Thursday, March 12, 2015

James Brown, Guest Musician for Catacoustic's March 22 Concert, a Modern-Day Renaissance Man

The following is from a telephone interview between Annalisa Pappano and James Brown, who will join Catacoustic in their concert on March 22: Great Musick's Myseries: The Exquisite Consorts. See for more information about the concert.

I played in your concert series last year in Austin, Texas for a solo pardessus program. It was exciting to meet someone else who has a concert series that is a similar model as Catacoustic - that is an early music group where you self-present and play in each concert, and you bring in guest musicians to play, as well. In fact, in our concert together, Michael Leopold (a regular with Catacoustic since we began 14 years ago) joined us! There are not many groups like this in the States. How long have you had your concert series, and what made you decide to start it?

I have been running this series for just under 14 years. The series was already connected with the church where I work, but it had been dropped. When I was hired, they asked if I wanted to pick it up again. It was quite modest, and gradually I began planning bigger concerts. The first big one we did was Emma Kirkby with Fretwork. Four years ago we decided exclusively to present early music, and the series was 2/3 presented material and 1/3 self-produced. It helped having local/regional combined with national talent. In the last board meeting, we decided to become a 100% presenting organization. Next year, we will have Tallis Scholars, Anonymous IV, & Vox Luminis. The format is changing, and it seems that this is what is best for our audience and for the series to grow.

How did you get interested in early music and playing the viol? Where did you study?

My undergraduate degree was in organ. I was always interested in early keyboard music – Couperin, Bach, etc. Through that, I was introduced to the harpsichord,which led to my first trip to the Amherst Early Music workshop. They suggested that I take one class in something I know nothing about, so I decided to take beginning viol. By the end of the first week, I was able to play and sing at the same time. I was hooked. I came home and immediately had to figure out how to get my hands on a viol. I went back to Amherst the next year with my OWN viol. Later, I gave up playing keyboard instruments to pursue the gamba. My training has been largely self-study. When I lived in NY, I took gamba lessons with Martha McGaughey. Other teachers have included Margriet Tindemans, Mary Springfels, and Catharina Meints. I continue to study with workshops, private lessons, and masterclasses.

You helped with some musical choices for our upcoming March program. While super fun to play, it is pretty challenging, technically-speaking! Is 17th-century English (the rep in this concert) a favorite of yours? What draws you to this music, and what do you find interesting about it?

I love spending my time on 17th-century music across the board, more than anything else. The fusion of Italian music with other national influences: English, French, or German speaks to me.

When I stayed with you last winter, I was so impressed by your many interests! You are an amazing cook and studied at the Art Institute in NYC. Your food was some of the best I have had, and YOU said it was simple. You were just getting ready to make a special orange liquor, and another interest you have is fixing vintage bicycles and a special type of racing. Tell more about these passions. How are your different interests related, and do they complement each other?

They do, in some ways. It would be fun to combine it all in an event – food and music! I have been talking to viol player Jay Bernfeld, who is combining food and music for concerts in France and Florida. What a rich experience we could have, if we would have food and a beverage as fellowship with live music.

I like to do many different things. Since I was a kid, I had five hobbies at once. I like the complexity of things. The complexity of making my own bitters, the complexity of 17th-century music, the complexity of my own dishes.

What would you say to someone who is interested in starting up a music series like yours or Catacoustic? Any advice? What about someone who wants to pursue an unusual passion like the viola da gamba?

I think that those passions and what you do with them generally are what you make of them. If you are going to play an instrument that is not in the mainstream, you nee to be prepared to do all that comes with that and wear different hats. You need to know the rep – solo and chamber. You need to be ready to create opportunities to play. Even the best viol players have to do other things.

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