In what is surely a first for Asheville, Echo Early Music Festival under festival director Eric Scheider launched a seven-day slate of early music concerts (Jan. 26-Feb. 1) featuring the myriad talents of local and internationally known artists. Benjamin Bagby (in a dramatic reading of Beowulf), chamber ensemble Harmonia Baroque, historic keyboardist Henry Lebedinsky with the Biltmore Brass ensemble, the Rossignol Duo (lute music), and Ensemble Vermillian performed music, much of it rarely heard, in a variety of venues in Asheville and Brevard. Asheville harpist Lelia Lattimore and the Soundings Choral Group provided entertainment during a vegetarian-Asheville style medieval feast at the Laughing Seed Café. (What? No bones to throw on the floor?) Crowning this ambitious undertaking at mid-week was a concert rendition of Claudio Monteverdi’s masterpiece L’Orfeo with Asheville-based lyric tenor Aaron Schnurbusch in the title role at the Cathedral of All Souls. For more details on the festival schedule, visit the Echo Early Music Festival website.

Monteverdi’s opera of 1607 was composed in collaboration with librettist Alessandro Striggio for the carnival season in Mantua under the auspices of the Gonzaga family. While it recounts the poignant Greek myth of Orpheus, whose beautiful singing gains him entrance into Hades to retrieve his deceased wife Euridice, only to lose her again, its subtext is the power of music itself. Though this was not the first opera, it holds pride of place in the musical canon as the first operatic masterpiece for its effective use of both recitative and dramatic monodic styles in service of plot disclosure and emotive reflection. Moreover, the score specifies a colorful array of instruments to underscore the actions of the various characters, a novelty at that time.

Echo’s festival production was a minimally-staged event in which singers and instrumentalists alike multi-tasked. The choice of a church sanctuary for this secular entertainment was most likely made to gain access to the organ. Michael Porter masterfully conducted the small orchestra which consisted of both historical replicas and modern instruments. Continuo players Barbara Weiss and Henry Lebedinsky moved incessantly among 2 organs and 2 harpsichords, while Christopher Berg and Hazel Ketchum deftly snatched up lutes of various sizes (including an archlute) and a Baroque guitar. Lelia Lattimore’s harp simulated Orfeo’s mythical lyre as he pled for entrance into Hades. Most of the singers functioned as both characters and choral members. The cast featured Heather Hallmark (Euridice), Amanda Gardner (La Musica/Prosperina), Andrea Blough (La Messagiera), Angela Hayes (Ninfa/Speranza), Roberto Flores (Plutone/Pastore), Timothy Wilds (Apollo/Pastore), Jonathan Ross (Caronte), Vance Reese (Pastore/Un Spirito), and Kevin Doherty and Jeff Konz (Spirito).

The production in general was a credible reading of Monteverdi’s score, but unfortunately sounded under rehearsed in places, and the singing of the monodic passages was occasionally too labored to resemble the easy declamation of language Monteverdi intended. That said, there were also many wonderful moments, too — La Messagiera’s bell-like tones, Orfeo’s moving “Possente spirto” and Caronte’s deep and resonant warnings within Act III, the thrilling, ascending melismatic duet between Orfeo and Apollo in Act V, and the catchy orchestral ritornellos.

Hearing early music in the mountains of western North Carolina has been a hit-or-miss affair requiring some legwork. The area’s largest summer music festival at the Brevard Music Center has only within the last few years formed an ensemble to perform Baroque music (I Solisti di Brevard), and that ensemble only gives one performance per season (this season on August 4). Recently, Bach’s Magnificat in D was presented by the Carolina Concert Choir to a sold-out house, and Handel’s Messiah is programmed repeatedly at Christmas. Small local groups have been formed and reformed, but the most consistent way to hear music predating the mid 18th century is in church anthems/motets, festive seasonal music, or music played to dress up a madrigal dinner. Therefore, the significance of this, the area’s first early music festival, cannot be overlooked. Hopefully the seeds have now been sown for future growth in this sector of our area’s cultural life.