29 Oct. 2004
Boston Early Music Festival Draws Crowds
Year-long series features groups from around world
By YAN ZHAO
Outside of a group of devoted fans of early music—a genre that
encompasses all European musical production between the 15th and 18th
centuries—most Bostonians probably fail to realize that they inhabit
not only the early music capital of America, but also one of the early
music centers of the world. They may have heard of the venerable Boston
Early Music Festival (BEMF), but probably don’t realize it is the only
early music festival in America, as well as the largest and most
elaborate celebration of its kind in the world.
In fact, BEMF’s popular concert series, an annual string of eight to
twelve concerts, draws over 6,000 audience members, and the biennial
festival and exhibition has more than 12,500 participants and thousands
of fans. This year, the first concert of the season sold out more than
a week in advance.
Kathleen Fay, the executive director of BEMF, attributes much of the
success to the city’s unusually active musical community.
“At Boston, you can’t help but become immersed in early music if you’re
a serious classical music lover,” says Fay. “We’re the world’s center
for early music both because of this organization and the number of
excellent performing groups and organizations that have concentrated
Early music draws classical, folk, opera, and choral music lovers, all
of which Boston has in abundance.
BEMF was founded in 1980, according to Fay, by “leading practitioners
of early music performance with a mission to promote and conserve the
genre.” For years, it worked in collaboration with its sister festival
in Berkeley and a smaller festival in San Antonio to bring early music
to different areas of America.
But when both of the other two festivals disbanded, Boston became the
primary center of early music in America. Now, BEMF grows more and more
comprehensive and famous each year.
“Our festival audience members now come from all over the world,” says
Fay. “Once we did a survey and learned that 7 percent of our audience
during festival week was from outside the country.”
Fay also notes the festival’s strong international radio presence, much
of which has arisen from its relationship with Boston radio station
WGBH. The station records BEMF performances and broadcasts them
nationwide on National Public Radio, in addition to Britain’s BBC and
The featured artists also give the festival a distinct international
flavor. The first concert in this year’s concert series was given on
Oct. 16 by a viol consort from England. Over Thanksgiving weekend,
Venice Baroque Orchestra will perform. Later, other artists from such
varied countries as Canada, Germany and Russia will participate in the
Fay usually decides the year’s concert programs herself. “I’ve always
wanted to do so much more than we have the time or money for,” she
said. “It’s hard because in any given season, there are more than 50
top quality groups touring so I have to fit in what I can, like a
Although such activities do pose a significant challenge, Fay says that
the most difficult part of her job is fundraising.
“The budget for a biennial festival is about $2.5 million. The opera is
just about $1 million, about $950,000,” she says. “About half of your
budget is made up of ticket sales…so just imagine the amount of money
that needs to be raised, and 90% of that will be from individual
giving.” Still, Fay says the results are often pleasantly surprising.
“It’s staggering how generous people are and can be when they love
something,” she says. “This is hard work but it’s a labor of love; you
really have to believe in it.”
Fay moved to Boston in 1984 to study music and started working for BEMF
in 1985 as an usher. She moved to the role of assistant to the
director, then general manager and finally executive director in 1991.
As a result, she has watched the organization grow and the early music
scene change drastically.
On top of the concert series, another challenge is putting on the
biennial festival itself. Its central component is the production and
performance of a rare baroque opera masterpiece.
In most years, the opera is an old one that has not been performed for
hundreds of years. But in June 2005, BEMF will present the world
premiere of a recently rediscovered opera, Boris Goudenow by Johann
The opera was written in 1710 but never produced in the composer’s
lifetime. It was kept in the Hamburg Library until World War II, when
the score, along with many others, disappeared (apparently hidden from
anticipated bombing raids).
“After the war, Boris landed in Soviet hands and was eventually
transferred to Armenia by a scholar interested in the works of
Mattheson,” says artistic director Paul O’Dette. “The score was
‘discovered’ in an Armenian archive and then returned to Hamburg in
The BEMF was contacted and offered the world premiere rights of the
opera, says Fay. “We then traveled to Germany where we got to see and
touch the original score. We also went to Russia where we auditioned
Russian opera singers, since the story is Russian, though the composer
After the gigantic task of picking an opera comes the even bigger task
of producing it. “There are generally 150 costumes per opera, plus very
demanding sets,” Fay says. “But that’s what I love the most about my
job: the production, development, and realization of the opera. It’s
Besides the June extravaganza, there are a number of concerts and
events throughout the year, including performances by the famous choral
groups Tallis Scholars on Dec. 11, and the Hilliard Ensemble on March
“I’m personally very excited about our Feb. 4 concert, which will be
held in Sanders Theatre,” says Fay. “Hopefully we will be using
Harvard’s fortepiano and one of Harvard’s professors will give a
Fay also praises the contributions the University has made to the
festival. “We definitely love working with Harvard,” she says. “It’s a
great resource for us.”