By Scott MacClelland
Forty-two seasons after she founded the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival, Linda Burman-Hall is as juiced up as ever ahead of this year’s opening concert on Saturday. “I must say it’s been quite a long wild ride, still expanding, really magical.” The multiple trajectories of her career as keyboard player and professor of both European Baroque music and ethnomusicology of Southeast Asia sum up a life of nonstop adventure and discovery.
I myself have gone to her to get answers about arcane elements in the music of JS Bach that stumped several other experts in the field. And on the subject of microtonal music—17th century Italian Nicola Vicentino divided the octave into 31 discrete tones—just try to find someone who knows, much less cares, about it. The late Lou Harrision was acutely aware of sensitive tunings that most people can’t even distinguish. “Lou was an enormous influence on me, having to do with temperament [tunings] and contemporary music. He suggested the Earl of Stanhope [Principles of the Science of Tuning Instruments of 1806] and Kirnberger [a Bach pupil].” Working with Harrison, she made a recording of his keyboard works. “I made a few temperaments for that album, and I checked with him and he liked them.”
Burman-Hall’s perfect pitch would seem to make all those exotic tones a profound challenge. That gets equally complicated in Baroque performance tunings of the Western chromatic scale which was much lower than the A-440 Hz in common use today. Starting lessons with her mother—“the piano teacher for the neighborhood,”—she says, “I became adept at perfect pitch because I didn’t want to look at the keys of the piano.” Is perfect pitch a blessing or a curse? To play Baroque tunings, “you have to adjust, recalibrate by practicing.” But a perfect memory for pitches can be thrown curves. “I was walking along in Chicago with a colleague and a church bell tolled. I was so surprised that I couldn’t name the pitch. Was it G or A-flat? My friend, who also had absolute pitch, said it was right between the two, then joked, ‘It’s a very old bell.’”
With a Swedish American father and a mother “descended from Charles II of England” Burman-Hall grew up in Watts, the rough gang-turf community of Los Angeles that used to be called “South Central.” She attended George Washington High School there and was advised by a teacher who recognized her potential to apply to UCLA instead of attending a neighborhood college. She won a scholarship at UCLA and thanks to her sight-reading skills made an income on the side as piano accompanist for Roger Wagner, whose chorale was at the height of its fame. It was at UCLA that her love affair with the harpsichord was consummated.
As a performer—and an excellent one to my ear—Burman-Hall has always been a keyboard player, including accordion, piano, organ and harpsichord. She laments “I had to sell my accordion to go to graduate school.” As her early career grew, she landed a teaching position at UCLA. During one period in the early ‘70s, she was spending two thirds of her time at UCLA and one third at Santa Cruz. Upon finishing her PhD thesis, in 1973, she made Santa Cruz her permanent home and launched the Baroque Festival.
She met her late husband, Charles Hall, in 1969, “at the old Catalyst in the St. George Hotel downtown.” In 1970 they were married at an organic farm on Glen Canyon Road. “It was the last great hippie wedding,” she says with glee. “There were four bands, including an offshoot of Moby Grape, and hundreds of people,” many of whom she didn’t even know.
Meanwhile, she moved through the steps to tenure at UCSC. “They got two for the price of one,” she says, explaining the ‘world cultures and ethnomusicology’ on the one hand and ‘early music’ on the other, “without my having to work 80 hours a week.”
Burman-Hall officially retired in 2014, but her activities have not slowed down. She continues to teach harpsichord privately and every summer goes to the Mentawai Islands that lie off the West Coast of Sumatra on the Sunda Megathrust (whose eruptions spawned the catastrophic 2004 and 2010 earthquakes and tsunamis.) “It’s the No. 2 surfing destination in the world. The waves are not like the ones here. They’re created by reefs. But the surfers almost never get into the cultural life of the people in the interior.”
Joining Burman-Hall in the concert this week are UCSC lutenist/guitarist Nina Treadwell and violinist Marja Gaynor, who is flying in from Ireland. The “Treasures from the Birth of the Baroque” will include a flight through the stars on the big screen with photography from the Hubble and other telescopes. “I’ve curated the images and put them at speed with the music, which is in the stylus phantasticus of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. [Wikipedia provides a concise explanation: The fantastic style is especially suited to instruments. It is the most free and unrestrained method of composing, it is bound to nothing, neither to any words nor to a melodic subject, it was instituted to display genius and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues.] In this section of the program the music will wander in unexpected turns robbing it of any secure sense of direction. As an example, Burman-Hall suggests listening to Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy.
Treasures from the Birth of the Baroque will be performed in the Music Recital Hall on the UCSC campus, Saturday at 7:30pm.