The occasion is the Holland Festival Oude Muziek Utrecht, known more simply among its U.S. pilgrims as the Utrecht Early Music Festival. A hundred or so events are taking place between Aug. 24 and Sunday, sprinkled among 29 venues.
About 55,000 people will attend. More than half of the concerts are free; most of the rest have ticket prices around 15 euros, or a little under $20. About 25 concerts are broadcast live. Seen from the United States, where classical radio is courting extinction, you wonder whether this is utopia.
Actually, it's one major European festival that's not on the Philadelphia Orchestra's current tour, and never will be. Under the direction of Jan van den Bossche, the Utrecht festival is determinedly oblivious to conventional repertoire.
Whereas the U.S. early-music movement has a lingering reputation for being denatured and academic, the better European ensembles have achieved such a level of confidence with their repertoires that passion, humor and raging eccentricity become possible. During a concert of Monteverdi works Sunday, the vocal/instrumental ensemble L'Arpeggiata was in the midst of an aria that slowly morphed into a modern jazz arrangement, just for the fun of it.
One of the more arcane 17th-century composers being performed is Domenico Mazzocchi, whose rarefied madrigals were sung by the five-member Les Paladins with the kind of emotional heat and immediacy one associates with the great chanteuses of popular song.
This year's edition isn't quite as feverish as those of the past - last year, the festival opened with guerrilla performances of Thomas Tallis' 40-voice motet "Spem in alium" in public places like the post office and a shopping mall.
But there's still such a density of activity here that if one concert goes over time, you see a fast-motion audience migration to the next. Along the handsome, canal-lined streets, people trot, pedal bicycles madly, or speed along on motorized wheelchairs.
This year's centerpiece - which absorbed a lot of the festival's energy and relatively slim 1.4 million euro budget - is the modern premiere of Francesco Cavalli's four-hour 1658 opera, L'Ipermestra. It's one of the composer's biggest works, and has survived in scores that are far more complete than the usual musical skeletons that keep music scholars guessing. Cavalli's orchestral palette turns out to be richer than had been thought. Recitatives, usually accompanied by the harpsichord and lute, had two harps in lofty moments, guitar in earthy ones.
Much of the programming centers on 17th-century Venice during that cultural sea change: After centuries of music that functioned just as a medium of transcendence over the miseries of life, one saw the awakening of the individual, with the emotionalism that comes with it.
This was the beginning of music as we now know it. Until recently, Claudio Monteverdi was considered the main figure worth examining here. At the moment, I'd sooner listen to Barbara Strozzi, who could spin out a cadence with more soul and originality.
Music of earlier ages often requires mostly getting everything in the proper place. But in music of the individual, personality is what unlocks the potential lurking within the enigmatic jottings of 17th-century scores. The route into that is a kind of vocal style with an agility, speed and precision that can make a flowing lyrical line suddenly turn into the musical equivalent of river rapids, as shown masterfully by the hot young countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.
The proper minimizing vocal vibrato is always an issue in performance of early music; with soprano Elena Monti, who sang the title role of L'Ipermestra, you didn't feel the absence of something but the opening of a window into a new means of expression.
Most of the Cavalli cast was a success, and the opera itself is one of the composer's more consistent marvels, full of particularly expansive emotional ruminations in this story of a woman who is ordered by her vengeful father to murder her husband on their wedding night. It's intense stuff, dramatized with vocal lines so dedicated to revealing the text that they eschew all melodic formulas, not to mention symmetry. As a result, the drama constantly thrusts forward, albeit at a stately pace.
The Waterloo factor in this and many baroque operas is the staging. This particular piece requires the heroine to jump off a tower and be saved by a giant bird. In Wim Trompert's production, staged with suggestive, near-Japanese simplicity, the tower split in two, vertically, with the fake bird emerging on rollers with soprano Monti already on top. Not bad. And worth a few giggles.
Ultimately, the festival isn't just about showing the world how, in the future, it will hear music written before Mozart. The implications are wider-reaching and more critical. Offhandedly, maybe even unintentionally, the Utrecht festival presents increasingly convincing alternatives to the concert format.
Because the festival's financial stakes are so low and there's really no single accepted template for presenting early music, experimentation rules. Frequently, ancient and modern music rubbed shoulders. Mood-setting lighting plus stylized positioning of singers created alluring stage pictures.
Not everything was good. Sometimes the music emerges from archaic notation with little to say. In trying out new concert formats, performers often don't know when to stop. But in Europe, you can always boo.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly. com/davidpatrickstearns.
For more information on the Oude Muziek Utrecht and its Webcasts, consult www.oudemuziek.nl or call 011-3130-23-29-010.