Friday, September 9, 2011

Baroque Cello Summer Continued with David Morris, Joanna Blendulf, and Elisabeth Reed

I have been in San Francisco this week for a concert on the San Francisco Early Music Society series: a collaboration between the Catacoustic Consort and Wildcat Viols. Three of the musicians in this group are baroque cellists: Joanna Blendulf (based in Eugene, OR), Elisabeth Reed (San Francisco, CA), and David Morris (San Francisco, CA). I thought that I would continue on the theme of that instrument by asking them the questions I posed to Amanda and Nathan last month.

How did you learn to play the baroque cello?

JB: I was a modern cello student at Indiana University. I had a background in early music with viola da gamba and decided to take baroque orchestra. Stanley Ritchie (baroque violin professor there) was my first teacher, and he talked a lot about style and gesture. He felt that the baroque violin arm could translate to the cello bow.

ER: I was a modern cello undergraduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. I was actually attracted to the exceptional faculty (Catharina Meints, Lisa Crawford, Marilyn MacDonald, and Michael Lynn). I felt that these were brilliant, thoughtful people that I wanted to work with. I also play viola da gamba, but I started that later, at Eastman.

DM: I had always loved early music as a kid; after high school, I came to the University of California, Berkeley as a music major. Considering how rich this area is in early music today, at that time there was no formal performance practice offered there. In my junior year, I decided to go to Jerusalem on a whim, and by accident ended smack dab in the middle of a flourishing early music scene, influenced by the English and Dutch early music worlds - and which was in need of a cellist. My colleagues and teachers there (violinists, flute/recorder player, harpsichordist, and a singer), gave me a whirlwind on-the-job training in the language and styles of baroque music. I did receive some lessons from cellists and gambists passing through town (Susie Napper, Allison Crum, etc.), and when I got back to Berkeley, I started cello lessons with Elisabeth LeGuin and gamba lessons with Peter Halifax.

What are your musical backgrounds?

JB: I play cello (began at the age of 8) and viola da gamba. I learned viola da gamba as a high school camper at Interlochen with Mark Cudek and went to the Cleveland Institute of Music for cello as an undergrad and later to Indiana University for graduate studies.

ER: I began cello also when I was 8 years old. I attended the North Carolina School of the Arts for high school and Oberlin for my undergraduate degree. I later went to Eastman for my masters in modern cello and IU for further graduate studies in early music.

DM: I picked up the cello when I was 13, took private lessons through high school and and attended UC Berkeley for my BA and MA in Musicology.

What are the technical differences between the baroque and modern cellos?

DM: Wow! Where to begin... one can use exactly the same instrument and set-up, but the end result is like a different dialect or language, if you haven't had the training. There is the whole "rhetoric of the strong and weak;" there is the declamatory aspect, where you share or trade words with whomever you are supporting, and there is also the special relationship of the baroque bow and the gut string.

JB: There are some technical aspects: a lightness of bow, and the bow hand responds differently. The posture is similar with the baroque cello held more vertically. The baroque bow and the gut strings actually force you into a different relationship with the instrument.

ER: Gut strings are much more sensitive. My teacher at Eastman had us play with gut strings to make our bow hands smarter. Steel strings are actually a fairly recent development. The gut strings and bow make a big difference.

DM: Yes! That is like training harpsichordists to be more sensitive by having them play clavchord. There is also the issue of vibrato: For modern cellists, it is part of the basic sound, whereas for most of us, it is something we add occasionally for special color. Modern players are stylistically grounded in the musical language of the 19th and 20th centuries, and they often don't have a feel for the vocal and dance music, which is such a big part of the 17th and 18th centuries. Such a lot of it has to do with the strong and weak notes, or "stress and release."

JB: Yes, selective vibrato. Mainly the bow technique is different. There is a lot of finger motion, and there is less elbow activity (lower elbow).

ER: The baroque bow is so much lighter at the tip than the modern bow, so there is a natural diminuendo in the stroke. This is very different from the more constant sustaining power of the modern bow. The left hand is also different. Since you don't have a constant vibrato, you hold more fingers down. It is much more like playing gamba. You keep the resonance going with the left hand.

Who are the good teachers, and do you teach?

Anner Bylsma is an inspiring teacher. Cathy Meints (Oberlin) is an incredible pedagogue, as well as a masterful technician. Myron Lutzke (NY) is a very generous teacher.

JB: Myron was quite inspiring for me.

All said that they teach private lessons and coach ensembles.

ER: I teach Baroque cello at San Francisco Conservatory, and I currently have nine baroque cello students. ( I also teach baroque cello and viola da gamba at the American Bach Soloists summer academy in San Francisco. ( IN addition, I teach baroque cello and gamba at the University of California at Berkeley ( and viola da gamba at Mills College (

I have noticed a certain difficulty of people beginning the baroque cello in approaching the sound world at first. Would you comment on the importance (or lack thereof) of immersion? Do you play modern cello?

DM: When I first began listening to early music, there weren't many models to imitate, besides what i heard in recordings. there are so many more examples to listen to nowadays, and so much good teaching around... there is a real culture now, and I would think it would be easier to get immersed in it.

JB: People learn by imitation: hearing and seeing.

ER: I teach two group classes at the conservatory with no majors. This lasts for about nine months. I often send these students to the American Bach Soloists Academy for two weeks in the summer. These students learn more in those two weeks of immersion (orchestra, chamber music, attending concerts) than they do in nine months when they are only doing early music for a few hours a week!

All still occasionally play modern cello.

What kind of playing do you do, and what would you like to do?

We do it all: orchestra, solo, and chamber music, and we wouldn't change a thing. This is great!

What cellos do you play?

JB: I play a cello made by Tim Johnson in 1999, and my bow is a Begin.

ER: I play a 1772 Anonymous cello, and my bow is by Boumann.

DM: My cello is anonymous c. 1800, attributed to John Morrisson, and my bow is a Begin.

Do you have a favorite recording of Baroque cello?

JB: I LOVE Sergei Istomin's Bach Suite recordings.

ER: Bylsma has some great recordings. Christoph Coin's Vivaldi sonatas and concertos are beautiful, too.

Do you have any cello recordings available?

JB: Yes, several solo and chamber recordings available on Magnatunes (

DM: I made four recordings with Musica Pacifica: Dancing in the Isles, Vivaldi's La Notte, Manicini's Concerti di Camera, and Telemann's Chamber Cantatas and Trio Sonatas. (

ER: I have a Gabrielli Ricercar on YouTube ( and other cello videos ( with Voices of Music.

What is your advice for someone interested in learning Baroque cello?

ER & JB: Go to a workshop and try different teachers.

JB: Try out a baroque bow. This is very important. Listen to recordings and go to concerts. There is a lot out there on YouTube.

DM: If you love music, have open ears, and are a bit "hungry" for this knowledge, you will do just fine.

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