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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: July 3, 2017

Bringing early music to the masses

Written by: Bob Keyes
Timothy Burris performs with a replica of an 19th-century guitar at St Andrew's Episcopal Church in Newcastle in April. Photo by Peter Asche

Timothy Burris performs with a replica of an 19th-century guitar at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle in April. Photo by Peter Asche

Like many other proponents of classical music these days, Timothy Burris is doing everything he can to dispel myths and build audiences. The principal organizer of Portland Conservatory’s Early Music Festival in the fall, Burris has scheduled a concert and talk at the Portland Public Library in July to introduce people to early music and demonstrate what it sounds like, so they will be more apt to attend the festival — or any other classical music concert.

“Classical music in general has this stuffy pseudo-cloth that it tends to wear,” he said. “Even if we are wearing blue jeans, the demographic that does not attend classical music concerts still sees us in tuxes. I need to do a better job of planting the seed in more fields, if you will.”

The idea behind the library programs is to expose people in smaller doses to early music, he said.

The commonly accepted definition of early music has evolved. Once applied to music of the Baroque and earlier periods, it now denotes any music that requires a historically appropriate style of performance based on surviving scores and instruments. For years, musicians performed that music on contemporary instruments. More recently, many musicians have performed on instruments built when the music was composed or, more commonly, on contemporary instruments constructed in the manner of those that were common back in the day. With early music, the goal is to get as close as possible to the sounds the composers had at their disposal when they wrote their music.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, Burris will perform a program at the library on a new guitar that is modeled after an old guitar. The Canadian luthier Richard Berg of Ottawa built the guitar for Burris in 2015. When he first played it, he thought to himself, “So, that’s how this music sounds. And it’s only gotten better since then,” he said.

The program, “Torres meets Tárrega: Spanish Guitar Music of Francisco Tárrega and Contemporaries,” will explore the music of Tárrega, whom many people consider the founder of the modern school of guitar playing. In addition to writing and performing, Tárrega influenced a generation of students as a teacher. Burris will perform a program of classical guitar music by Tárrega and several of his students.

The guitar is a replica of Tárrega’s instrument, built in 1864 by the Spanish guitar maker Antonio de Torres Jurado, considered by many to be the most important Spanish guitar maker of the 19th century. Torres made the guitar for himself and presented it to Tárrega in 1869 after he heard Tárrega perform.

The replica, Burris said, “is so sweet, with curly maple sides and back, just like the original. It has a very thin top and is super responsive. It has a delicate sweetness to the sound that I’ve never heard out of a modern classical guitar.”

The original guitar still exists, after passing among various owners and surviving both alterations and a restoration that brought it back close to its original state. It is owned by crime novelist and guitar collector Jonathan Kellerman, who wrote about it in his 2008 book “With Strings Attached” about vintage guitars.

On July 25, Burris returns to the library to talk about the subject of early music. He’s calling his talk “What’s So ‘Early’ about Early Music?” He will intersperse his talk with recorded samples illustrating the subject.

Burris studied with lutenist Toyohiko Satoh at The Hague’s Royal Conservatory and graduated in 1988 with a performance diploma. In 1997, he earned his doctorate from Duke University for his research into lute practice in 18th-century Dresden. A Fulbright scholar, he was a lute instructor at the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp and joined the faculty of the Portland Conservatory of Music in 2000. He also teaches at Colby College.


July 11 concert: ‘Torres meets Tárrega: Spanish Guitar Music of Francisco Tárrega and Contemporaries,’ 1 to 2 p.m.
July 25 discussion: ‘What’s So ‘Early’ about ‘Early Music?’, 1 to 2 p.m.
Both are free.

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