Piffaro first took off in Europe. (Andrew Pinkham)
Friday night, in an intriguing marriage of sound and place, the imposing Renaissance galleries of the Detroit Institute of Arts will resound with the period music of Piffaro: The Renaissance Band, prior to the group's Saturday concert at the Seligman Center.
For Joan Kimball, founder and co-director of Piffaro, her love of what is often referred to as "early music" can be traced back to her elementary school days.
"Somebody gave me a recorder when I was 9 years old," she remembers, "and I taught myself how to play and how to read music with that. And it always was in the background when I was playing piano and doing a lot of singing through high school and in college."
While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Kimball played with the school's Collegium Musicum, a band concentrating on music from the Baroque period and earlier. It was here that seeds were planted that would eventually blossom into Piffaro.
"I took the recorder more seriously and started taking lessons and studying and working on it. And then, as I got involved playing music with the various ensembles, other instruments sort of fell into place. I picked up a crumhorn, played that." (A crumhorn is a double reed instrument with a kazoo-like buzz.)
"Then somebody introduced me to the shawm, and I picked up that." (A shawm is a forerunner of the modern oboe.) "A number of years later I picked up a bagpipe, and so it goes."
One of Kimball's fellow musicians at the Collegium was Robert Wiemken, a French horn player, who became fascinated with one of the instruments playing in the group.
"It's a really funny thing," says Wiemken. "I sat in orchestras playing horn and was very intrigued by the bassoonist, only to find out a number of years later that I was going to be playing the ancestor of the modern bassoon." Eventually, Wiemken would go on to become a co-director of Piffaro.
Around 1980, Kimball and several of her fellow wind players decided to go off on their own and form the Philadelphia Renaissance Wind Band. As she recalls, "In 1985, after having done a number of concerts in the area, we incorporated and started a concert series in the city. We were quite local, really, all through the '80s, and it wasn't until 1993 when we got an invitation to perform in our debut in Europe at the Regensburg Festival that we began to get an international reputation."
It was a classic show biz story. In the audience at Regensburg there happened to be an executive from Deutsche Grammophon, the prestigious classical recording label. He loved the group and signed them to a four-CD contract. What he didn't love so much was the name of the ensemble.
"DG thought 'The Philadelphia Renaissance Wind Band' sounded too local, and not very marketable," remembers Kimball, "so we spent about a year going back and forth with possible names. The word 'piffaro' is an old Italian word that means wind player or wind instrument — and probably comes from the old German word 'piffen,' to pipe."
Now, more than 30 years since their U Penn Collegium days, Piffaro sits atop the early music scene as one of the world's top international ensembles. And Joan Kimball has never forgotten where it all began: "The origins were in that little wooden recorder way back in third grade."
Chamber Music Society of Detroit
Piffaro: The Renaissance Band
7 p.m. Friday
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward, Detroit
Free with museum admission
8 p.m. Saturday
Seligman Performing Arts Center
At Detroit Country Day School
22305 W. 13 Mile (at Lahser), Beverly Hills
Chris Felcyn hosts “The Well-Tempered Wireless,” heard weekday afternoons on WRCJ-FM (90.9).