John Eliot Gardiner an early-music specialist? “The hell with that label,” says the controversial founder of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. Both groups will debut in Chicago this week, under Gardiner’s direction, as part of the choir’s silver jubilee tour.

“I’ve never considered myself as an early-music freak,” says Gardiner, “and I don’t live on bean sprouts and yogurt, either. And believe it or not, I don’t have a beard and I don’t wear sandals. There’s a terrible bunch of phoniness attached to the whole thing. It’s become a cult. The good side is that it has opened the door to a whole lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Purcell, Rameau, and so on. The bad side is that it has an image which is associated with a certain philosophy on life, a certain political style, a sociological stance. It irritates me very much to be lumped together with that stereotype because I’ve always conducted a very wide repertoire, from the 16th to the 20th century, and in no sense do I consider myself an exclusive specialist at all.” Still, the early-music label sticks, although Gardiner is music director of a French opera house and often conducts later repertoire on modern instruments.

Gardiner explains how he got his start: “My approach to early music was developed basically as a reaction against the very bland, very cultured sound of the King’s College Chapel Choir in Cambridge, where I was studying as a history scholar. I was not a member of the chapel choir, but I used to hear them singing everything from Renaissance composers, such as Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and Orlando Gibbons, right up to Victorian English composers, as Parry and Stanford, all in a totally similar style. There was no concession to any kind of period idiom or style. This really got my wick and made me extremely irritated. It seemed to me that for all of that choir’s legendary culture, poise, and perfection. it was really pseudo in some ways: it had no roots and was just skimming along the surface of the music.”

Gardiner decided to take matters into his own hands and start his own choir. “It was quite an audacious thing to do; I had absolutely no professional credentials for what I was doing–I was a history major!

“The challenge was to see if one could try and create an essentially earthy music–as Monteverdi’s music was–rooted to human and terrestrial experience with an incredibly direct and overt passion that is typical of Italian and Mediterranean music in general. That music was being performed in all beiges and grays: wishy-washy colors. What I was looking for was primary colors: strong and hot reds, blues, and yellows, as it were, nothing blurred at all. That’s a characteristic of Italian language, after all. I wanted to see if one could produce those colors and sounds with English singers, rather than the dull sound we were all so used to.”

To accomplish this goal, Gardiner says, “The important thing was to find very good musicians with limited vocal talent and expertise and stretch them in every possible way: stretch their musicianship, their historical awareness, their vocal range, and the vocal colors that they were capable of reproducing. That was my starting point for the Monteverdi Choir 25 years ago, and those principles covered an entire range of repertoire from the 17th to the 20th century. We strove to make the text comprehensible to the listener and took the music back to its country of origin as well as its sources, which were radical ideas for that time.

“It was baptism by fire, as far as the use of period instruments was concerned. They’re very precarious and can easily squeak, squawk, and go wrong.” Gardiner tried period instruments early on but says, “I got a lot further with a regular orchestra back then. I made very strong stylistic demands of them in terms of their sound production right up until 1977, when I sensed that there were potentially enough good period-instrument players to actually take the plunge and form the English Baroque Soloists.”

And why would Gardiner risk being typecast as an early-music specialist to form such a group? “For intensity and directness. Modern instruments are associated with a schmaltzy 19th-century repertoire, and to clean up their sound you have to ask the players to reduce everything: vibrato, tension, etc. With period instruments, you’re asking the players to increase intensity and expression, to play to the maximum. We use vibrato for heightened expression, as an ornament–not as the all-purpose fidgeting of sound that modern instruments will give you but as an expressive oscillation of pitches to heighten expression. Period instruments will set up different tempos, different types of articulation, different sound patterns. Families of instruments become much more distinct from one another, and colors stand out in much greater relief.

“But whatever music I’m conducting, whether Monteverdi, Brahms, Debussy, or Stravinsky, I want to be faithful not just in letter but in spirit to the composer. This does require going behind the barrier of a publisher, going back to the source material, which is why it’s indispensable to have an historian’s training.”

The Monteverdi Choir is stopping in Chicago Monday, February 20, at 8 PM at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, under the sponsorship of Chamber Music Chicago. It will be accompanied by the English Baroque Soloists for a complete performance of the Handel oratorio based on the biblical Book of Exodus, Israel in Egypt. Call 242-6237 for ticket information. Before the concert, John Eliot Gardiner will appear in the Orchestra Hall ballroom to give a discussion on the reasons for performing baroque music on period instruments. Boxed suppers and wine and coffee will be provided. Tickets are $12.50, $9.50 for those attending the concert, and are available as well at 242-6237.