Richard McGinnis is president of the Mississippi Academy of Ancient Music. McGinnis, who co-founded the group in 1982 with Max Garriott, is a professor of chemistry at Tougaloo College. He received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley and his master’s in chemistry from Harvard University. McGinnis spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the academy and its efforts to promote “ancient music.”
First of all, what is the Academy of Ancient Music?
“We’re an organization that promotes the appreciation and especially the performances of what is called earlier music. That means (music) prior to the Romantic Period, prior to 1800 and going back to the Medieval period. We have some concerts that local people present, but most feature (performers) from Europe, and they present world-class concerts. Many (performers) record for commercial labels.
“It’s hard to convince people that it’s worth knowing ancient music. Everybody knows a little Bach, but you listen to it on modern instruments. If you hear Bach played with (the instruments of his time) it makes a difference in how the music sounds.”
What do you mean when you talk about instruments from that time?
“We still have violins, but they’re played differently. The bows are different, and the pitches have changed since that time. Almost all (the instruments of that era were) slightly different than the ones we use today, and that has an impact on the sound.”
How do you find artists?
“We knew them well enough now that people come to us. We have, more than once, some Jackson artists who perform. John Paul, the (retired) organist and choirmaster at St. Andrew’s Episcopal (Cathedral), regularly plays for us. Also, there’s another lady who lives in New York who is a daughter of a Jackson resident who comes once in a while to perform. Not all of the folks we have are from Europe.”
How many shows do you have in a year?
“We had nine this year. The first one (featured) local people, not professionals, doing the concert.”
How is the academy funded?
“We receive (funding) from the Mississippi Arts Commission. We’ve had very generous contributions (from a patron). We would not be at the level we are now without him. We probably have 30 to 40 people who make substantial contributions. We would like to expand our audience size. Our audience size is not sufficient to (support us).”
How many people attend the academy’s shows?
“Fifty to 80; I would love to double or triple it. I think (the music) deserves it.”
What is the makeup of your audiences?
“It’s quite diverse. We have a lot of adults from varying ages and, from time to time, we have students – high school and college. At one of the concerts we had recently, we had a member of the audience who had driven from Florida and asked if he could have a viola da gamba lesson from the artist. The artist was Paolo Pandolfo, an Italian composer, and one of the best gamba players in the world. We have a little bit of everybody. We like (the audience) to be as diverse as possible and as large as possible.”
What got you interested in ancient music?
“When I was a grad student, I was interested in the music. My father was a chemist like me, but he was a pretty good pianist. We always had classical records, but I never paid any attention to them (as a child). The record stores at Harvard Square had some fascinating stuff, so I picked some up and started listening to it. I also began singing with a choir that was directed by a graduate student who was doing her dissertation on music from that period – German Baroque music. That really got me quite fixated on that music.”
Before the academy was founded, was there anything like this offered in Jackson?
“A little bit. When I think of John Paul, I think some of the churches had music of this time. I used to sing with him. I didn’t go to the church services, but he had a noontime concert series where he performed some Bach, Monteverdi – all the great composers of the Baroque period. He had a lot to do with developing my interest.”
For someone who is unfamiliar, how would you characterize music from the Baroque and Medieval periods?
“It’s all kinds of music. What we mean by ancient music is not just (playing) the notes but doing them in the style we think they were originally performed. It can be choral music, it can be opera. One recent (concert) featured performers who played music the way it would have been performed in the court of Louis XIV. It was a fantastic concert. We had an orchestra play Vivaldi. It’s taking music from an earlier period and performing it, as far as we know, how it was originally performed.”
How do you know they’re doing it right?
“That’s a good question. There are some written documents for example, about how to play the harpsichord, old lesson books. A lot of research has gone into finding out how the music is performed.
“There are also some instruments (our artists use) that are no longer used, one that looks like a cello, called the viola da gamba. It’s played with a bow and everything, but it’s different.”
What’s a good starter piece for someone who is just cutting their teeth on Baroque music?
“There are so many; I guess it would depend on their interests. If they like choral music, they could get a recording of Bach’s ‘Mass in B Minor.’”
What’s on tap for next season?
“Our first concert is in August. On August 23, we’re going to have the ‘Purcell Project,’ which will include local performers. On October 13, we’ll have a Dutch choir, then a lute duel. Then, we’ll have another choir on November 15. We’ll have a program by John Paul, Shawn Leopard and local harpsichord people. On February 7, we’ll have a Baroque orchestra. Then, we’ll have an American group, the Baltimore Consort. On March 28, we’ll have the choir of St. Clair College in England. That’s what we’re looking at right now and we’re very excited.”
For more information, log onto www.ancientmusic.org.