Thursday, August 6, 2020

Talking to violinist Walter Reiter about his recently published book "The Baroque Violin & Viola"

On July 27th 2020, I met with violinist Walter Reiter at his London home to discuss his upcoming publication - “The Baroque Violin & Viola, a Fifty-Lesson Course”, published by Oxford University Press in 2020 (available August in the USA and September, UK). In two volumes, the 700-page publication, written in a style that is informal, accessible and authoritative, consists of five modules on ornamentation, four “Interludes” of historical and cultural interest as well as lessons focusing on topics as diverse as temperament, shifting, vibrato and dance. Of the book, John Eliot Gardiner wrote: “It shows Walter Reiter to be an expert guide in defining a rich cultural context for music-making - and not just violin-playing - and with the potential to shatter dull preconceptions. His practical experience, learning and articulacy combine to enrich and extend our purview of instrumental music extending over five centuries.” British violinist, conductor and Baroque specialist. Rachel Podger has referred to the book as “a journey of discovery covering all technical aspects of playing the Baroque violin, from sound-production to the history of national styles via affect, articulation, rhetoric, intonation and temperament, ornamentation and improvisation.” 

PH: Walter, what kind of a treatise is it and to whom is it aimed?

WR: Basically, it is like a do-it-yourself Baroque violin manual. I’m sure people will find it useful, because a lot of people who don’t actually want to go to a conservatory and also because today many modern instrumentalists are much more open to how we play Baroque music than in past years. For example, you just have to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic when it plays Mozart; it does not sound like Karajan is directing it anymore! The dead weight has come off it. Today, stylistic interpretations have become more important. I also believe that people get really fed up with the repertoire that they play, because when I was teaching children, all the concerto repertoire was Romantic (Rieding, Küchler, etc.) - which is very beautiful - and then on to works of Seitz and eventually onto Bruch and Mendelssohn. After that, they do a bit of Classical, “because you should” and also Bach “because you should”. But then they don’t actually know how to situate Bach in his time. This is really important, especially when you are talking about the court dances of the Partitas and Suites. So, all about the world- and performance of Baroque music, it is a detailed résumé of all my thoughts over many years of teaching. There do exist musicological books on Baroque music. Some of them are so “clever” that you can’t understand a word but, of course, there are books that are readable and there are books about the Baroque violin written in encyclopaedic form, which are very useful. But there isn’t any book of this kind. It’s such a shame that people don’t do more of this kind of thing. When teachers stop teaching after many years (I haven’t stopped teaching, by any means), all their experience becomes hidden. I had some great teachers in Israel who, unfortunately, never wrote anything. Neither did they give interviews. Knowingly or unconsciously or not, their students pass it on in one form or another. 

PH: How did the project start?

WR: I have been teaching for many years. In fact, my first teaching job was when I was 15 or 16 years old when still at school. I taught in Germany while I was studying there, but it was in Jerusalem that I really got into teaching in a big way, teaching modern violin at the Conservatory and the Jerusalem Academy of Music for some 30 hours a week and playing part-time in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. I had some very talented students, a lot who have gone on to be professionals. I was lucky with the talent I had even in my first year of teaching there. With my great love for teaching, I have always tried to find ways of doing it better. Having taught the Baroque violin for some years, I nowadays teach at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London and also at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, Holland. It occurred to me that what I was doing was quite inefficient: you get someone coming to class and you show them this and this and this, and then it’s time for them to go. Then somebody else comes into the room and you tell them almost the same thing. So, I needed to reorganize this method. I discovered that a 1st-year undergraduate student might get through ten pieces - sonatas, let’s say - in the first year, together with all the other things involved in adapting to the Baroque instrument - temperament and intonation, rhetoric, posture, holding the violin, all the very basic things. By the time the student has actually played one piece, he is well into the first term...which I thought was unreasonable. I had this idea when I was teaching in London, where fees are very high, that I would write down information about ten basic, seminal works, the idea being that the student could prepare the music on his own and then, when he came to the classroom, he would have the one-to-one tuition that was necessary and I would not have to repeat such things as the harmonic processes, the spadework you have to do, all the detail in the work being studied, with each student. So that is when I started writing out indications on how to play these pieces. This really worked for those students who took it seriously and has proved to be a much more efficient way of teaching

PH: How did the strategy develop further?

WR: After two or three years, I thought I could actually turn this information into a book. So, I approached a UK publisher specializing in early music, who liked the idea. But then my wife, soprano Linda Perillo, pointing out that it was not specifically for Baroque violinists, but that for anybody wanting to know about the Baroque violin, to know why we do what we do, suggested I write to Oxford University Press. Not being a scholarly-, but a practical book, I doubted OUP would be interested, but OUP (USA) was very interested and asked me to send them some samples. They then led me on for a couple of years, not knowing fully what would be in the completed book (they didn’t know and I didn’t know!) and suggested I take my time to finish it and submit it, which is what I did. It took me ten years to write the book. It has been a huge adventure; I have written the book in trains, planes, boats, in cafés and hotel rooms, and, frequently, in the quiet of libraries anywhere I was on tour, most of my touring being with The English Concert. 

PH: How does one manage such an undertaking?

WR: It is extremely difficult. When you start, you know something. You know what somebody says in some quote, where they said it, but it all needs to be looked up. For me, it was an incredible learning process, going over all the work I have been doing over the last thirty years but in a more conscious way. There are some 20 pieces in the book that I really examine bar by bar, showing what there is in it to know. Some of the pieces have 20,000 words written about them over three chapters! Wherever possible, I use a lot of sources to justify things, but, of course, sources create a very incomplete picture. So, a lot of what I say is what I have figured out over the years. (I wasn’t allowed to include jokes - the funny things I say to people when teaching.)

PH: Why specifically the Baroque violin?

WR: The more you go into the Baroque violin, the more different playing it is from the modern violin. The world we live in today has really taken on board what we Baroque musicians do in the sense that there are a lot of great soloists - people like Isabelle Faust  and Alina Ibragimova - playing in Baroque style, or orchestras like the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra where you ask yourself whether the players are using period instruments or not...often, we don’t really know, because they are very good at imitating. They might often get someone in to guide them in playing in the Baroque style, and they copy. That’s all well and good, but it’s not what I call “learning how to play the Baroque violin”. What they manage to do can only be done with mid-18th century fairly run-of-the-mill repertoire - Vivaldi, Handel and, to an extent, Bach, as well. But, as to all the other repertoire - 150 years of repertoire, and there is a lot of it - they would struggle with that. In some cases, such as the French repertoire, they would not even know how to read the scores and they don’t know how to improvise. 

PH: So, who are today’s Baroque violinists?

WR: There are two types of Baroque violinists. One who, as our students do, goes through the whole Baroque style from 1600 to around 1750. The other kind is someone who just takes a Baroque instrument or a modern instrument with gut strings and a Baroque bow and basically plays it the modern way. I’m afraid the latter case covers the majority of violinists in Baroque orchestras in some countries. So, I decided to try to put this right and really go through the whole process in a written form.

PH: How do you begin teaching the Baroque violin?

