CMSCVA

From the blog

It Takes a Lot of Guts to Play Cello

by CMSCVA Artistic Director James Wilson

Recently I was reminiscing about the bygone days when Baroque music was usually heard in concert as the stately first piece on an orchestral music program…something nice and familiar that would prepare the ears for the more complicated music of Brahms or Beethoven. Never mind chamber music programs! Baroque rarely entered into that picture except for the occasional pre-Christmas Brandenburg set or Vivaldi concerto. Not to date myself, but that was in the early 1980’s.

Then the early music movement began and thing started to change, or rather divide. A Cold War Berlin was no more divided than the Baroque scene in the 80’s, with period practice proponents on one side and the conservatory-trained traditionalists on the other. But these were great years for the historic performance movement. Anyone who has listened to the early recordings of Musica Antiqua Köln or the Smithson Quartet knows what I mean.

These days, I like to think of the whole performance practice world as a musical Wild West. It seems a whole lot of people (including myself) who perform on modern set-up also perform Baroque and Classical music on gut string with a period bow. Sometimes it’s to a startlingly bizarre effect. Anything goes, especially in Europe where the style often seems to be “the more eccentric the better.”

As a proponent of tolerance, I think this is OK. I like to hear people’s individual personalities coming through in the music, even in such a scholarly world as early music. However, things get more complicated when faced with the ever-increasing historical mashups – things such as performances on modern violin with Baroque bow, Bach sonatas with piano but without vibrato, or contemporary compositions that include the instruction “play in Baroque style.” Confusing stuff indeed.

So into this discussion I am throwing my own guilty confession. I am about to break a vow I made to myself a few years ago, a vow not to play pieces on Baroque cello that were originally written for the viola da gamba (a completely different animal of instrument). I simply couldn’t resist, especially the French stuff. The music is so elegant and exciting, and I love that whole weird Versailles esthetic. Besides, it’s frustrating to see so much great Baroque music written for the gamba at a time when the cello was still seen as its homely cousin. But as someone who promotes historical performances of classical music in Virginia, I am conscientious of breaking some serious rules. This will not be historic practice.

Oh well, rules be damned, it’s the Wild West baby! Don’t judge me Richmond. And roll over Louis XIV, because I plan to rock a Marais suite with my gut-string cello.

And yes, it takes a lot of guts to do this.