I recently had the opportunity to meet with leaders of several arts groups in Seattle. One was Gus Denhard, executive director of Seattle’s Early Music Guild. In the course of the conversation, he told me about a fundraiser his organization has been involved in. Ordinarily, I am not enthusiastic about fundraisers as community engagement activities since they usually simply involve giving a portion of an event’s proceeds to some worthy cause with little involvement or investment by the arts organization in the organization whose cause the event supports. EMG’s fundraiser is different on several counts.
After Ebola: Bringing Hope to Life has been presented the last two years to raise funds for Liberian Transcontinental Christian Ministries’ provision of housing, food, clothing, and education for children who have been orphaned as a result of the Ebola crisis. The 2014 concert was described as follows:
The crises caused by various plagues in human history have inspired artistic responses — art that does the work of mourning and remembering the victims and offering consolation to the bereaved. The special Early Music Guild concert will focus on the musical response of Medieval European composers such as Machaut, Landini, and Dufay to the devastating bubonic plague of the late Middle Ages. These will be juxtaposed with readings and songs from West Africa.
The concert will suggest parallels between Europeans’ reactions to plague in the 13th and 14th centuries and the ongoing tragedy in West Africa. This Ebola Relief program will feature performers including Eunice Yonly, Erin Calata, Erika Chang, and Marian Seibert, voices; August Denhard, lute; Shulamit Kleinerman, vielle; Bill McJohn, harp; and Peggy Monroe, percussion.
The 2015 concert featured a trio performing on harp, jarana, guitar, quinta, voice, lute, Baroque guitar, therobo, oud, andereta, bendir, teponatzli, cajón, zils, cascabeles, and rattles.
To me these events are remarkable in several ways. First, the fact that an early music group is sufficiently invested in contemporary events to consider something like this is heartening. Second, awareness of the parallels between the origins of (very) old music and contemporary issues demonstrates a real concern for community and the potential of even Renaissance music to have continued relevance. Finally, the 2015 concert demonstrates a willingness to expand understanding of the group’s mission by including decidedly non-traditional (for an early music group) instruments in its offerings.