Monday, December 31, 2012

Catacoustic Concert Preview: February 1, 2013

     On February 1 Cincinnati will have the chance to hear a rare treat. Internationally acclaimed composer, conductor, and virtuoso Matthias Maute will perform at the Christ Church Cathedral with the Catacoustic Consort, featuring Annalisa Pappano on viola da gamba and David Walker on theorbo. They will perform masterpieces from two centuries of Baroque music by composers from across Europe. 
     I had a chance to talk with Matthias Maute by phone from Montreal, and he shared some of his thoughts about the program, and the music he has made his life’s work.
     Maute began as a child with violin and recorder, but it quickly became clear to him that it was the recorder that had chosen him, not the violin. He set out, therefore, to become a recorder virtuoso, which he achieved with resounding success. He won First Prize in the soloist category at the renowned Early Music Competition in Bruges, Belgium in 1990. He has performed across Europe and North America, including at Lincoln Center.  Then as time passed he discovered that a life in music meant a huge field of possible activities. He studied other, related, instruments, like transverse flutes. He began composing.  He took up the baton to great acclaim. He founded and performs with a chamber group, Ensemble Caprice in Montreal.  He has toured around the world. Maute has found there are many playgrounds for a musician to explore.  He is delighted to play with Catacoustic—it is a first-time collaboration—because of the quality of musicianship they bring. Playing with other great musicians is like sharing a great meal, he believes. They always bring something new to his views of the music they dig into together.  
     Maute is one of the great recorder virtuosos of our time, and he has chosen a program of his favorites.  It will showcase the vast range of the instrument as it developed over the years from popular folk artifact to indispensible ensemble lead. The recorder is one of the most virtuosic of Baroque instruments. Unlike most instruments, where one device must do for all pieces, a recorder player can choose just the right instrument for each selection. Maute expects to bring five or six recorders, out of his collection of 60 or so, to Cincinnati, so he can get just the sound he is looking for every time.
     The concert, and its pan-European exploration, will begin with two pieces by Giovanni Mealli, a composer who was born in Italy in 1630 and worked in Austria and France. He is rumored to have murdered a castrato singer before fleeing to Spain, where he died in 1670, and very little of his work survives today.  What remains shows his fascination with singing, even when composing instrumentals. The pieces performed here are in the parlando style—the instruments are essentially given a recitative to play. Or as Maute would have it, they are taught to sing. And sing they do, in these pieces and the next. That one is by Jacob van Eyck, an aristocrat from the Netherlands. He was born blind, and his specialty was playing the carillon, but he was also known for his recorder playing and his collection of popular tunes he compiled and arranged for recorder. The piece on this concert is called “The English Nightingale,” and it wonderfully imitates birdsong as only a recorder can. 
     We will also hear several examples of chaconnes. This was a popular musical form during the Baroque.  It employs a repeated bass line, wherein the performers build their own interpretation of a harmonic progression, and a melody line of variations on a tune. In other words, everyone on the stage is improvising, and each performance will differ slightly from all others. That description may remind you of jazz, and in fact some scholars believe that the chaconne form, which arose in Spain during the 1500s, came from the New World. This concert will feature chaconnes by the incomparable Corelli, by the Austrian Johann Schmelzer, who pushed the boundaries of the form, and the g minor Chaconne by Vitali, made famous by various violin virtuosos in the 20th century, Fritz Kreisler and Jasha Heifetz among them, who knew a great show-stopper when they heard one. 
     Georg Philip Telemann was German, of course, but he worked many years in Poland. In his Trio Sonata for recorder, viol, and theorbo, he employs his usual mix of Italian and French styles, but in the final movement he introduces rustic melodies intended to evoke the itinerant musicians still common in Poland, even in the 18th century. Then we come to the mysterious case of Vivaldi/Chédeville. Nicolas Chédeville was a French composer who in 1737 released a volume of music credited to Antonio Vivaldi. Vivaldi, of course, was widely known and extremely popular—put his name on your work, and you were sure to make a lot of money. The volume contained some actual compositions by Vivaldi, some by other composers (copyright law at this time was little better than printing a curse on all music pirates on your title page,  and then hoping that pirates believed in curses), and some by Chédeville himself. Scholars have been productively employed for years disentangling these works and trying to attribute them properly—much of it we will probably never know for sure. But the piece we will be hearing tonight is probably by Vivaldi himself. It requires extreme virtuosity (something Vivaldi was known for), and has a sparkling, eccentric beauty. 
     They will also be performing a piece composed by Maute himself, although he would be glad if you forgot that. As he put it, sometimes he just wishes the composers of the past had written certain pieces in certain genres or for certain groups of instruments that they didn’t. One of his favorite activities is to write these pieces himself. Maute immerses himself in the musical language of the period he is interested in. As he points out, a performer speaks the language of music with a passive vocabulary, trying to understand and interpret what has already been written. A composer, on the other hand, must speak with an active vocabulary; he must think in music. When Maute composes in the styles of the past, he sees it as an apprenticeship, a way to think like the composers of the past did. His Canzona detta la Rondella should make you feel you are listening to music of the 17th century.
     Maute points out that the music of the 17th and 18th centuries has an organic quality we don’t always hear today. For one thing, the improvisation discussed above is almost never expected of classical musicians nowadays. Each performance relies on the taste and mood of the performers.  Another aspect of the Baroque that reminds us how far it precedes the digital age, is the sense of time. Today a composer can use a standardized metronome to specify how fast or slow she wants the piece to be.  But before the metronome was invented, the only tools people had to describe speed were subjective examples from nature. A common one was the human pulse. But the speed of the pulse differs not only from person to person, but from one day to the next:  there is no objectivity when it comes to tempo in the Baroque era. The acoustics of the hall will affect the tempo you can play with clarity. The context of the other pieces in the program, the audience, the other musicians:  all these factors will change daily, and take the music with them.
     According to Maute, scholars believe that during the Baroque period, slow pieces were played much more slowly than we usually do today, and fast pieces were played like lightning. In today’s world we experience less contrast.  Tempos, volume, even repertoire, have tended to pool in an easy middle. A reviewer of one of Maute’s recent recordings pointed out that it was not “easy listening.” Maute took this as a compliment.  Do we no longer demand any more of our music than that it serve as audio wallpaper, that it be only easy and pleasant?  If we challenge ourselves to listen with fresh ears and a welcoming mind, will we discover anew just how rich and rewarding music can be?  

     Come out on February 1 and “share a great meal” with great artists.  Spend an evening with people who have devoted their lives to the idea that music is no less than an expression of the human spirit, and that as such it demands our careful attention.  Enjoy a live performance of some of the greatest artists working today.

7:30 pm, Friday February 1, 2013, Christ Church Cathedral, 318 East Fourth Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202
Tickets: $20 general, $5 student. Children 12 and under are always free. Tickets are available at the
door or in advance by calling 513.772.3242 or online at