WR: To start with, learning the Baroque violin means unlearning some of the habits one has accumulated on the modern violin. For example, we spend so many hours practising to get a completely smooth, lyrical sound with the bow. This thing called “detaché” bowing, which doesn’t exist in Baroque terminology, is the complete antithesis of what rhetorical playing is all about. The “speaking” bow has many different kinds of articulation. Much Baroque music is not melodic in nature. Of course, there is melody in it, but most Baroque music is actually much closer to speech and dance than it is to song. One needs to learn how to use the bow in a completely different way. I start (and always have) by imagining you have the menu of an Italian restaurant and you want to order risotto con funghi; I ask you to order (play) it by using the Italian rhythms and inflexions of speech. The difference between an approximation and the real thing is drastic! And I get students to speak such words as “Michelangelo” This is how I get them to free up, so the speaking Baroque violin is really the “Baroque bow”. Also, the way to actually hold the instrument is so important. A lot of people take the Baroque violin without its chinrest and just “grip” it. The whole thing about the Baroque violin is the freedom you have of both sides of the body, as opposed to just one side, to make the gestures you need to make. It’s really quite contradictory because the number of square centimetres that the chinrest covers is very minimal and the whole idea of not having your body against the instrument is that the body stifles the resonance of the instrument. So those are the first steps with which I introduce students to playing the instrument.

PH: Why don’t you have performance of all the works on the book’s site?

WR: It was suggested early on that I record all the pieces, but then we would be back to the “easy” way of learning, which is copying how the teacher plays. There are a few videos where I do explain certain techniques, but I wanted to avoid the above-mentioned trap. For me, to copy is not to learn. To learn is to understand.  It was Quantz who said: “A good teacher is one who makes the pupil understand and doesn’t just allow him to copy as if he were training birds”. One of the things I really inherited from Ramy Shevelov, my wonderful teacher in Israel, was getting students to listen to the music in their imaginations and then to copy that. I always say that the only thing worth copying is what one hears in one’s mind and I think that is so true when playing Baroque music, where there are no right and wrong ways of doing things. Of nine out of ten questions that pupils ask me regarding sound and phrasing, for example, I manage to get them to answer themselves: “Listen to it, sing it in your imagination, copy your imagination”. I get a pupil to play something and then ask him to give a score of 1 to 10 to evaluate how near it is to what he had imagined. The point is that if the result is so different from how you heard it, you have not done the work. You have to play the way you hear it and, if you don’t, what am I supposed to do or say? With my encouragement, they should come to those conclusions by themselves. Where teachers say the pupil should do it “this way and not how you were doing it”, the pupil copies but learns nothing. In truth, it takes some discipline on the part of the teacher not to resort to that practice! 

PH: Would you give an outline of the book’s contents?

WR: It goes through different styles, starting off with fairly standard repertoire, just giving understanding as to how music is made, like why it is so important to understand or to feel the harmony, because that affects what and how we play. I always say that learning from a single part is like learning Romeo’s part without having any clue of what Juliet says to him. I cover all the very basic questions that need to be answered and in a style which is accessible. Not written in a scholarly style, the book is very detailed but easy to read: you can read it even if you are not going to do all the work. In fact, a lot of it is completely intelligible, even to non-violinists; it will make sense to anybody playing a top-line instrument. The book is visually attractive too, with quite a few designs. I want to make it readable and interesting. It is very comprehensive, but it is not about instrumentalism or about “this is the way you play”, but about “this is the way the music is and let’s see how we can make it work using what knowledge we have”. I talk a lot about the vocal roots of instrumental playing, not just about the rhetorical aspect of the words, but actually how the development of vocal music at the time of Caccini, with the beginning of basso continuo and the separation from top- and bottom lines, as opposed to 16th century counterpoint, and leading to opera and instrumental music. I also talk about how the first treatises were written for singers or players of any instruments. That is very important when we are talking about the early Italian sonata, because that’s all there is. There aren’t any particular instrumental treatises from then, so we have to use the vocal treatises. So, together with being a very practical book, it will also give cultural background.

The first volume deals with all the basics and goes as far as the first Corelli and Vivaldi sonatas. The second volume deals with works of Biber and Schmelzer, but also with works of the early Italians. Early Italian music is more esoteric, if you like. You can imitate Vivaldi on a modern violin, but you can’t know what to do with the early material without some guidance. Actually, I start with material that is much earlier than the Baroque period, because one of the things we have to teach is improvisation and ornamentation, which are individual to each style. 

PH: It must be tricky to teach ornamentation and improvisation via a book.

WR: Yes. The early ornamentation comes from much before the Baroque. The question is: how do you ornament and how do you overcome your hang-ups about doing it? There are some violinists and other instrumentalists who can play Sibelius wonderfully, but, if you ask them to make something up, they are completely flummoxed and panicked, which is a shame. There must be something wrong with the way we are taught. Anyway, I introduce ornamentation in a totally a-stylistic way. Then the book goes on to using, for example, Ganassi’s 1535 pre-Baroque treatise on divisions (which is not related to any specific style); I use it to free people up, as I used it to free myself up in the beginning. Later on I go via Ortiz to composers such as Bassano.  

PH: How do the Interludes fit into the contents?

WR: There are five Interludes, which aim to give cultural background, which is so important. When you study the modern violin, as I did, the background is not considered very are learning to play the instrument and the instrument is played a certain way according to the fashion of the day, with the style somewhat adapted to each composer; and there’s not that much difference between playing any of them. But the question is: can you really understand how to pay Couperin if you don’t know something about the standards of court behaviour at Versailles? There are so many styles within Baroque repertoire and each one needs some special knowledge about where this music comes from. John Eliot Gardiner has spoken of actually “feeling your way into a work of art”. Many years ago, I led an orchestra in Rome. We were walking across the bridge that links Rome to the Vatican. There are statues on both sides of the bridge and we started musically imitating these statues… it is not such a bad idea to take a statue (or a painting) and “think” your way into it, to experience what that person is feeling and then express it in terms of sound. Then there are such questions as to Bach and the influence of French music, what the E-major Partita has to do with France, what Bach has to do with France. I explain that Bach didn’t go to France, but that France came to him. 

PH: I see there is a section of Questions and Answers. Can you give some examples?

WR: Yes. 
Q: Is there a correct way to play Baroque music?
A: No. There never was and there never will be, although there are some wrong ways.
Q: Can a book be a substitute for a teacher?
A: No. But it can be a substitute for no teacher.
Q: From reading this book, one could assume that all your pupils play in exactly the same way. Is that true?
A: Absolutely not. Bringing out the special qualities of each pupil is always uppermost in my mind when teaching. Obviously, such discernment is not possible in a book.
Q: But if one hundred people put into practice every detail of one of your lessons, surely, they must all end up playing in an identical way.
A: No. They may play in a similarly informed way, but they will all sound different. That is one of the mysteries of violin-playing.
Q: What would you say if someone read your suggestions and then did exactly the opposite?
A: That too is possible. The teacher’s job is to inform and inspire, not to dictate. 

PH: How does the book apply to violists?

WR: When I started teaching the Baroque viola, the problem was that there was no repertoire for it. There is much orchestral- and chamber music repertoire, but almost no solo music. So I looked around to see what Baroque viola teachers were teaching. They were mostly teaching the Telemann concerto and the Bach Suites for solo ‘cello. Yet, the point is that violists were so important in early Italian music and in the Austro-German music of Schmelzer, Biber and Muffat and, of course, in French music, in which there are often three viola parts and just one top part...even up to Bach, actually. There is no point in learning Baroque viola if you don’t study those styles, and the only way to do that is by studying violin music. So, some of my Baroque viola students actually decided to switch to the Baroque violin in order to learn the repertoire. However, for the benefit of this book, all the violin parts (except for the solo Bach works) are transcribed for the viola. The parts are on the website. (It is impractical to play off such a thick book, so works can be printed off the website. Every bar is numbered, making the material easy to discuss.)

PH: Professor Reiter, thank you for sharing so many ideas behind this remarkable undertaking.


