Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Recent Concert, Recording, and Movie in London

I recently returned from a wonderful trip in London, where I played a concert, made a CD, and participated in a video recording. This was all organized by Erin Headley, an American who has been living in England for the past twenty or so years. Erin is solely responsible for the rediscovery of the lirone, which I play (for information on the lirone, see www.catacoustic.com and click on the link “about the instruments”). Erin received a fellowship to research, publish, and record a program of dramatic Roman Catholic laments from the Vatican library. She chose an exquisite program of powerful music that touched musicians and audience alike very deeply.
The musicians involved in this project were a truly international group. There were four lirone players: Erin, Paulina van Laarhoven (from the Netherlands), Nora Roll (Sweden), and myself. We primarily played viola da gamba and improvised accompaniment to recitative. This proved to be a tricky matter. We were all accustomed to playing continuo on lirone, but playing continuo on viol with other viol players was a true challenge. Not only did we need to decide what notes to play, but we had to be extremely sensitive to what gestures we would make with the bow with each other and with the singers. Siobhan Armstrong (Ireland) played double harp. Liz Kenny (London) played theorbo in the concert and recording, as well as Paula Chateuneuf (who played in the concert only). Kris Bezuidenhout (originally from South Africa, currently in London) joined us in the concert and recording. The two excellent singers were Theodora Baka (from Greece) and Nadine Balbesi (an American-Jordanian currently living in Germany).
Erin named the group Atalante, after Atalante Migliorotti, the inventor of the lirone. Our concert was at the Southbank Centre in the downtown area. Erin brought a director (Eric Fraad from eXIreland) to dramatically stage the soulful laments, and the singers were amazing actresses! There were ornate props, including a jeweled crucifix, a huge golden mirror, a skull to represent vanitas (the fragility of life), and a large urn. We also had the most beautiful costumes! A costume designer from Italy created costumes for the singers (the characters were Artemisia, Mary Magdalene, and the aged Helen of Troy). They also created costumes for the instrumentalists, although we only wore these dresses for the movie – not the concert. We had dresses that were made of the finest silks with colors that were matched to our skin tones. We were made to look like allegorical goddess-like figures out of 17th-century paintings of the likes of Poussin or Raphael. The CD was made in a church in Cambridge with the talented music producer John Hadden, and the video portion was made in London at an incredible gothic church that alone created atmosphere for the movie. I anticipated playing behind a music stand with the other instrumentalists, while the singers were the main focus for this activity. However, this was not the case. The instrumentalists were asked to ACT!!! We did a few shots with us playing (no music stands!!), and the remainder of the time was spent with our participating as supporting actors to the singers. Erin hopes that having the CD with the video component (music published in editions, as well) will help Atalante receive concert tours throughout the world. I am extremely impressed with this project, and it makes me realize that I must acknowledge that audiences of the future need a visual, dramatic component to our music. This was a wonderful way to get energy and inspiration for the ninth season of Catacoustic concerts here in Cincinnati.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Business of The Catacoustic Consort, Part 1

Artistic Planning
How do I choose a program?
There are numerous factors that lead me to choose a program. The musicians of Catacoustic are basically me and people I choose for the particular project. This is both good and bad. Bad because there is a large expense that is associated with importing early music performers from around the world: travel, housing, and food. But, there is a lot of flexibility that goes along with that. I can program many types of music: Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical and vocal and instrumental. I enjoy bringing in incredibly talented musicians from whom I can learn and grow. For example, my partnership with Michael Leopold of Milano, Italy, has truly helped me grow and learn so much about Italian music, and this transfers to better concerts year-after-year for the Catacoustic audience!

