Seattle is a city of numerous musical niches. And early music — which can include both classical and popular music from the time before Mozart — is one of them.
It’s had a strong presence in town since the Seattle Recorder Society was founded in the 1960s, followed by the Early Music Guild in the late 1970s. But with the return to town of Seattle native Stephen Stubbs in 2006 (after 30 illustrious years as a lutenist-conductor in Europe), the early-music field has a higher profile here than ever.
Stubbs, who will be honored for “Raising the Bar” at the Mayor’s Arts Awards on Friday, Aug. 29, was a co-founder of the Early Music Guild. Upon re-establishing himself in Seattle, he founded Pacific MusicWorks, specializing in operas and oratorios.
The “Raising the Bar” award honors a Seattle-based artist who has “created a higher threshold for artistic excellence,” says Stephanie Ellis-Smith, board president of Artist Trust, who was on the panel that chose Stubbs.
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“We’ve always had a very robust and very high-quality early-music scene here,” Ellis-Smith says, “but I think Stephen coming here has just really kicked things up a notch.”
Stubbs, 63, is a four-time Grammy nominee (mostly for his work with Boston Early Music Festival, where he’s co-artistic director). He founded his own ensemble, Tragicomedia, in 1987 and was music director for dozens of operas all over Europe.
His attraction to such lesser-known early-music composers as David Kellner, H.I.F. Biber and Jean-Baptiste Lully, along with biggies like Handel, Monteverdi and Vivaldi, may seem esoteric to some — and his credentials are positively daunting.
But chatting in the North Seattle home where he grew up, he couldn’t be more affable as he explains that his early-music interests stemmed in part from the tumultuous decade, the 1960s, when he came of age. He started a rock band called Dancing Bear in high school, and was also drawn to the songs of English lutenist-composer John Dowland (1563-1624). He went on to study composition at the University of Washington, where he taught himself to play the lute.
“Exploring early music,” he says, “was a parallel avenue of discovery to composing new music. It was another kind of new music — a way to get away from business as usual.”
The idea of being a lutenist-songwriter, Stubbs adds, also appealed to his sense of romance about himself: “It was the era of Paul McCartney as a singer-songwriter, so in my mind Paul McCartney and John Dowland were parallel characters. The lute was just a way of exploring something that I already felt familiar with.”
That led him across the Atlantic, where he soon was serving as a lutenist for ensembles all over Europe, including the Hilliard Ensemble. He returned to Seattle periodically, mostly to visit family, but also keeping tabs on the city’s music scene.
His move back here came after he married harpist Maxine Eilander (now managing director of Pacific MusicWorks) and they were expecting a child. The German university where he was a professor let him take unpaid leave as a new parent. He and Eilander headed to Seattle where his mother, then in her early 90s, still resided.
“It was a unique opportunity to have my aging mother and my newly born daughter living together. … Soon after we got here, I concluded that, by hook or by crook, I could make a living here.”
He founded Pacific MusicWorks in 2008, and the company debuted with Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” in 2009. Stubbs’ future in Seattle was secured when he was invited by Kent Devereaux, head of the music department at Cornish College of the Arts, to start a program there. This was after he tipped off Devereaux that all the talented early-music professionals living in town had “the makings of an early-music faculty.”
Devereaux ran with the idea. Stubbs headed the faculty at Cornish until 2013, when Richard Karpen, head of the UW School of Music, made him an offer he “absolutely couldn’t refuse: to open Meany Hall as a venue for my operations and … do professional work within the university.”
Stubbs’ scenically dazzling and musically impressive production of Handel’s opera “Semele” earlier this year revealed the extraordinary quality of that work. Pacific MusicWorks is now in residence at the UW, in a collaboration that benefits both the ensemble and the School of Music.
What qualities does Stubbs bring to his new UW role?
“He’s a really broad thinker,” Karpen says. “I think Stephen has a sense that there still needs to be something that’s on the edge about this music, that provides something that’s not a history lesson. It’s still a living art form.”
Paul O’Dette, co-artistic director with Stubbs of Boston Early Music Festival and a renowned international performer himself, echoes that statement.
“Steve has certainly had a major impact on the whole early-music field, both internationally and in North America for many years now,” O’Dette says. “He has a fantastic sense of drama and rhetoric and … a good nose for finding the most interesting and clued-in players and singers in the field.”
Pacific MusicWorks draws on both local and out-of-town talents for its productions. Most of its instrumentalists are from the region, but singers come from near and far.
“To get the variety of voice types and talents that you need to really make a great baroque opera,” Stubbs says, “you’re still going to be bringing in people. They’re like the cherries on the cake.”
That said, he notes, specialists in the field have started moving to the city because they think they have a chance of making a living here.
“With every talented person who moves to town,” Stubbs says, “I shout a little victory shout. Because to me that’s the only way that a thing like this can work truly, is that there’s enough talent on the ground, that you don’t have to import everything. Otherwise it just doesn’t pencil out.”
Pacific MusicWorks’ 2014-2015 launches Nov. 7 with Monteverdi’s “Songs of Love and War” at Nordstrom Recital Hall. Go to www.pacificmusicworks.org for more information.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com