Born in England to Viennese parents, Walter S. Reiter graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London and continued his studies in Israel with Rami Shevelov, a former Galamian assistant, and in Germany with Sandor Vegh and Michael Gaiser. Having studied towards a Master's Degree in Violin Pedagogy at the Jerusalem Academy of Music (with Felix Andreiewsky, former assistant of Prof. Yankelewitch in Moscow) he completed his studies with Piotr Bondarenko, who had been David Oistrakh’s assistant in Moscow.  Internationally recognised as a leading Baroque violinist, teacher, leader and conductor, Walter Reiter is professor of Baroque Violin at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London).
Walter S.Reiter (Timothy Kraemer)

Monday, June 22, 2020

Talking to Baroque violinist Kati Debretzeni about leading, soloing and performance on gut strings

© Eric Richmond
On May 13th 2020, I talked to violinist Kati Debretzeni at her home in Hertfordshire, England. 

PH: Looking at your professional life, very much of your work consists of leading ensembles and orchestras. Have you always been a leader?

KD: Actually, that is a very interesting question. Well, I haven’t always been a leader. I learned my craft seated at the back of violin sections: I think that is the best way to learn it. You learn from your superiors and from the people who were there before you and who have more experience. You slowly work your way up and then, by the time you are put in a leading position, you have absorbed all the things other people have taught you. 

It all started with my meeting with Baroque music. The first orchestral position I had was in the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra when I was a student at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. It was a bit by chance, because a violinist friend of mine couldn’t go to rehearsal and asked me to stand in for him. And David Shemer (JBO founder and director) got me hooked! I became a member of the violin section. Then, after a couple of years, David asked me to lead the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. So, apart from a youth orchestra, that was the first time I was leading an orchestra. What led up to this was also the experience of playing chamber music with David, Idit Shemer, Myrna Herzog and singer Miriam Melzer - We were the “Jerusalem Consort” - and I learned a lot from them. That stood me in very good stead for my career in England.

In England, I started again. I was in the back row of the first violins of the English Concert (Trevor Pinnock); they had a very strong house style that Trevor had honed over three decades. That experience for me was a fantastic way of learning the basic repertoire -  Bach suites, the Handel oratorios, Handel’s concerti grossi, Corelli, etc. - the real Baroque orchestral repertoire. Then, in 2000, John Eliot Gardiner set out to record all the Bach cantatas in “The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage” series. By then, I was also at the back of the first violin section of the English Baroque Soloists. (Like all Baroque players here, we are all part of a number of ensembles.) When I auditioned for Gardiner in 1996, he said: “Four years from now, I will do all the Bach cantatas and I will need more than one leader. I would like you to then come and audition for that role. In the meantime, you can play in the orchestra”. So, over four years I learned from Alison Bury, who was a fantastic leader; she was unbelievably clear in her gestures and very good at transmitting what the conductor wanted. That’s what the leader does. Aiming to perform all the Bach cantatas, Gardiner’s idea was that he himself would be the only person involved in all the performances. Considering it would be humanly impossible for the musicians to play or sing for 365 days a year, the decision was to have three orchestras and three choirs rotating, each working for a period of three to four weeks. I was very lucky because, just at that time, I got to lead one of the orchestras, but I was also still part of Alison Bury’s orchestra, the original orchestra of the English Baroque Soloists, and I got to sit next to her for that year and also for a couple of years after that. Becoming her No.2 was a school for life, because Alison’s instincts are infallible. If you sit next to a really good leader you learn so much! After that came leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Catherine Mackintosh had retired from the job and Elizabeth Wallfisch was also retiring from the orchestra at that point, so two positions for leaders had come up. (In the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, four leaders share the job.) My colleague Matthew Truscott and I were appointed to be leaders. Also there, I had been playing in the orchestra for ten years before leading, had observed Catherine Mackintosh, Elizabeth Wallfisch, Margaret Faultless and Alison Bury (also leading there) - four very different people with four very different leading styles. You could see what worked and what didn’t work and how the leaders liaised with different conductors, because, as opposed to the English Baroque Soloists (one person’s orchestra and choir whose strong house style is familiar to us), the OAE is self-governed and we invite conductors with whom we would like to collaborate. I had ten years to observe how my superiors coped with a different conductor every day, with different personalities, with different conducting styles and with the different responses needed.

PH: So, how would you summarize the role of orchestra leader? 

KD: As a leader, you are the conduit between what the conductor in front of you is indicating and what the orchestra should be doing as a whole. Sometimes you have some autonomy; for example, if the conductor gives less-than-clear gestures (the orchestra still has to be together). Then it is your responsibility to give a gesture and decide when the orchestra plays. If you think something is not clear to the whole orchestra, your job is to ask the conductor to clarify what he wants. Sometimes the leader has to decide on the issue of “how” to play - what kind of gesture is indicated and, through your body gestures, you transmit or translate that to the rest of the section and, hopefully, to the rest of the orchestra. You also have to be able to liaise with the other principals in the orchestra, especially the principal bass and principal ‘cello. Sometimes, if it is a big orchestra, it is very good to liaise with the timpanist, because he is the pulse giver. So, there is what we call this little triangle - the leader, principal ‘cellist with principal bass and timpani. If those three elements are together, the orchestra will be together. And then there is the wind section, with which you also sometimes need visual- or some kind of contact to know exactly when to play together. So, there is a whole web of things going on (not always clear to an audience enjoying how wonderful the music sounds) being together as a wonderfully honed organism. And this organism is made up of all different organs - the heart, liver, the kidneys...We all have to work together for the whole to function. The conductor shapes it all and if you have a fantastic conductor, as we have several with which we regularly collaborate, the outcome is wonderful. But, if the leader is weak, the orchestra will not sound at its best. And to be the leader without all the experience of being a member of the orchestra would be most daunting. There are people who are natural leaders and those not suited to being leaders. I did not set out to be a leader but grew into the role.

PH: When did you start playing the violin?

KD: At six and a half, back in Romania (Transylvania) at a specialist music school. But my parents were musicians and, on my father’s side, the grandparents were musicians as well, as were my great-grandparents. There was not much else you could do in my family!

PH: When was your first meeting with period instruments? 

KD: In the Israeli army, I served in the Outstanding Musicians Unit as a member of the Air Force String Quartet (we were actually only three players!!) Another member was violinist Moshe Haas (now a tenor in the chorus of the Israeli Opera). He had just returned from studies with Arnold Steinhardt (1st violinist of the Guarneri Quartet) at the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, and was back in Israel to do his mandatory army service. He had brought back the germ of having been “indoctrinated” by a harmony teacher who was very much into period instrument performance practice and who had provided him with all kinds of clandestine tapes of CDs to listen to - of Sigiswald Kuijken, Anner Bylsma and Sergiu Luca, etc. Moshe’s plan on finishing his army service was to go to Basel to study early music there at the Schola Cantorum. As we played together, Moshe kept passing on to me all these weird and wonderful tapes and CDs (CDs were quite new then) and I thought the recordings were absolutely wonderful, although I had no inclination to try these styles of playing. But they somehow made sense. I so loved Anner Bylsma’s recording of the Bach ‘Cello Suites - the music kept dancing!  When we, as modern violinists were taught solo Bach, the playing was a little more ponderous and plodding. What Bylsma was doing on his Baroque ‘cello and with his “strange” Baroque bow just sounded more natural. But again, this was something that was in the air at the time, I thought how wonderful and absolutely brilliant it was, but I needed to get on with my own studies. My violin teacher, Ora Shiran (leader of the Israel Chamber Orchestra for many years) was very tolerant and open-minded. She was a Juilliard graduate and knew very little about Baroque violin or historic instruments, yet she kept encouraging me to find a persuasive way of playing with whatever instrument or bow I would be using. 

PH: So, how did you make your way into the world of Baroque performance?