I choose a program based on:
1)being inspired by a talented musician.
The program "The Virtuoso Basso" featured talented bass singer Dan Cole.
2)desire to feature a special instrument.
The "Awakening of the Harpsichord" was the inaugural concert for Catacoustic's new harpsichord. While we occasionally will have a harpsichord in a concert, it normally serves an accompanying function. This concert featured the harpsichord in a solo role, showcasing the many colors and characters of the instrument.
Several years ago, we had a program featuring the cornetto, and this season we will have a concert for the baroque oboe.
3)Genre that speaks to me.
I particularly love vocal music of early 17th-century Italy. Catacoustic's winning a national competition and release of the Italian laments CD only pushed me further into this exploration of this passionate music.
4)Particular piece of music.
Sometimes I listen to a piece and feel like I will absolutely DIE, if it is not programmed in a Catacoustic concert. An example of this is Charpentier's opera La Descente d'Orphee aux Enfers.
5)Historical period that pricks my interest.
17th-century nuns have been a delight to read about, and fortunately, their music is wonderful! Often the interest in the historical context of the music is a natural result of interest in the music, such as 18th-century French women who played the pardessus de viole.
I chose Couperin's Lamentations of Jeremiah (Lecons de Tenebres) was on our season last year. This was a result of our collaboration with Hebrew Union College, the Roman Catholic Community, and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with Oberlin College. They were interest in the text, historical context, and musicological background, about which they gave lectures prior to our concert.
We also collaborated with Cincinnati's Esquire Theatre to play a concert of music from Tous les Matins du Monde following a free screening of the film.
While there is always a need to balance many factors, including fiscal responsibility and an understanding of the area where we share our music and the desires of our audience, Catacoustic has had a wonderful amount of variety of programming that has been inspiring, and educational for all!

Extra Expenses for Early Music Instruments?

I have been having a difficult time coming up with topics to write about in my blog, so this morning I sent a request to my Facebook friends to give suggestions. One topic was "extra expenditures required by players of period instruments versus modern instruments - or - how much money I spend maintaining my instrument."
In general, the cost of purchasing a professional quality viola da gamba is less than a violin or cello. I can buy a fine bass viol for $7-10,000, whereas the pricetag would be double that for a violin or cello of comparable quality. Thank goodness, because as a gamba player I have multiple instruments: two trebles (Renaissance consort instrument and French baroque solo instrument), a pardessus, a lirone, and two basses (consort bass and French baroque seven string). The same thing applies to bows. Ours may cost a bit less, but we need more of them...
I use a nice rosin that can be used for all my viols (and for violins), so the cost is the same. As long as it doesn't break, it lasts forever.
Strings can break frequently, especially in the summer. That is a huge expense, especially for so many instruments. Strings are one of my biggest expenses... Ugh.
I had a problem this year that can affect anyone - bow mites. Two of my bows had been taken advantage of by these pesky creatures. From what I understand, bow mites are the larvae from moths (the same ones that can eat holes through sweaters). They sawed off the hair from my bow. No damage was done to the stick, so I put moth balls in my case and closet and had the bows rehaired. That costed the same as a violin or cello rehair job - around $60 each. Ugh. I have now learned that I must store my bows out in the open, where the bugs - at least THOSE bugs - cannot get to them.
Music is more expensive for the viol. There is much less demand for viol music than for piano or violin. And, you cannot go to the Sam Goody music store to purchase gamba music. I order my music or use the wonderful music library at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, which is a wonderful resource.
For the most part, a luthier who does quality work on violins, cellos, or basses can do repairs on viols. Nick Lloyd, a Cincinnati-based double bass maker does excellent work on my viols.
Frets can wear out frequently, but they are easy to fix and can be replaced with old broken strings.
Early music recordings can be more expensive, although now that recordings are more easily available over the internet, this is a levelling factor.
I don't have other regular maintenance costs. I have occasional openings in seams that are easy for a luthier to fix. I don't use different bridges for summer and winter, which would be a great deal of trouble and expense for all my instruments.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Interview with Suzanne Bona, host of Sunday Baroque

Suzanne, you are an accomplished "modern" flute player. What is it that influenced you to start a radio program about baroque music?

As a performer, I'd never thought of myself as a "modern flute" player, because I learned and performed all kinds of music in the classical tradition. I was completely unaware of the segregation that can exist between eras and types of instruments. Like many people in the arts, I needed a "day job," and found radio was a perfect fit for me. My first boss assigned me to cover Sunday mornings and told me to "play baroque music," so getting into it was really beyond my control! But the assignment gave me focus and sparked my curiosity, and I immediately began making it "my" program - exploring the music, the composers, the instruments, and the nuances. Because I'd never viewed baroque and early music as separate from the rest, I had no preconceptions, and just sought out whatever sounded good both to me and to listeners.

Cincinnati is fortunate to have you here. Traditionally, this city has focused on a romantic musical tradition, although it seems to be changing with your program, ensembles like Catacoustic, and local ensembles embracing more pre-Beethoven music (CSO's recent Mozart program with Sir Roger Norrington). What brought you to Cincinnati, and what do you think about the standing of "early music" here in this city?

