Longing for lute? Fans of medieval, baroque and other early music eras now have an outlet in St. Louis with a series of concerts designed to transport listeners to bygone eras.
Early Music Missouri founder Jeff Noonan is thoroughly ingrained in the St. Louis music scene. He has been since the 80s, when he helped run — and eventually took over — the Holy Roman Repertoire Company, a radio theatre production which performed at COCA, Washington University, The Sheldon Concert Hall and other famous St. Louis art institutions. For a decade in the 90s, he ran the Classic Guitar Center in the DeMun neighborhood. And Noonan himself teaches and performs music across St. Louis — and all over the country.
After graduating with a degree in theology from Notre Dame in 1973, Noonan enrolled in the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut, to study classical guitar. There he learned to transcribe ancient lute music for modern performances and fell in love with early music, eventually purchasing a cheap Japanese lute and teaching himself to play.
“A lot of people think of it as classical, but it’s a different animal,” said Noonan. “It’s a lot of openness; a lot of improv. It’s somewhere between classical and jazz.”
From college onward, Noonan knew he wanted to do something to spread his love of early music, but he wasn’t sure how. All he had was the name, “Early Music Missouri.”
“I’ve had the domain name saved for probably 12 years. I kind of knew I was going to do something with it,” Noonan said. “At the end of last year, a young singer in town asked me to do a concert with her. We did it at her church, the First Congregational Church in Clayton. The new organist over there asked if I was interested in a series of concerts. I wasn’t sure, but eventually I did three concerts and the people at the church were excited about it. The musicians were excited about it. I said, ‘ok, let’s do this.’”
That organist was First Congregational Church Music Director Sarah Bereza, Ph.D. Originally from Cincinnati, Bereza became interested in Gregorian and early Italian chants through singing in a choir. The church, she said, makes for a great music space due to its openness and acoustics.
“A lot of early music isn’t as loud as some contemporary music. Often it’s quiet,” said Bereza. “I want (audiences) to experience something beautiful, where they can be engaged with what’s going on, fully present and mindful of what they’re hearing, and captivated by something they haven’t heard before.”
Noonan launched what he hopes will be the inaugural run of an annual early music concert series on Oct. 13, followed by a second concert on Nov. 10. Concerts continue almost monthly until April 2020, with the next one on Dec. 8.
The purpose of these concerts, he said, is not just to allow audiences to enjoy new music, but to educate by hinting at what musical experiences were like in the past.
“We won’t just pick up our instruments and play; we’ll go out and read books on what town the music was performed in and the tuning and how many people were in the choir and put that into our playing,” said Noonan.
“It’s not dry and pedantically scholarly, it’s trying to create and help understand the context the music was in. we try and learn as much as we can about the music, the composer, the setting, and then we replicate what we can,” he continued. “But we don’t want to replicate something just to replicate it. We’re not reenactors. We don’t dress up in uniforms and pretend to shoot each other. It’s really a matter of understanding the music and seeing if we can make it relevant to today.”
To make the effort possible, Noonan’s concerts are staffed by his peers, fellow performers and friends, many of which come from out of state. Early Music Missouri is not a formed ensemble and each show will feature different performers representing Kansas City, Bloomington, Seattle, Portland, Chicago and Palm Springs.
One of Noonan’s performers is baroque violinist Bill Bauer, a former symphonic player. Bauer, who lives in Tower Grove, considers himself an “evangelist” for early music. The baroque violin, he said, couldn’t be more different from a traditional violin.
“It’s like comparing a covered wagon to a Maserati,” he said. “It’s smaller, the neck is set at a different angle, the tensile strength on the bridge is lower, it sounds softer with less projection, and it’s designed to be played in a room, not a concert hall. Even the notes are in totally different places. There’s very little resemblance.”
Bauer, who took up baroque violin in 1983, straddled modern orchestra and early music for a decade before launching into baroque music full time. He has performed alongside Noonan many times over the years, including Early Music Missouri’s first concert of the season, and will also play at the next concert on Dec. 8.
“We aim at the whole gamut, young and old. We try to take something that would be terribly esoteric and bring it down to the vernacular. We want the audience to be comfortable with listening to the music and understanding the historical concept.
What it really comes down to is: can you tap your toes to it?” asked Bauer.
The Dec. 8 Early Music Missouri concert is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a medieval holiday legend with live actors and musicians. The show begins at 3 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of St. Louis, 6501 Wydown Blvd. A $10-$20 donation will serve as an entry fee for all concerts. For more information or a complete calendar of performances, visit www.facebook.com/EarlyMusicMo. To contact the group, ask questions or inquire about donations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.