to Cohan, he feels both the audience and the performers are invigorated by the entire process.
“If there’s a word, it would be uplifting. And that’s what we get from, from the concert, from the audiences,” Cohan said. “And that’s what our role is in the universe—to be uplifting.”
— Reported by Kenneth Duncan
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