KD: Having listened to all the Baroque-style recordings Moshe had given me, I then met harpsichordist Jochewed Schwarz at the Academy of Music. She had recently returned from studies in Basel and was offering an introductory course on early performance practice. I took that course because it chimed in with the tapes I had heard. Jochewed was a wonderful teacher; the course was interesting and intriguing. It included our having a go at playing some repertoire I had never heard of - some Biber and some Muffat - beautiful music which sounded wonderful. With interesting concepts to think about, the course was also intellectually stimulating. This was all very good to know about, but “something for other people in which to get their feet wet”. And then, as I mentioned earlier, I got to play in David Shemer’s Baroque Orchestra...only because my (non-Baroque) violinist friend couldn’t make it to rehearsal. I had gone there with my modern violin and my modern bow, was asked to tune down half a tone (already a bit weird) and it was at the rehearsal break that I first met viol player and Baroque ‘cellist Myrna Herzog. She approached me and said: “You know, you should really get rid of your shoulder-rest and chin-rest. And I’ll bring you some books to read about this period, because you should know what Mozart’s father wrote about the Baroque violin. And, if you would like, come to play some trio sonatas with my husband and me. Maybe we can lend you a Baroque violin and bow.” Well, having only heard recordings and never having seen such instruments, I thought she was completely crazy. I had no idea what she was talking about. But I went to play trio sonatas with Myrna and her husband Eliahu at their home and they lent me a Baroque violin and Baroque bow. That time was the beginning of wonderful friendships both with David and Myrna and of my involvement with Baroque music. Then I took the opportunity of participating in the mythical Early Music Workshop, the wonderful, wonderful courses organized annually in Jerusalem by Hed Sella. What a shame they no longer exist. This course produced a lot of Israeli Baroque musicians. After attending the workshop, I went back to my modern violin teacher and told her I wanted to play my Bach a little differently. She was open-minded enough to say: “If you are musically convincing, I don’t care what you play it on and how you play it; I just want to be musically convinced and it will be fine.” Then it was time to do proper study of Baroque performance and I ended up in London at the Royal College of Music studying with Catherine Mackintosh and with Walter Reiter, the latter had been a teacher at the workshops....from then on, it was my professional life, being a member of the English Concert, the English Baroque Soloists, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and I also did a good stint as principal 2nd in the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Ton Koopman), recording all the Bach cantatas, Koopman’s project taking several years to complete. That was also a wonderful experience. 

PH: Where do you stand regarding the authentic performance movement?

KD: “Authentic” is a very contentious word. “Authentic” is what you feel is true. “Historically informed” is a better term. I’m not a fanatic...I’m pragmatic. I think that if you don’t have absolutely the right equipment for every 50 years of music (and one should), and you only have two or three instruments for the 300 years we are trying to encompass, you may not achieve the right timbres for each period. So, in an ideal world, the right equipment gives that extra layer of sound. But, even more important than the right equipment is what you know about the music itself, about how they played it, where they did or didn’t accent a bar or a phrase, how they “spoke” the music with the bow, what the stylistic components of the music were, how and where they ornamented, etc. For me, “how” you play the music is more important than the instrument on which you play it. For example, pure gut G strings (they are like rope!) were used in 17th century Italian music - uncovered gut strings - and they sound like nothing on earth. I, personally, don’t like playing on them, because they don’t give the kind of sound I want to be making. But I can see that, when people do play on them, that is the sound that was produced way back then. Whether you like it or not is a different thing.  

PH: How are modern-trained musicians relating to early music performance practice today?

KD: I see the best modern musicians relating seriously to Baroque music. Isabelle Faust, for example, is a modern soloist who has shown much interest in the historically informed movement. When she plays Bach, it sounds as if she is playing it on a Baroque violin; she is, in fact, playing it on her Stradivarius (i.e. a modern violin) strung with gut strings (three uncovered, one covered) and using a Baroque bow. I am not worried by the fact that she is not playing a bona fide Baroque instrument, because it sounds as if she were. When she plays Bach, she sounds like a Baroque violinist and when she plays Mozart, she sounds like a Classical violinist: for the latter, she uses a wonderful, original very early Tourte bow - an open frog, Classical swan-head bow. But she is indeed a modern violinist: she strings up her Strad with steel strings and plays concertos of Alban Berg or Bartok with just as much success all over the world. The same goes for Leonidis Kavakos, a world class touring soloist, who studied Bach performance with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Mozarteum University, Salzburg; actually, a few steps down the corridor, he was also studying modern violin with the great Hungarian teacher Sándor Végh, who forbade his students to go to Harnoncourt’s classes even though the two teachers were basically talking about the exact same things! Kavakos went through all the Bach solo sonatas and partitas with Harnoncourt. So, there are some very high-ranking soloists who are interested in the historically informed movement because it talks to them much more naturally than how they have been trained. Even Maxim Vengerov, a great violinist trained in the Russian school, went to Trevor Pinnock to play Bach sonatas with him; they played those at the Barbican. Vengerov went to Rachel Podger to take some classes with her.  People are much more open-minded now than they used to be. There is much change. The way I see it, there are two things happening: one is that the Baroque model  is becoming a more generic thing - anyone can do it, as it were - and, on the other hand, the real specialists are getting deeper and deeper into the minutia of the difference between Paris of 1690 and Rome in 1690 and how you play Corelli as opposed to Lully, as opposed to Biber and to Purcell and what the real nuances and differences in style are between them. The historically informed performance movement was pioneered and developed by Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen, the Kuijken brothers and others. I fear this knowledge is a little in danger of disappearing because style research is moving forward, with orchestras and individuals playing later and later repertoire in historically informed styles. So, the scope of historically informed style has grown from being only focused on the 17th- and 18th centuries to now addressing most of the 19th century and even the beginning of the 20th century; a lot of research is being done into 19th century performance practice. In addition to how one should play not only Haydn, Mozart, Biber and Bach, there is also new focus on informed performance of works of Schumann, Brahms and Mendelssohn, etc. More and more works are being dug up. That, in my opinion, is the next step for this movement. But, by having to know so much about how to play Monteverdi and also how to play Brahms in a historically informed style, there is only so much specialism you can have, with the danger of this becoming more generic than it used to be. 

PH: How much solo-playing do you do? 

KD: I recently recorded a CD of Bach violin concertos with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists; it came out a few months ago. I recorded the well-known Bach violin concertos and I also arranged two of Bach’s harpsichord concertos for violin. I do quite a lot of solo-playing and directing with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: the four leaders get to do their own projects. I have been doing that for years. There is a Vivaldi “Four Seasons” CD I recorded with the Age of Enlightenment Then I do quite a lot of work with groups that invite me to come in to direct them, from the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra onwards (and I do go back there.) I collaborate a lot with Barokkanerne, an orchestra in Norway, with which I have recorded a Telemann CD. Telemann wrote many violin concertos, excellent works which really should be performed more often than they are. That was a lovely project. Then there is Victoria Baroque, an orchestra on the west coast of Canada, with which I collaborate a lot. I frequently do Brandenburg Concertos with the Italian group Zefiro (Alfredo Bernardini) So, over the last ten, fifteen years, there has been a lot of solo work. It’s nice to have that autonomy...having your own ‘voice’, as it were, makes a lovely change from playing in an orchestra, where your duty is to do execute someone else’s ideas to the best of your ability.

PH: I am interested to hear more about your transcription of the Bach harpsichord concerto.

KD: I transcribed the E major concerto (BWV 1053) into D major for the violin, taking inspiration also from two cantatas where all three movements appear with the organ as soloist. I wrote it out in the nice, old-fashioned way, using pencil and paper, and a colleague of mine from the English Baroque Soloists who has a music publishing company called ‘Fountayne Editions’ arranged it on the computer. It will soon be available to the public, for anyone who wants to try it. If you fancy another Bach violin concerto and not just the A minor and E major, here is another possibility.

PH: How much chamber music do you play?

