A blast from the past: Arcadia Players celebrate their 30th anniversary of performing on period instruments

  • Nathaniel Cox of the Arcadia Players works with a theorbo, a lute-like instrument first developed in 16th-century Italy, during a rehearsal. Image courtesy Arcadia Players

  • The Arcadia Players, seen here in Abbey Chapel at Mount Holyoke College, will perform there on Oct. 13. Image courtesy Arcadia Players

  • Tha Arcadia Players, who specialize in Renaissance, Baroque and early classical music played on recreations of period instruments, perform Sunday at the South Congregational Church in Amherst.  Photo by Walter B. Denny

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 22, 2019

Northampton’s Arcadia Players have been reviving the way people played music hundreds of years ago by performing concerts on period authentic instruments. Now the ensemble is celebrating its 30th year with plans to bring back its founding creative director when the new concert season kicks off this October.

But ahead of the new season, a special fundraising concert for Arcadia Players takes place this Sunday at 3 p.m. at South Congregational Church in Amherst, on the South Amherst Common, along with the Valley-based Renaissance a cappella vocal ensemble Cantabile. The performance, “Upon a Summer’s Day,” will feature songs of the summer such as the 13th-century Medieval English round “Sumer is icumen in,” as well as pieces by William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes.

“There’ll be one of my favorites, ‘Sumer is icumen in,’ and it’s done in the Old English,” said Carolyn Holstein, president of Arcadia Players. She added that there will also be music by 19th-century English composer Edward Elgar and even 20th-century music by George Gershwin.

Nearly 30 years ago, Margaret Irwin-Brandon, the Arcadia Players founder, conceived of the niche group that would perform early music authentically as possible to the time period, Holstein said. And since 1989, the ensemble has lived up to that idea.

“When you listen to some of this music with the early instruments and the conducting style, playing style, there are spaces to give you time to breathe and you hear different things than you do with louder, 20th-century instruments,” she explained. “It’s a whole new ball game.”

She said she enjoys the tone of the period instruments, and she notes that singers often use a “pure vibrato” during performances. The instruments tend to have a more mellow tone, with violins, for instance, set with gut strings, not steel or plastic ones.

“For me, the magical sound of hearing a harpsichord or a viola da gamba and the versatility of these musicians just never ceases to amaze me,” Holstein said.

Holstein said Arcadia Players concerts are made up of players on period authentic instruments ranging from small chamber groups to a larger ensemble of 25 to 30 musicians, depending on what the group has programmed for its performance. All of the musicians in the ensemble are also locally based.

For the 2019-2020 season, starting in October, there will be four concerts that showcase the ensemble’s range. The season starts with a 30th anniversary show at Mount Holyoke College’s Abbey Chapel in South Hadley on Oct. 13 at 3 p.m. For this performance, Arcadia Players will be bringing back organist and founder Irwin-Brandon for a concert of Baroque masterpieces on a C.B Fisk Opus 84 instrument, which was designed and built to play Renaissance and Baroque organ pieces.

Later this year, the group will perform 18th-century German composer George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” at Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Easthampton, a composition that Holstein said is a fixture in the Arcadia Players’ repertoire. That performance is slated for Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

And for the year ahead, there will be two concerts this upcoming winter. There’s “Arcadia Viols” on Feb. 23, 2020 at 3 p.m. at Wesley Methodist Church in Hadley, which will feature songs from the 16th-century courts of Henry VIII, Isabella d’Este, and Maximilian I.

Closing out the new season will be a performance titled “Theile — Saint Matthew Passion” on March 29, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. at Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Easthampton, a concert devoted to the German 17th-century composer Johann Theile. Arcadia Players will be joined there by the singers of the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble, under the direction of Dr. Tony Thornton.

One of the challenges for this upcoming season is that longtime artistic director Ian Watson, an acclaimed keyboard player and conductor originally from Great Britain, recently left the group.

Holstein said Arcadia Players plans to search for Watson’s successor throughout the upcoming season; during that time, two guest conductors will lead the ensemble. The group will be searching for a conductor with a background in early and Renaissance music who has experience with period authentic instruments.

“We were very lucky to hire Watson,” she said. “He was a terrific musician and conductor.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

For more information about the Arcadia Players, visit www.arcadiaplayers.org.