What exactly is early music, anyway? It depends on what you mean by “early.” Early Rolling Stones is one thing, but early Muddy Waters is something else again — something played with a different bat and ball but in the same ballpark. But while early Beethoven is one thing, early Byrd is something else altogether. Early or late, Beethoven, like most composers after about 1750, composed using more or less the same tonal system composers are still using now — and don’t give me any lip about atonality; atonality’s so old school. But, early or late, Byrd was not playing in the same ballpark as Beethoven for the simple reason that he was not using the same rule book.

Before 1750, music — what we now call early music — used a totally different tonal system. Back then, harmonies we hear as lovely would have been heard as excruciatingly painful, melodies we hear as beautiful would have been heard as agonizingly expressive, and forms we hear as straightforward would have been heard as just about incomprehensible. Why? Because the tonal rule book changed. Before 1750, music was more horizontal than vertical, more counterpoint than harmony, more lines than melodies, more shapes than forms. It’s not that harmony didn’t matter. Of course it did; early or late, Western music is harmonic right down to its DNA. It’s that harmony, like perspective, changes with the times, and before 1750, composers had a whole different way of listening to the world.

For the past twenty-five years, Ann Arbor has been able to listen to the world in a whole different way, thanks in large part to the Academy of Early Music. Like a medieval guild, the Academy has united most of the town’s early-music performers and aficionados in a single organization dedicated to music written before 1750. And on Saturday, May 6, in St. Andrew’s Church, the Academy will celebrate its silver anniversary with a concert featuring many of Ann Arbor’s best early-music performers.

Who are they? There’s the Grail Singers, a superb a cappella women’s group. There’s Bethany Cencer, a splendid young harpsichordist. There’s Norma Gentile, an inspiring solo soprano. But for this critic, the performer to hear will be gambist Debra Lonergan, who is playing Bach’s G Major Gamba Sonata with harpsichordist Martha Folts. Not only is Folts a skilled and sympathetic harpsichordist, not only is Bach’s G Major Sonata a honey of a piece with great linear melodies and sweet contrapuntal harmonies, not only is the gamba perhaps the most soulful string instrument ever created, but Lonergan herself is also a superlative player with a tremendous technique, an enormous tone, and a soul that soars when playing solo. Hearing music performed differently is one thing. Hearing it performed soulfully is something else again.

[Review published May 2006]