WGUC brought me to Cincinnati, although not specifically for Sunday Baroque. That came later! When we came here, my previous station in Connecticut asked me to continue producing Sunday Baroque long distance because it was a successful, long running part of their schedule. And, seeing that success, WGUC realized it would be a good addition to the local airwaves too, and we agreed on making that part of my job here. Thanks to ensembles like Catacoustic Consort, I think early music is growing and becoming more accepted, little by little, here and across the country. People come to your concerts, hear the exquisite music, see these beautiful instruments like the ones you and your colleagues play, and learn about the people who played them and wrote music for them centuries ago, and they want to know more. Annalisa, you do a great job of bringing people in, making it non-threatening, enjoyable experience. You talk to the audience in layman's terms, translating foreign terms, and that's the right way to open people's minds and embrace new listeners.

How do you feel about the future of classical music and the future of baroque music?

Those perennial rumors of classical music's imminent demise are greatly exaggerated, in my opinion. For decades those dire warnings have made headlines, but it hasn't happened yet. I was a classical music geek as a kid, mostly because my parents exposed me to it, but I have noticed that once we hit our 30’s, my contemporaries started coming around to it little by little, too. Maybe people get tired of the narrow music they liked as teens and twenty-somethings, or maybe they're finally mature enough to broaden their horizons, but maybe it's just a genre that some people have to grow into. I'm also on a soapbox about breaking down the artificial barriers that exist between those who do and don't know about this music. For example, we've done a "MARVELOUS" job creating a code language to talk about music that excludes anyone who isn't familiar with musical terms, or anyone who doesn't speak fluent Italian, German, or French. It's this exclusive little club we've created, and we show you that you don't belong by using words you don't understand and literally speaking other languages. We've also perpetuated an almost oppressively intimidating environment for novices - ostracizing people who clap at the "wrong" time, for example. As a performer, I am truly tickled when someone is moved enough by the music to clap between movements, but many of us act as though it's an insult or major etiquette blunder. I'd love to see the classical music world do everything possible to make the music accessible and the concert experience less intimidating.
Annalisa, here's another way you do a great job - the atmosphere at Catacoustic concerts is relaxed and casual. You always explain what "viola da gamba" means, literally, and you describe who would (and would not) play the various instruments at Catacoustic performances. It's not professorial or condescending; it's courteous and gracious, just as you'd introduce guests to one another at a party.

You share many interpretations of baroque music, including baroque music with period instruments and on modern instruments. Do you see a new attitude of musicians today toward baroque music?

Unfortunately there are so many prejudices and misconceptions about what early music is and who should (or shouldn't) be playing it. I'd love for listeners and performers to simply experience and enjoy music for its own merit, and not get bogged down by notions of orthodoxy. I've never bought into purist dogma on
anything, really. And it frustrates me when people insist there's only one "right" way to do something. Where do you draw the line, really? If we insist on the so-called purest, most authentic experience, doesn't that mean we should sit in cold, dark churches crowded alongside people who haven't bathed? Music is a living art form, and I see no problem using a variety of instruments to play music, whether or not they are authentic to the time the music was written.

Are you seeing a new trend in recordings of baroque music? What would you advise a group like Catacoustic to consider in programming and recordings?

In the two decades since originating Sunday Baroque I've definitely seen a giant leap in the quality of what's available on cd - both performance and technical quality - and a greater variety of what's available. Once upon a time, when the interest in baroque and early music was revived in the middle of the 20th
century, it was an arcane genre and the focus was on scholarly discovery more than technical proficiency. The quality of performances is vastly improved from those early days, partly because more musicians are approaching this music, playing both period and modern instruments, and the skills and training have been absorbed by a new generation. In the past couple of years, though, the record companies have been in some trouble. There are fewer new recordings being released, and more re-releases. That reflects a desire and need to economize; recycling existing recordings is much more efficient and cost-effective than starting from scratch with a new recording project. But the good news is that it's never been easier to self-produce - lots of musicians are marketing their music online and making it available in downloads, rather than relying solely on cds. That's the way to go! Catacoustic does two things in particular that are right on target -- you build programs around "themes" - it creates cohesion and adds a dimension that can help people understand better. You also offer some historical context. Those narratives help bring music to life, especially for people who don't know a lot about the music. So, you're not only making an appealing recording, you are bringing listeners along for the future.

How can our blog readers listen to your radio program and learn more about Sunday Baroque?

90.9 WGUC broadcasts Sunday Baroque on Sunday mornings from 8am-12noon. There's also an online audio stream of the most recent program, updated weekly on Mondays, at www.SundayBaroque.org