James Lambert (Viola da gamba; Cincinnati, OH) is Associate Principal Bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He is a graduate of UC-CCM and was a member of the North Carolina Symphony before moving to Cincinnati in 1987. Jim studied viola da gamba with Brent Wissick and Wendy Gillespie and has attended the Amherst Early Music Festival. He has performed as a solo viol player with various orchestras and has played with Apollo’s Cabinet.
We interviewed Jim about his upcoming performance with Catacoustic Consort. The concert, “A New Musical Cosmos,” will be performed on Saturday, October 11, 7:30 pm at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Clifton, and again on Sunday, October 12, 3:00 pm at the St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Glendale.
CC: First, would you describe the viola da gamba?
JL: The viola da gamba is a bowed stringed instrument which was developed in Spain and Italy in the early 1500s. The name means literally "viola of the leg," to distinguish it from the other family of bowed instruments, viola da braccio, or "viola of the arm (the violin family)."
The gamba family is characterized by having 6 strings with frets around the neck, and by holding the bow with the hand under the stick, very much like the bowing technique of some Middle Eastern instruments. The sound can be described as quiet but penetrating and intense.
There are three main sizes of the gamba, corresponding to the ranges of the human voice, and there are some less common sizes larger and smaller than these. All sizes are held between the legs, as the name indicates. There is a huge amount of solo music, especially for the bass instrument, and music for two to six viols of various sizes.
What drew you to early music?
In my “other life” I am a double bassist, and some of the very first music I played in my school orchestra was music of the Baroque era, the "alla hornpipe" movement from Handel's Water Music, and the "Halleluja" chorus from The Messiah. Musically speaking, I have felt the most at home with this period.
Three things about the music immediately attracted me: first, its pleasing melodies, second, its compact form, somewhat like a well-rounded musical argument, and third (and not least), the importance of the bass line, which is the foundation of the entire musical structure.
Later, thanks to public radio and my local public library, I discovered music of the Renaissance and Medieval eras. But it wasn't until my late 20s that I got my first viola da gamba, and from then on my commitment was assured. I could actually participate, instead of observing from the outside.
What are some of the types of early music?
One could speak of two large divisions which hold true for modern music - sacred and secular. Within the area of sacred music there is of course music for the worship service, based on biblical or otherwise liturgical texts. Some examples are Bach's Mass in B Minor or Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers. There is also a body of instrumental music for church use, such as for preludes or processionals. Some examples would be Corelli's Trio Sonatas or Gabrieli's Canzonas for brass choir.
In the realm of secular music you can find music for dancing, singing, military, ceremonial, and particularly from the Renaissance onward, a kind of recreational music for people to get together to play for pleasure. This latter could include madrigals, dance music, or a sort of free form music called fantasias. Around 1700 the instrumental concerto emerged, and of course the most popular example of this is Bach's "Brandenburg" Concertos. As you know, there was no recorded music until the late 1800s, so if one wanted to hear music, one would have to learn to sing or play an instrument, or go to wherever the music happened to be.
Tell us how you approach the upcoming "New Musical Cosmos" concert.
Well, first of all, I have to practice this difficult music! The featured composer, John Jenkins, was a virtuoso of the viola da gamba, and he wrote idiomatically for the instrument and exploited its capabilities to the fullest extent.
The musicians who are taking part in the concert won't actually meet until a few days before the concert, so we each have to be prepared. Then it's just a matter of fitting the individual parts together into the whole. Sometimes I like to listen to a recording to get a sense of how the piece goes, but much of what we're playing has not been recorded, so I will have a look at the full score. That way I can see the others' parts and learn in advance what I must listen for.
Who are your favorite composers?
J. S. Bach, Claudio Monteverdi, G. P. de Palestrina, G. F. Handel, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, for starters.
What single piece of music is your favorite?
Can I narrow it down to 100 favorites? I've played or heard literally thousands of pieces in my life; there's so much out there that I really like. Sometimes I think it's whatever I happen to be playing at the moment. But if backed into a corner, I would probably say Bach's Passacaglia in C Minor BWV 582, for organ - a masterpiece of sonic architecture, a cathedral in sound, and of course, a great bass line!
Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?
The received wisdom suggests that music "began" with Bach in the early 1700s, that all music before him was a kind of precursor. That is certainly the attitude in the mainstream world of classical music. But there is actually about a thousand years of music extant before then! This music is also full of the passion, devotion, doubt, joy, anger, the whole range of human emotions, that we find in music of more recent times. The music we will play in the upcoming concert represents some of the best of instrumental chamber music of the 1600s. I'm hoping that listeners will find in this old music something new and exciting.