West stumbled on early music as a student at Howard University. Searching for background that wouldn’t distract him as he studied, he tuned into “Millennium of Music,” a program on classical WETA dedicated to the 1,000 years before Bach. “I was floored by the sound,” West said.
“The songs are about romantic love, divine love, love of God for the individual soul,” West continued. “I was hooked. As much as I loved Prince, his songs consisted of lyrics like, ‘Met a little girl named Nikki. Met her in a hotel lobby doing something with a magazine.’ Versus lyrics like, ‘Your tears fill my soul and blossom in my heart, and it makes me long for the sight of your golden hair.’ It is a bit more fulfilling.”
The Suspicious Cheese Lords and more than 30 other “early music” ensembles — both locals and visitors, choral and instrumental groups — are appearing during the month-long Washington Early Music Festival 2012. The biennial event, which runs through June 30, features 32 concerts, lectures and workshops dedicated to various aspects of early music — that is, music written before 1750, including music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the baroque period.
“We don’t get large-scale-size audiences — not like jazz or hip-hop,” said Constance Whiteside, founder and director of the festival. But “we draw incredibly passionate and enthusiastic audiences.”
Whiteside is a harpist who has lived in both San Francisco and Oxford, England. “These are powerhouses of early music,” she said. “When I moved to Washington, I thought, ‘Washington is such a cosmopolitan city, but we have no early music festival. We should.’ ”
So, in 2004, Whiteside gathered other early musicians and created the festival, which began with about a dozen performances over a couple of weekends and quickly grew in participants and length. “There are so many excellent early-musical performers in the Washington area,” Whiteside said. “There was a demand among performers and audiences.” News of the festival spread by word of mouth and Web sites. “Audiences were enthusiastic,” Whiteside added. “We went three years in a row, so people knew we weren’t going to go away.” Then the festival went to an every-other-year schedule, to allow early-music lovers to travel to Boston’s also-alternating-year early music festival.
“Audiences said, ‘Two years; oh, no! How are we supposed to wait two years?’ ” Whiteside recalled. “So, on alternate years, we have a weekend.”