Arcadia Players to celebrate 25th season with a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Last modified: Wednesday, January 08, 2014

It started with an informal playing session at the Amherst Unitarian Society, with the organizer asking the assembled musicians a basic question: Did they have any interest in starting a group that would play Baroque and other forms of earlier music on period instruments?

Now, as Arcadia Players gets set to begin its 25th season, the popularity of period instrumentation has grown considerably, according to one veteran member, and the Valley group that specializes in music from the late 1500s to the early 1800s is looking to expand its horizons a little further.

The group is also recognizing the 10th anniversary of its leadership by artistic director Ian Watson, a keyboardist and conductor who has played across the United States and in Europe and who says he wants to make the Arcadia Players “the go-to group in the Northeast” for classical music played with period instruments.

The Arcadia Players will celebrate these anniversaries and the season when it performs Handel’s “Messiah” Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Abbey Chapel at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley. The performance will include between 35 and 40 musicians and singers, including Watson on the organ.

It’s just one of a number of performances the group has scheduled over the next several months that will include works by Beethoven, Mozart and Monteverdi, as well as smaller chamber recitals by various group members, including Watson.

Though membership can vary a bit year to year, the group numbers about 35 musicians, divided roughly equally between vocalists and instrumental players; the latter specialize in the harpsichord and fortepiano, the viola da gamba — a collective name for earlier versions of the violin, viola and cello — and other older instruments.

Alice Robbins, who’s been with Arcadia Players since its start, remembers meeting with group founder Margaret Irwin-Brandon and a number of other players of period instruments at the Unitarian Society in Amherst back in late 1988 — “I think that’s when it was,” she said with a laugh. Some were local, a few came from Vermont and Connecticut, and Irwin-Brandon had them play together informally and discussed how they might go about becoming a performing group.

Robbins, a Baroque cellist and viola da gamba player from Amherst, says that initial effort helped get the group off the ground, primarily because of Irwin-Brandon’s work.

“She was brilliant, both as a player and an organizer,” she said of Irwin-Brandon, a harpsichord player who now lives in California. “She was really good at pulling us together, planning the concerts and making this happen.”

The group, composed mostly of players from the Valley, at first primarily played music from the Baroque era but also delved into the beginnings of the classical era in the mid-1700s and occasionally covered early 19th century music. Robbins says many of those early concerts were chamber recitals performed by limited members of the group, but that the Arcadia Players also did orchestral pieces such as Handel’s “Messiah,” which generally requires at least 25 to 30 instrumentalists and vocalists.

Over the years, the players — freelance musicians, Five College faculty and others — have seen the use of period instruments become increasingly popular across the country, Robbins notes: “When I first started doing this in the late 1970s, there was essentially one group of people who roamed around the Northeast.

“Today it’s become a much more acknowledged style,” added Robbins, who teaches music at Smith College in Northampton and plays in other parts of the country, notably the Washington, D.C., area. “It’s part of the landscape in cities and communities all over, and I think the Valley is the richer for having a group that offers that.”


Watson, a native of England who has lived in eastern Massachusetts for about the last 12 years, took over as artistic director of the Arcadia Players 10 years ago and brought some high-powered cachet to the group. He has appeared as a soloist and conductor with myriad groups in Europe such as the London Symphony and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, performed on over 200 recordings (including the sound track to “Amadeus”), and was described by The Times of London as a keyboardist who offers “virtuosic panache and brilliantly articulated playing.”

Watson, who also performs with and conducts other period ensembles in the United States, including the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, says one of his key goals with Arcadia Players has been to expand the group’s repertoire to include the work of late-18th and early-19th century composers, in addition to Baroque mainstays such as Bach, Vivaldi and Monteverdi.

“We committed to doing all of Beethoven’s symphonies, and we’ve performed two-thirds of them so far,” he said in a recent phone interview from his adopted hometown of Shrewsbury. “I think our range of work is probably wider than any other group performing this kind of music in the Northeast.”

Watson has also worked to find performance venues for the Arcadia Players outside the Valley and the I-91 corridor, such as in New York City and in Boston, and he looks for opportunities to partner with or support other ensembles. The group’s performance next spring of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for instance, will be a collaboration with the Worcester Chorus.

“Ian’s a good networker, and the energy and love he brings to the music really sparks a lot of enthusiasm [in other players],” Robbins said.

Indeed, Robbins says, one of Watson’s key contributions to Arcadia Players has been his ability to “pull the very best music out of all of us” and to merge those different voices and instruments in a concerted whole. And vocalist Peter Shea of Amherst, who has sung with Arcadia Players since the early 1990s, says Watson has brought the group “to an even higher level than before.”

All three musicians say the appeal of using period instruments — either instruments that are actually several centuries old or are faithful reproductions — comes from a number of factors.

“There’s a lack of vibrato, there’s more clarity,” Watson said. Robbins, meanwhile, says period instruments help bring greater rhythmic variety and emotional depth to music by composers like Bach, which can sound somewhat precise and clipped when played on modern instruments.

Shea, meantime, noted in an email that because period instruments generally have less volume and a softer tone than modern ones, vocalists have more flexibility, not having to strain to sing over the instruments. “My voice gets much less tired singing a long work like Messiah with period instruments,” he said.

But the overall appeal of singing with Arcadia Players is broader than that, Shea added, calling it “a peak experience” for a professional vocalist like himself to perform with such a talented group of musicians: “You’re all at a higher level of technical proficiency, which lets a conductor or soloist make artistic choices about tempo and expression.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

Arcadia Players performs Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Abbey Chapel at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. Tickets cost $30; $25 for seniors; $10 for students. To purchase, visit or call 586-8742.


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