KD: At the moment I play in a Classical piano trio - Trio Goya - with fortepianist Maggie Cole and ‘cellist Sebastian Comberti. We have recorded two CDs - a Haydn recording and Beethoven’s Opus 1 Trios. I used to work with two other ensembles - one was Ricordo - we did a lot of 17th century music - the other is Florilegium, in which I played for six or seven years. I left both due to time constraints. There are only 24 hours in a day! 

PH: What instruments do you own?

KD:  I have an Italian violin from Naples from around 1760, which is a little late, but not too late and it’s in Baroque condition (although it should be a high Baroque/ Classical set-up.) There is a possibility that it is by the Gagliarno family of violin makers, but nobody is prepared to confirm that. So, it is just a lovely Italian instrument. And I play another 18th century violin, which is in modern condition. Again, nobody knows where it is from. Experts can’t even agree on whether it is German or Flemish. It belonged to my teacher, Ora Shiran. It’s the instrument on which she played with the Israel Chamber Orchestra and it means a lot to me to be able to own it after her untimely death.  It is now strung with gut strings and is used for playing 19th century repertoire. Well, I still have my lovely first Baroque violin, which I bought from Myrna, built about 1730 by Leonhardus Maussiell, a well-known violin maker in Nurnberg. And, of course, I have lots of different bows for different types of music.

PH: Do you write about music?

KD: No. It’s not because I don’t like writing about music. It’s because my métier is to play music and I leave the writing about it to the people who know how to do that.

PH: Do you ever play the modern violin and do you play contemporary music?

KD: I haven’t played on steel strings for a long time. As mentioned earlier, I play on a modern violin strung with gut strings; the last repertoire I performed on it was music by Ibert and Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” and things like that, in a chamber concert with the Age of Enlightenment. And, before the coronavirus lockdown, we were due to perform Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 9, a chamber arrangement of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” [The Song of the Earth], a chamber arrangement of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture and an opera overture by Hans Pfitzner. It was a wonderful program, built around the idea of Dr. Faustus, of selling your soul to the devil. I spent a month “furiously” practising the Schoenberg…Schoenberg on gut strings, mind you, because that is how it would have been done in Vienna in 1915.  It was written with Arnold Rosé in mind. He was leader of the Rosé Quartet (and leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which he was asked to leave in 1938) and would have played the first violin in the Schoenberg. He was also the violinist who played all the solos in the premieres of all Mahler’s symphonies. Arnold Rosé’s daughter, Alma Rosé, perished in Auschwitz. She was the leader of the Women’s Orchestra in the women’s camp. Arnold Rosé survived the war and went to live in England; he played on gut strings to the end of his life! So, in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, we now play works up to those of Schoenberg on modern instruments but still with pure gut strings. But I have not played really contemporary music for a long time.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

KD: I like my teaching very much. I teach at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. What I do often see are students wanting teachers to tell them what to do. I didn’t have that...I had to find it out by myself which, in my opinion, is not a bad thing. Since we have been in lockdown, I have been teaching online. To do that, you have to develop new methods of listening and giving feedback, because you are not in the same room as the student...interesting in itself. This is no substitute for one-on-one contact, but some on-line teaching works very well. One nice thing I have had time to do is to have some group lessons with the students and also the opportunity to ask them to do the proper reading and  research every Baroque violinist should do - reading Quantz, Leopold Mozart, etc., - to know how to play different dance movements in the different styles, etc. The students are normally too busy to do these important things. The students hail from many countries: The Hague is a very international town, attracting people from all over, and that is very nice. What is also nice is how supportive the students are of each other; they develop a network of friends that keeps them in very good stead for the rest of their professional lives. Their studies there are very formative. I still hear of former students meeting to play together in different countries. Music is a global occupation: it has no borders, no nationalities, no religion. We are all there with the same aim and we interact in a non-verbal language. That is really a wonderful thing and I feel lucky and privileged to be involved in that. I have been teaching in The Hague for, I think, 16 years and a lot of my former students now play all over the world. Some have been doing well in Australia, one has been playing in Les Arts Florissants, one is playing in the English Baroque Soloists, some play in various ensembles in Belgium and Holland and several of them have formed their own chamber groups. 

PH: Is English your language of instruction at The Hague Conservatory?

KD: Yes and no. I have had two Israeli students whom I taught in Hebrew, two Hungarian students I teach in Hungarian and I have many students I teach in Spanish. 

PH: Apart from teaching online, what have been your activities during the coronavirus lockdown? 

KD: Well, over the last few weeks, we have met lots of neighbours we haven’t met over the last ten years. That happened because my 10-year-old daughter and I did a little end-of-the-garden concert. The neighbours sat out with drinks in their respective gardens and listened. My daughter plays recorder and ‘cello. We played some evergreens, like “Land of Hope and Glory”, so the neighbours could sing along, but we also played a little Bach and a little Vivaldi. It was so successful that we were asked to repeat it, this time in the front garden, again meeting more people we had previously not known. Then there was VE Day (celebrating the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces 75 years ago). There was a street party and we organized the entertainment, with lots of songs from the ‘40s played on recorder and violin, with the 15-year-old flautist from across the road….and all this with social distancing! Those are lovely things that have come out of this horrible situation. 

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

KD: Reading (sometimes reading poetry), enjoying walks in some kind of natural setting - it can be in a doesn’t need to be the wilderness, but it should be an environment that has birdsong and the wind. Spending time with the family; that’s the most important! thing, actually. At the moment, it means throwing the frisbee with the little one. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Talking to historic bassoonist Benny Aghassi

Benny Aghassi (Courtesy Amsterdam Conservatory)
On April 25th 2020, I had the pleasure of talking to Benny Aghassi in Évora, Portugal. Born in Rehovot, Israel, in 1978, Benny Aghassi took recorder studies with Bracha Kol. When a student at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, he won the Woodwind Concerto Competition and the Early Music Competition. He graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree from the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where he studied recorder under Sébastien Marq and historic bassoon under Donna Agrell, completing a Master’s degree with Heiko ter Schegget at the Utrecht Conservatory. He currently plays with such orchestras as the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Orchestra of the 18th century (Frans Brüggen), the Netherlands Bach Society, Academy of Ancient Music (Richard Egarr), B’Rock, Les Musiciens du Prince (Cecilia Bartoli) and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Ton Koopman). Today, he lives in The Hague and teaches historic bassoon at the Amsterdam Conservatory and the Bremen University of the Arts.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

BA: I didn’t grow up in a family of professional musicians, but we did hear classical music at home, my mum went to concerts of the Israel Philharmonic and my older siblings had piano lessons. The first thing that comes to mind is receiving a tape recorder, recording myself playing the recorder and then playing a second voice with it. That was my first experience of playing chamber music (with myself!) I didn’t have many recordings, but found an LP recording of Frans Brüggen playing Brandenburg Concerto No.4. I remember that listening to it was a mind-blowing experience for me. I also tried playing along with him, but could not understand why my recorder was pitched so much higher than his!

PH: So, as a child, you started with the recorder.

BA: Yes. Before one of her visits to Holland, my mum (who was Dutch...came to Israel at age 18) had bought me a green recorder.  By chance, at school a couple of days after that, someone came into our classroom to ask if anyone was interested in having recorder lessons. I said I was and that I had a recorder. So, that’s how it all started. I played in a recorder group at primary school. Somehow, I moved to the teacher’s teacher and to that teacher’s teacher and music was becoming central to my life. I studied with Bracha Kol. This was among the strongest learning experiences I have had. She introduced me to serious music-making. Another experience was the Early Music Workshop in Jerusalem, a place to meet like-minded people and discover repertoire; there, I spent hours every day photocopying music.

PH: So, did you plan on a musical career?

