Catharina Meints helped launch the Baroque Performance Institute. Now she’s chronicled its formative years.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have any computers,” Catharina Meints says, recounting the earliest days of the Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin and the challenges they faced in connecting with their target audiences.
“We didn’t have any cell phones. And an international phone call was beyond outrageously expensive. So we wrote letters.”
They wrote countless letters, in fact, to musicians around the world who were enraptured by historically informed music played on period instruments.
“And we didn’t even know how to type, so we got help with that too.”
Forged by a passion that could be indulged in precious few other ways, the Baroque Performance Institute attracted some 50 fascinated musicians in its first year, 1972. The following summer, that number doubled to 100. Over the years, Meints estimates, more than 1,000 different musicians have taken part in BPI, a great number of them returning numerous times—and some of them every time.
“The people who came to BPI in those earliest years have gone on to become the most important figures in the world in terms of historical music,” says Meints, a longtime professor of viola da gamba and cello at Oberlin, and a former longtime cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra.
As BPI nears its 50th anniversary in 2022, it continues to attract a mix of longtime fixtures, young musicians looking to broaden the horizons of their playing—and even novices hoping to indulge long-held passions for period music.
The roots of BPI can be traced to Meints and her late husband, James Caldwell. A recent addition to the Oberlin Conservatory faculty at the time, oboist Caldwell harbored a relentless passion for knowledge and for collecting—everything from bonsai trees to French art nouveau glassware to modern pottery. He also collected antique viols, upon which he was not formally trained but on which he became a standout player nonetheless.
That thirst for knowledge led Caldwell and Meints to envision an annual celebration of period music that would involve performances, master classes, and more. And both of them envisioned it involving legendary cellist August Wenzinger as a key participant.
In the late 1960s, Caldwell and Meints had seminal experiences with the Swiss master during conferences and summer visits to Europe. Their sessions were built around the notion of internalized learning—experiencing an extensive amount of content in one place, then retreating home to take it in more deeply over time. Oberlin, with its idyllic setting, plentiful available space during the summer, and cache of important historic instruments, would be the perfect place to offer such learning in America. Wenzinger himself was all too happy to oblige.
“We spent some time thinking about the name,” Meints recalls. “Most events at the time were workshops with stacks of music,” she says, gesturing with her arms to suggest an overwhelming pile of paper. “And they never actually played anything twice.”
“It’s going to be Baroque, not Renaissance,” she remembers them declaring.
“It’s going to be performance-based, not just sitting around reading music,” they also agreed.
“It’s going to be an institute, which implies that there will be lectures and context and learning about the music that they were playing, and not just sitting around playing reams of music.
“So it was a very well-thought-out name. We wanted to convey a lot about what would be going on just by the title.”
From the first Baroque Performance Institute through its 17th year, Wenzinger was a pivotal figure and the international celebrity whom many came to see and hear. Meints has commemorated those days with a newly released memoir, Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute: The Wenzinger Years, which brings to life many of the indelible moments experienced by BPI guests in its formative days.
Available on iTunes , the ebook includes many archival photos and programs as well as complete rosters of attendees from year to year. In addition, it is embedded with numerous audio clips—about an hour of music in all—that resurrect exclusive live performances and recordings created in the 1970s and ’80s.
“It’s unbelievable the number of lives that we have profoundly changed because they have come here and discovered what they really want to do,” Meints says. “You often find musicians who are fine players and interesting people, who find that they don't necessarily fit in with their musical world. Then they discover this and find that it’s exactly what they want to do.
“People have found family here. They found a place to fit in.”
The 2019 Baroque Performance Institute takes place June 16-29 on the campus of Oberlin College. Learn more at oberlin.edu/summer.