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The sounds of history—playing the past

'If you wanted to hear the 1610 Vespers, you couldn't just hit a link'

Kris Kwapis plays baroque trumpet. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
December 29, 2010 - On an early January evening almost exactly one year ago in a church in New York City, a group of performers recreated music that originated 400 years prior.

Not an easy feat when you consider that no recordings exist from that time, some of the instruments from that period essentially disappeared and had to be recreated, and performers who know how to play some of those instruments well are rare. Yet, that January performance of Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers was named one of the top ten classical performances of 2010 by New York Magazine.

Kris Kwapis, a 1989 Brandon High School graduate, was one of the rare performers to play that night as part of the Green Mountain Project, consisting of 26 musicians who came together to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi's famed spiritual masterpiece. The concert was free and was performed at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Artistic Director Jolle Greenleaf wanted it to be free, and Kwapis and the other performers donated their time to play.

"We wanted to do it as a gift to people who come to hear us play, and for our friends," said Kwapis. "It was a way to be the first group to perform that piece this year. I've performed it 15 times this year, but that first time was special, because it was the first of the anniversary year... I never get tired of playing concerts in New York City, it's pretty special, coming from Ortonville and all."

The church was packed, she said, standing room only for the roughly 90-minute performance of the special collection of music published by Monteverdi that year.

"The whole movement of playing music from baroque and renaissance eras is a new concept, it didn't catch on until the mid-20th century," noted Kwapis during a phone interview Monday night from New York, where she was scheduled to play trumpet in a performance of Handel's Messiah. "I find that this music is more meaningful, because I think of a time when we weren't bombarded with tv and stereos and electronic music— those things didn't exist. Sound was much more meaningful and special. If you wanted to hear the 1610 Vespers, you couldn't just hit a link. You would have to be in Mantua, Italy to have heard it, and you would have heard it just the one time."

During the Green Mountain Project's performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, Kwapis played the cornetto, a brass instrument that fell out of favor in the mid-17th century for a few reasons. One, because the bubonic plague swept through Venice, an area with the highest concentration of cornetto players during that time, killing most of them. The violin took over the former prominence of the cornetto, which does not have a counterpart like most other instruments, explained Kwapis. She said it is also commonly speculated that between the renaissance and baroque eras, people just wanted something new.

The instrument, made of wood with finger holes similar to a recorder but with a mouthpiece that is buzzed into like a trumpet, still exists in museums and is recreated by artisans who study cornettos and research how instruments are made. The cornetto wasn't revived until the 20th century, said Kwapis, and she is one of only of only four or five musicians in North America who play the cornetto professionally today.

"It's difficult to get the sound of an instrument that has disappeared," she noted. "We have to recreate it as best we can, using our imagination and scholarships. We read accounts of critics from that time, we use our general musical instincts and it's hard to put into words, but it's like trying to erase from our minds and memories music that existed after 1750. We want to pretend we live in a time where that didn't exist yet."

Kwapis said that in the 1600s, the cornetto was described as sounding most like a ray of sunshine bursting through the clouds and is generally accepted as the instrument that sounds most like the human voice. She has attended concerts at which she was uncertain if the cornetto was being played or someone was singing.

While Kwapis does not sing professionally, she took vocal classes and studied text and inflection of words, because she wants her cornetto playing to sound just like a voice. She has played cornetto since 2000 when she studied the instrument at an early music workshop in Vancouver under the direction of Bruce Dickey. She has taken lessons and courses at various music festivals, as well as done her own research and self-teaching.

Kwapis' music career began when she was 10-years-old. Her cousin had a trumpet she inherited and she began playing it as a student of Roy Johnson, the now retired Brandon music teacher. She went on to receive bachelor's and master's degree in trumpet performance at the University of Michigan and in 2005, earned her doctorate degree of musical arts in historical performance from Stony Brook University.

"I've worked hard, but I am so lucky I get to do the thing I love that I would do even if I wasn't getting paid," said Kwapis, who adds her favorite music is by Johann Sebastian Bach because "he wrote amazingly challenging, yet beautiful trumpet parts that are full of meaning and heartfelt expressions of his joy of life."

"I am always wanting to play more, see more of the world," continued Kwapis who has played in Belgium, Germany and Spain, including a concert in a cathedral built in 1100. "Every musician's dream is to do more work, more teaching and more projects... I like to see that what I am playing is a gift to the audience. I want to give to people what I've spent all this time learning and move them, make them smile, make them think or feel something."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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