BA: No. I did not see myself as becoming a professional musician. Before my Israeli army service, I had applied to serve in the outstanding musicians’ unit and was accepted, but my sights were on studying medicine. All my high school grades and the psychometric exam were aimed at medical studies. However, after three years in the army, I decided to go away for a year to clear my mind and, because of my love of music, I went to Holland to study recorder with Sébastien Marq. One year there became two. Finishing my second year of recorder studies in Holland, I was confused and did not know where or what I should be studying. I still had this voice inside of me telling me to go back to Israel to study medicine. However, a big dream of mine had always been to spend time in India. I think it was connected to A.B.Yehoshua’s beautiful book “The Return from India”, which talks a lot about India but also about medicine. So, when I was still in Holland, I decided I should go to India for a few months. The experience of being there was very interesting because there I had a sense of  total freedom, a thing one never has as a musician: you always feel you need to practice this and read that...I was in India for four months (had no instruments with me and didn’t go with friends) basically, interested to see what would happen. It was a wonderful time of my life, but after about two or three weeks, I found myself going crazy without music. So, I went to take tabla lessons (not that I was so much into percussion) and bansuri lessons. I was constantly looking for music. With so much time there to think about life, I began to realize that what would happen was not so much my choice, rather, it seemed that music had chosen me! That feeling was very strong. On the other hand, I am very practical and could not see myself becoming a recorder teacher; I love teaching, but even more, I love making music on the concert platform - chamber music, but also orchestral music. So, I made two decisions: returning to Holland, I would continue with music studies but I would also start to play the bassoon and learn to build instruments. So, weighing 15 kilos less, I returned to Holland. Jacqueline Sorel, a recorder maker working in The Hague accepted me to learn instrument-making at her workshop. She also played Baroque bassoon and I could hire her instruments. Somehow, everything quickly fell into place: a week later, I met Donna Agrell, who became my bassoon teacher. Basically, from the moment I met Agrell, my life was changed because things had started happening so quickly. Studying with her, I finished my degree three years later, quickly finding a teaching position in Amsterdam and starting to work with various orchestras. After a year, I had to stop making instruments, as playing the dulcian, the Baroque- and Classical bassoons involved so much to do, learn and practise. And, yes, life had taken a totally different turn. 

PH: Have you played modern bassoon?

BA: Never. I was interested in it at the Early Music Workshop in Jerusalem, but I never really got into it. For many years, I was quite sorry about not having previously acquired modern bassoon technique. Now, I don’t see it as such a problem, because I find it very beautiful to play early music, as I do, looking at music chronologically from that perspective. As a recorder player, I have done a lot of Renaissance music in concert and my biggest interest has always been the 17th century. Also, on the recorder, you end up doing a lot of 18th century music, but still, most of my work is Classical - Mozart and Beethoven. In an orchestra, there are two bassoons, with more to do as a bassoonist in a Classical orchestra, then moving to later music - Brahms, Dvořák, now to French Romantics - Saint-Saëns and Gounod. If you see an instrument, such as a German Romantic instrument from around 1890, it already looks like a modern bassoon. It is not a really modern bassoon, but is getting close to it. My chronological approach is always from the direction of earlier music and never from the more modern. 

PH: So you don’t see your place in the modern orchestra.

BA: No. I could never imagine myself in a modern orchestra; actually, just once I played Poulenc with a modern orchestra - I was the only historic bassoonist. Thinking about it, the way fantastic musicians in a modern orchestra play is not that far from early music. I think that early music has had an influence on this. The only thing is that their instruments are far more stable, this meaning that you can end up having less skilled musicians in a modern orchestra still doing a really good job, with all notes in tune and the sound projecting well. But then, this still misses a “special touch”. In early music, I can’t imagine early music ensembles getting to a professional level without that “special touch”.

PH: Do you come across modern orchestras that embrace music in a historically informed manner?

BA: Yes. I’m quite positive about this development. For example, I see orchestras like the Zurich Opera House Orchestra, with whose concertmaster I work a lot (she plays Baroque violin; we run a festival there). She leads a totally modern group, but when they play music of Mozart or earlier, it is always on historic instruments. I find this impressive. Also, in the Concertgebouw Orchestra, they use different bows for music of the Classical period and earlier. So, the modern world is changing.

PH: Where do you stand regarding the movement for authentically performed early music?

BA: Well, for me, I have never had anything with which to compare early music. I see a lot of my students who started with the modern bassoon and also colleagues who come from the modern world. But I come from the recorder and the only thing I have known is the language of early music. The language of early music is quite interesting. I grew up very strongly in the Dutch school of early music but I now work a lot in Germany, in France and in England. Each of those countries has its own "language" of early music, despite the fact that all early music has a lot of connections to drama and to verbal texts. For me, it has been quite interesting to realize that not everybody has the same language of music-making. For example, when I was studying recorder at the Jerusalem Academy of Music during my army service (there were not a lot of people playing historic instruments), working, for example with a ‘cellist, I could not explain to him (back then, I didn’t have the tools to do so) how one played a basso continuo line in the Baroque style, with the variety of articulation offering in that period. After many years of experience, I now find it beautiful to see in more detail how we make music differently in different countries.

PH: You frequently play with the Netherlands Bach Society. Would you like to talk about this group?

BA: Yes. Sure. As a freelance musician, you end up working with many groups. The Netherlands Bach Society was one of the first groups that offered me ensemble opportunities. It’s a very “closed society”, with extremely nice people...very friendly, the players and staff are all very committed and it’s a real “institution”. It was founded in 1921 (next year, the NBS will celebrate its 100th anniversary!) in order to create a different approach to performing the St. Matthew Passion. The St. Matthew Passion is a central part of Dutch culture. At Passiontide (the days leading up to Easter) much of the population of Holland goes to hear the St. Matthew Passion. One of the main versions used to be that of the Concertgebouw (much before the early music movement) There was a religious group that had the feeling that something was wrong aesthetically with the way the Concertgebouw performed Bach - in a very Romantic manner, with a large orchestra. The group wanted a different version, one which would be much simpler and more Calvinistic in approach. That was when the NBS was founded. From around the early ‘80s, Jos van Veldhoven took over as artistic director (he has now retired). He transformed the group into an early music ensemble, one of the first anywhere in the world. Actually, quite a lot of the members from then are still playing with the NBS! What I very much love about it is that everybody is treated as equal. (When I work with French groups, there is a very clear hierarchy: the conductor, who often owns the group, basically tells you what to do. He is in control. In some of the more extreme situations, you are not even to address him! In Germany, this is not as extreme, but it is still very clear that there is a hierarchy.) I am not saying that in Holland there is no hierarchy, but in Holland there is a strong feeling that all are equal and that continues to be what I so love about the NBS. It is not that everybody chooses to constantly voice opinions at rehearsals, but, even if you are in the last row of the orchestra and not playing the most important role, you can always stand up and disagree with the way something is being performed or to tell the conductor he is not being clear, etc. The NBS feels like a family and it is very democratic. What I like about being in it is that I really feel and hear it as a group of people playing together. It’s not about following each other or trying to please anybody; it’s very genuine music-making and that’s why it has become my number one group. I do, of course, play with other groups - there are groups that can provide me with 250 working days a year (the NBS offers about 80) - but there are still so many positive things about being a part of the NBS. Regarding the Netherlands Bach Society’s “All of Bach” project, about nine or ten years ago, Jos van Veldhoven came up with the idea of performing all of Bach’s music within ten years. There were many questions as to how and where we should perform the works, how we should record them, how we publicize the many questions. Regarding the question of recording, if you record in a studio, you can edit almost every bar. But we wanted our performances to be more natural. In fact, the level of performance has become so high that, basically, what you see on the “All of Bach” video films is the live performance. What happens now is that, when we do a cantata program, we perform three cantatas at one concert, with two or three solo organ pieces between them. We always perform cantatas in churches, the idea being that church music should be performed in a church and, whenever possible, with large organs. These organs are very interesting for the sound they give but very challenging when it comes to pitch: there are only very few historic organs still being used at the current standard pitch for early music. After each concert, we have about 45 minutes to correct small details in any of the six pieces - a singer singing a wrong word, a squeak from one of the wind instruments or a camera focusing on the wrong musicians, for example. What this means is that the final result is actually the live concert. For secular music, we use modern halls and galleries. Well, looking at the “All of Bach” project today, we are not going to complete it in ten years. However, since the beginning of it, I do feel that the performance level of the ensemble has risen a lot, largely due to the fact that you are required to get the performance right the first time. 

