GREAT BARRINGTON — During the 17th- and 18th-century Baroque era, when musical giants Bach, Handel and Vivaldi reigned triumphant in chapels, courts and stately salons, many eastern European musicians and composers crossed fluid country borders to study and perform. They carried new influences back to their native lands, which sometimes were themselves transformed through conquest.
While works by famed German, Italian and French composers are today ubiquitous, the music of those migratory musicians is often hidden in history.
On Oct. 29 in Lakeville, Conn., and Oct. 30 in Great Barrington, Crescendo Chorus will bring their work to the forefront in “Music Across Borders,” celebrating Baroque and contemporary composers from Eastern European countries now recognized as Poland, Latvia and the Czech Republic.
Crescendo artistic director, conductor and organist Christine Gevert knows what it’s like to cross borders. Raised in Chile — her family moved there from Germany in 1830 following Napoleon’s invasion — she studied music and lived in her Teutonic ancestral homeland for 12 years before relocating to the United States and the Berkshires in 2001.
Gevert has led Crescendo since founding the chorus in 2003. Now in its 20th season, the ensemble of up to 50 professional and amateur singers performs seven concerts a year, nowadays mostly at Trinity Church in Lakeville, Conn. where Gevert is based, and nearby Saint James Place in Great Barrington.
“Music Across Borders” will feature a mixed voice chorus of some three dozen singers that includes as soloists sopranos Christina Kay and Jordan Rose Lee (the lone non-professional soloist); and international singers countertenor Augustine Mercante, tenor Dan Foster, and bass-baritone Peter Becker. An 11-member period instrument orchestra from Boston and New York City is led by Gevert on organ.
American countertenor Nicholas Tamagna is the special guest soloist. Currently based in Germany, where his recent Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival debut garnered critical acclaim, the longtime Crescendo collaborator has performed across Europe and the US, including at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, as well as in Australia, and, soon, Israel. Renowned for his Handel interpretations, Tamagna has shone in operatic roles past and present, from Gluck’s Orpheo to Akhnaten by Philip Glass.
“His voice is incredibly full and rich,” Gevert said. “It’s the best of all worlds, the warmth of the contralto and power and brilliance of the countertenor. He is a fantastic musician, everything is always exciting, full of passion and life.”
The two met through longtime Crescendo guest performer Julianne Baird, an American soprano known for her Baroque interpretations.
“Years ago I asked her to recommend a countertenor, and Nicholas was starting his career on the east coast,” Gevert said. They have collaborated ever since in concerts and recitals.
Raised near New York City, Tamagna grew up on the road, touring with his mother Carol Evans’ pop rock band “Leather and Lace,” he said in a recent phone call.
“I was a little band rat touring in a big blue bus,” he said. “I was exposed to performing as a kid, I was always in school productions and musical theater.”
In his early 20s he started to sing with early music groups in New York City, “a lot of Renaissance and later music in a church in the high tenor section,” he said. “I discovered my voice sat much better and had more colors and options in the countertenor range.”
By his late 20s he had fully switched to countertenor.
“I got my first job in Europe in 2014, and my career has grown steadily over there,” he said. He relocated to Germany three years ago.
“Baroque music is much more performed in Europe, Germany alone has three Handel festivals every year. Now I’m working internationally and traveling a lot.”
A career highlight was performing at the Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival in the World Heritage-designated Margravial Opera House, a Baroque masterpiece dripping with cherubs and gilded ornamentation that inspired Wagner to launch his famous festival in the same town.
Countertenors are more vocally diverse than people realize, explained Tamagna, who sings in the contralto range. “You have lower voices, higher voices, bigger, more lyric, different qualities. At Bayreuth, there were five countertenors on stage, and every single one was different.”
While the use of the high male voice register has been around for centuries, originally sung by castrati, countertenors have become increasingly visible in recent times, Tamagna said.
“There’s much more than there ever was, it’s grown considerably,” he observed. “It’s taking on new dimensions, pushing into repertoire that was not conceivable before.”
A number of composers write music specifically for him, notably Raphael Fusco in Austria, he added.
When Gevert approached him about performing this program, serendipitously Tamagna was planning to visit family in the US around the time of the Crescendo concert.
“Christine finds these gems, pieces performed rarely or never,” he said. “That’s why I’ve always loved the concert programs we’ve done together over the years.”
Tamagna will perform two Baroque works: “Christe eleison" by Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka; and a German aria from Johann Adam Hiller’s setting of “Psalm 100.”
“Baroque eastern European composers are always very interesting to me,” he said, “the pieces are really quite beautiful, harmonically very rich. Zelenka writes these incredibly long, virtuosic roulades, it makes me wonder who his singer was.”
Over a decade ago, inspired by said Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who also lived in Lakeville, Conn., Gevert traveled to Europe to explore Polish baroque music.
“I brought home a lot of repertoire scores and knowledge, and produced a big concert in 2012,” she said.
As she continued to learn about Polish composers, Gevert “had the idea there are other composers in that area that I would also like to include.” This concert was originally scheduled for the end of March 2020; it’s been a long time coming, she said.
In “Music Across Borders,” Gevert has designed a program that spans centuries.
“Even though we perform on period instruments and observe historic performance practices, I like to include contemporary music,” she explained.
“We have music by Baroque composers with very festive trumpet and timpani and string orchestra, and contemporary repertoire [which] is fresh and atmospheric.”
Alongside more recognizable instruments, the orchestra also includes the theorbo — a lute plucked like a harpsichord — and the dulzian, an earlier version of the bassoon.
On the Baroque front, she said, “Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki is called the ‘Polish Handel.’ We all think Handel invented these famous phrases, but they were around the repertoire much earlier.”
Modern day composers include Paweł Łukaszewski from Poland; Zdeněk Lukáš of the Czech Rep.; Ēriks Ešenvalds from Latvia; and American Craig Courtney.
“Ešenvalds’ ‘Stars’ is a lovely secular poem by Sara Teasdale, we play a tune on water glasses and Tibetan singing bowls,” Gevert said.
As an expression of solidarity, the program includes “Ukrainian Alleluia” by Courtney. “He traveled to Ukraine and was inspired by materials he found by Ukrainian composers,” Gevert said.
Most of the repertoire is sacred and written in Latin, with the exception of Hiller’s German text and the concluding English poem. Translations are provided in the printed program.
Everything is harmonic, Gevert assured. “There’s a lot of variety, you’re tossed back and forth between the festive upbeat and moments that are quiet and contemplative.”
“So often there are incredible treasures which haven’t been performed,” she added. “There’s so much music to be discovered.”
IF YOU GO
What: Music Across Borders: Eastern European Baroque and Contemporary Choral & Instrumental Works
Who: Crescendo Chorus
When: 4 p.m., Oct. 30. Doors open at 3:15 p.m.
Where: Saint James Place, 352 Main St., Great Barrington
Tickets: $40, general admission; $75, premium seating; $10, under 18.
Information: 860-435-4866, crescendomusic.org
COVID-19 protocols: Masks must be work indoors.