In Tune With Early Music
October 04, 2012
Under the stone arches of Sant’Eufemia, a 12th-century church in Spoleto, Italy, Grant Herreid took up his lute. His fingers moved deftly across the strings, plucking a melody line that may have been familiar to the church’s first parishioners.
It was 1983, and his touring ensemble was performing at the Festival dei Due Mondi, a popular summer celebration of music, opera, theatre, and dance.
“I was just 27 years old on my first trip to Europe,” says Herreid. “I was thrilled to perform the Play of Daniel, a 12th-century liturgical drama, in that medieval setting. I felt inspired, connected somehow with early musicians who had once played there.”
It’s a connection he has continued to savor in his nearly 30-year career as a versatile musician, director, and teacher in the early music scene.
“My forte is music from the Middle Ages through the baroque period, 1200 to 1750,” says Herreid, who is currently music and artistic director of the Yale Baroque Opera Project and director of the Yale Collegium Musicum.
An in-demand singer and instrumentalist, Herreid has performed with noted ensembles such as Hesperus, Piffaro, and ARTEK as well as Early Music New York, the Newberry Consort, and My Lord Cham- berlain’s Consort. He’s also been a featured guest artist with such groups as the King’s Noyse, Tapestry, the Folger Consort, Brandywine Baroque, and Apollo’s Fire. He cofounded the groups Ex Umbris and Ensemble Viscera.
He began his career on a different note. A jazz and classical trumpeter in Portland, he played in his dad’s band, the Dell Herreid Orchestra.
“He specialized in music from the ’30s and ’40s,” says Herreid, “playing dance music at venues like the Elks Lodge, Neighbors of Woodcraft, and the Multnomah Athletic Club. I learned phrasing and musicality on the job from seasoned performers.
Herreid chose to further his education at Lewis & Clark, which at the time had two offerings he found appealing: a bachelor of music degree and a solid men’s soccer team.
“When I was a senior, I played in one professional soccer game,” he says. “Due to a players strike, the Portland Timbers had hired amateur players from local soccer clubs to go up against the Minnesota Kicks. I was a professional soccer scab.”
Herreid discovered early music at Lewis & Clark courtesy of Tim Swain CAS ’63, lutenist and former manager of the bookstore; the late Edith Kilbuck B.M. ’52, professor emerita of music; and Gil Seeley, James W. Rogers Professor Emeritus of Music. Later, after earning a master’s degree in music, Herreid moved to New York, where Renaissance music was enjoying a surge in public support.
“My career has been organic, naturally flowing from performing to directing to teaching—and back again,” he says.
Herreid teaches and performs early music at noteworthy workshops throughout the country. He’s also a stage director and musical coach for the Seattle Academy of Opera workshop and has performed with the New York City Opera, the Chicago Opera Theater, the Portland Opera, the Handel and Haydn Society, and at the Aspen Music Festival.
In May, his students in the Yale Baroque Opera Project performed Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland), for which Herreid prepared the score. “It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching story—one of Monteverdi’s few surviving operas,” he says.
Last year, Herreid moved to New Haven, Connecticut. His small abode is overflowing with early music instruments, including lutes handcrafted in Oregon, Kentucky, Germany, and Argentina. He also plays theorbo, early guitar, shawm, recorder, cornetto, and pipe and tabor.
“It’s important to play instruments that are historically accurate,” he says. “Lutes, for example, added strings every 50 to 100 years. At $5,000 to $7,000 apiece, these instruments are expensive to acquire. Decorating my small apartment are candelabra, masks, tapestries, conch shells, and various other props I use for theatrical historical productions.”
Herreid’s other passion is examining the mysteries of esoteric unwritten music traditions.
“There’s a lot of detective work and insight involved,” he says. “My checkered career path, my passion for early poetry, and the improvisational skills I picked up playing jazz make me uniquely qualified to take a stab at solving these puzzles.”
A music history buff, he searches for clues by poring over descriptions and nuances in old manuscripts and letters.
“I feel connected to this ancient music,” says Herreid. “It’s grounded in beauty with a natural, humanistic way of linking sonorities to language. To me, its appeal is timeless.”
—by Pattie Pace