PH: This is no easy feat! 

BA: Absolutely not and it can land us in some very extreme situations. For example, we once did a very small project led by oboist Alfredo Bernardini. It was with single strings. Bach cantatas are often written in transposition, meaning, for example, being written in G-major for the strings and organ, but in F-major or even E-major for the winds. One problem here was that we had three cantatas to perform at the one concert - two in which instruments were transposed a tone apart and, in one, a minor third apart. This meant that the strings were playing at 465 Hz (a half-tone higher than modern pitch), then one cantata with Alfredo and me playing at 392 Hz (a minor 3rd lower than the rest) and one cantata played at 415 Hz (a tone lower than 465). This is complicated. However, that day we were recording them in a beautiful Amsterdam church. It happened to be extremely sunny and the sun was streaming through a window into the church. The organ, usually tuned to 465, rose in pitch to 470 Hz! Here you are doing an “All of Bach” recording, you have one chance, you have been playing at two different pitches and now the sun is raising the pitch even higher. But the group survived it. There are not many groups that would be flexible enough to adjust to such a situation and still perform on a high level. That is why I am really proud of the NBS. The ensemble is doing really well, especially in its performances of Bach’s music.

PH: Nowadays, you play with a number of consorts throughout Europe. Do you not miss doing solo performances? Or do you also solo?

BA: That’s a good question. I am surrounded by a lot of good friends who have made the choice to be soloists. I will give you an example: a very good friend of mine, mandolin artist Avi Avital and I served together in the Israeli army. For two years, we shared a small room and there we had many discussions on this subject. For him, it was very clear that he wanted to be a soloist and what he needed to do to make it happen. Every year in the Jerusalem Academy Music competitions, such as the concerto competition - Avi would win the string prize and I would win the wind section prize. So, I do have it in my DNA to be a soloist. But, as a bassoonist, I have always felt so much happier to be at the back of the ensemble and, by that, I don’t mean that I have a less important role. If I recollect my mother going to a concert of the Israel Philharmonic, she would come home saying “What a wonderful violin-, ‘cello-, piano soloist there was” or “The conductor was so inspiring.” But it would be very rare for her to come back saying “I loved the double bass solo”. What I am trying to say is that a low-pitch role is not less important, but the way one can write for the violin is much more elaborate and, also, the human ear is mostly drawn to the higher voices. If you attend a concert and the continuo player takes all the attention, it can actually be a problem! Because, if a continuo player does a really good job, he gives the rhythm, he gives the harmony, but he also makes the other instruments shine. And I have realized that my character fits into this concept. That is one part of it. The other part is that if you want to be a soloist, you need to work in a certain way: you need to always give interviews, to sell yourself to concert programmers and you need to work with always need to be at the front. That’s not my character. At the same time, because I do have the physical capacity to perform solos, I do that, but only when they are offered to me. 

PH: So, how do you work your solo-playing into your general performing schedule?

BA: The solo work is intermixed with my orchestral- and chamber music projects. For example, of the many concerts I do with the Netherlands Baroque Society, I have played some bassoon concertos with them and, of course, a lot of chamber music. There is always solo work. For example, I remember a concert in Antwerp where, after the whole orchestra had gone on stage, all the choir members and then the conductor, I went to the front of the stage and performed a work of Jacob van Eyck on the recorder, totally solo. There is also a beautiful summer festival in Switzerland in which I participate every year. It is always the same set-up - single strings, two oboes, bassoon and a very big continuo group - harpsichord, ‘cello, violone, harp and theorbo. There, we perform five concerts over two weeks, each program being different; in those, I play a lot of sonatas and concertos. Then there is B’Rock, a very successful Belgian ensemble in which I am involved; I sometimes play a concerto with them. So, I do solo work, but I am not the person initiating it. And I don’t initiate CD recordings of all this solo music. I am able to solo, and happy when solo work comes along. When not soloing, I find it challenging enough to be in an orchestra. Am involved in performing music from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 20th century. Somehow, this is much more exciting to me.

PH: Do you still perform on the recorder?

BA: Yes. Something has changed a bit lately. For many years, I only played bassoon. In fact, many of my colleagues didn’t even know I played the recorder. But the “All of Bach” series has changed things: when there is a recorder part, I am the first to be asked to do it, providing there is no bassoon role in the work. Orchestras don’t offer a lot to recorder players, but, usually, someone in the ensemble can play the recorder. It is rare for an orchestra to hire outside recorder players. For example, we did an opera with René Jacobs. I was playing bassoon. He asked who played the recorder and two or three people said they did and were asked to double a violin here, an oboe there - he likes to find different colours. So, as a bassoonist, I now find myself playing more recorder parts, but it is very rare that I play only recorder in a program. I am happy to combine both instruments; as a bassoonist, it is really hard to stay in shape, to keep one’s muscles in good form. Because I have played the recorder from a very young age, and I know the instrument very well, I don’t need to spend hours and hours practicing it. That’s what makes it quite fun to combine it with playing bassoon. Actually lately, I have been playing more and more recorder. 

PH: Would you like to talk about the bassoons you have?

BA: I would need a few hours for that! Let's say I am not a collector. I have friends who own a lot of original instruments. Actually, I do also, the idea being to have the right instruments for almost everything I perform of all periods. It starts with the Renaissance and the early- and late 17th century. I have many kinds of dulcians. The bass dulcian is the most common, but sometimes you need the smaller ones - alto and tenor - for consort music. Pitch is always the main problem with them because, in most regions, pitch was quite high - around 465 Hz or 460 - but, somehow, in many countries, the standard pitch for Renaissance and early 17th century music is 440 Hz...I have never really understood why, to be honest. So, you need both set-ups - 440Hz and 465. There are some transitional instruments from Renaissance to Baroque, but then, Baroque music has different requirements: for a continuo line, you need an instrument that gives you the flexibility to blend with all the different instruments - the harpsichord, organ, viola da gamba, ‘cello and bass. But as you go later in time, you need an instrument that has a better tenor register, like for music of Rameau. In the high Baroque (1710 to 1750/60) instruments underwent a lot of changes. What this means is that for Baroque music I need an early Baroque bassoon and a later Baroque bassoon and I need a bassoon tuned to 392 or 400 Hz, say, for French opera (although most of the time we play at 415 Hz) but, in extreme situations, you need to use a 440 Hz Baroque bassoon. This doesn’t happen very often, but it still requires yet another instrument. Then we get to the Classical period and here, again, we have endless possibilities: you have the French instruments and the German instruments and you have instruments with five-, six-, seven-, nine-, eleven- and twelve keys. You need an instrument tuned to 430 Hz (Classical pitch) but sometimes you need to play at 435 or 438. So, I basically need to cover all those possibilities and then you get into the Romantics, where there are new changes and here you have the clear distinction between the French “basson” and the German “Fagott”. Well, I have many instruments at home but, to be honest, there are eight instruments which I mostly use - the two bass dulcians, the two Baroque bassoons and the Classical- and Romantic instruments. I probably have something like 30 instruments. And then, of course, I have recorders!

PH: Do you write about music?

BA: All the groups I play with employ musicologists who write concert notes. I sometimes supply them with some basic data and I also send some information to my students, but I am much busier with playing than with writing; musicology was never my strong side. 

PH: Do you edit?

BA: I used to edit music, but I don’t do that so much anymore. I can always ask a student to do it, but, also, each of the orchestras I play with has a librarian, which is a luxury. For example, with the Netherlands Bach Society, we recorded Cantata No.150, a complicated cantata because, originally, the strings should have played at 465 Hz and in B-minor and the bassoon at 392 Hz, playing in D-minor. To make things more complicated, we were playing in a church where the organ was at 440 Hz, which doesn’t suit either of those pitches. In addition, there were two other cantatas on the program that were not supposed to be in that kind of transposition. To cut the story short, I was playing two of the cantatas on a 440 Hz Baroque bassoon (the first time I had ever used it) - a bit of a strange instrument - playing at a difference of a half tone in one cantata, meaning that the orchestra was playing in B-minor at 440 and I was playing in C-minor at 415 Hz. Of course, I can transpose these parts myself, but I can also ask the librarian to convert the part from B-minor to C-minor for me. Back in the days of microfilm I did need to edit pieces, but that was many years ago. 

PH: What music is your personal focus at the current time?

BA: If I have nothing to practice, I always go back to the 17th century. For me, I find the early Baroque the most fascinating, music that saw the beginning of more idiomatic writing for instruments. Why I love it is that it is so simple, but, at the same time, so complicated, with phrases so simple but with the possibility of being so virtuosic. There is something that really attracts me both to the music, but also to the instrument itself, because, for me, the dulcian is the height of the historic bassoon: it is a very simple instrument - one piece of wood with two keys - but its potential sound is so rich, so vocal, with such a fine way of reflecting  text. I think that is why the Baroque bassoon never really “replaced” the dulcian, rather, they existed alongside each other. We even think that when Bach wrote “Fagott”, he still meant the dulcian and, when he wrote “Basson” or “Bassono”, he meant the new design of the bassoon, which is like a Baroque bassoon in four parts. And we see that in Spain the dulcian, only minimally changed, was used till the beginning of the 20th century! In comparison to the constant developments of the bassoon from the Baroque, through the Classical-, Romantic- to the modern bassoon, the dulcian has remained the same, because there was no way of improving it. It was already a perfect instrument in the 16th century. This is the instrument to which I will always go back and I also find it very challenging, because it is an advanced instrument, but at the same time, very primitive: for each fingering, you can play a third higher or lower with different air pressure. You really need to know what you want to hear on the instrument in order to play it really well in tune. And there is an endless original repertoire for the dulcian. In almost every book of sonatas for diverse instruments, there are specific pieces written for the dulcian - in his first book of pieces, Castello wrote five sonatas for it and four in the second. With the Academy of Ancient Music, we recorded the first volume of the Sonate Concertate of Castello and we are planning to record the second book this year; Fontana and Bartolomeo de Selma (the latter a dulcian player) also wrote for the instrument. Something I have heard (and which I need to double-check) is that the first sets of sonatas for solo instruments ever published in history were for dulcian with continuo; these were the nine sonatas of Giovanni Antonio Bertoli. (Of course, there are earlier sonatas but those are not written for one solo instrument.) It was such a popular instrument and there is still so much music written for it to discover.

PH: Which of all the bassoons is the most challenging?

BA: What for me demands the most practice is the Classical bassoon. It is very, very challenging, especially if you play 1st bassoon. (I find playing 2nd bassoon more comfortable.) To play 1st bassoon, you need to know all the voices of the weave and it is technically very demanding. I feel I need to be on as high a level as possible when working with fantastic groups. For example, I work with the orchestra for which Cecilia Bartoli is artistic director; we do a lot of Rossini, some Handel but a lot of later music. Cecilia is such a perfectionist...she never misses a note. So, as a bassoonist, I think that if she can sing so perfectly, I cannot afford a single note not to emerge or a note that doesn’t “speak”. 

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

BA: Sure. I have always taught recorders. Even as a kid, still in primary school, I would teach the younger children. Teaching has always come naturally to me. I have almost stopped teaching recorder but still hold some occasional recorder master classes. I really love teaching the bassoon. In one sense, it is a very technical instrument. Whenever a new student comes along, you always realize how many problems the instrument can have - keys that don’t close or keys that make a lot of noise, problems with the wood, etc. and these problems take a lot of time to solve. Then there is finding a set-up for reeds, to make a reed that works for you. The same reed might work well for you today but not tomorrow! The reed issue is a process that takes months, sometimes years to solve. It is not just the skill of making reeds because, technically, anyone can make a reed, but to make a reed that suits your physical ability is very challenging. Then there is how your own body addresses playing the instrument itself. In the playing of many wind instruments, we speak about support and breathing, but with the bassoon, if you don’t support, no sound comes out at all!  (Of course, for the piano, you need a good hand position, but you will always get a sound.) This is not as extreme as playing the cornet or brass instruments but, to play the bassoon, we double-reed players need a lot of physical ability and the physical ability a bassoonist needs is very different to that of a trumpet player. I always compare us to athletes: trumpet players are the 100-metre sprinters and we bassoonists are the marathon runners. It is tiring to play the bassoon. We sit in an orchestra pit to perform a Handel opera and are required to play endlessly for four hours without tiring or to manage well even if we are tired. As bassoonists, we need to have very flexible muscles, allowing us to play for long stretches. Because of that, I find teaching the bassoon really beautiful because, in lessons, I can hear how quickly the students develop and still, there is so much more to do. I also feel very lucky that all my students are working professionally...almost all...there is always an exception. When I was teaching recorder, trying to do the best I could, I was aware that most of the students would not end up as performers - they would probably teach or go on to other instruments, work as music therapists, etc. This, of course, is really not negative: I believe that whoever wants to study music should. Even in the academic world, I see most people work in other fields from what they have studied, perhaps except for medicine and law. You usually study something and then you find your way. So, what is beautiful with teaching bassoon is that I see my pupils replacing me, playing together with me or playing with top groups - the Bach Collegium Japan, the Academy of Ancient Music, etc. This makes me very proud. Nowadays, there are many more bassoonists because, in the past, it was not common for a good modern player to also play historic instruments. It is now the opposite - everybody is playing everything. Because of people like Sergio Azzolini, one of the only soloists who plays modern and historic bassoons, this practice has become more common. And there is enough work for everybody. I have been teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatory for 11 years, and we never get to a full quota of bassoon students, which would mean six or seven students per class. It means that my students are very busy. Last year, I started teaching at the Bremen University of the Arts and this is very interesting for me. It means a lot of travel. There, they have a very different system of teaching and hierarchy is very strong in Germany. At the same time, education in Germany is free...almost free. There, I don’t have a professorship but a job contract and am not yet very involved in the school itself. Of course, I am very involved with the students. But with all the inconvenience of travelling there, I see the potential of teaching in Germany as it is so much easier for students to study there. The Bremen school facilities are really wonderful. The students come from all over to study there; this year, I have one from St. Petersburg, one from Holland (quite rare) and two German students.  At the Amsterdam Conservatory, I have students from France, Australia, Israel, one from Cuba and one from Russia. I really do love teaching there. I love the department and the teachers and it is a practical set-up. If you have a problem, you write to somebody and you will always get an answer with a solution. It’s wonderful. But education in Holland is getting more and more expensive: if you have a European bachelor’s degree you can’t do a second one unless you put out a lot of money. If you come from outside of Europe, your admission fee is four times as costly as for Europeans. I see how much more difficult it is going to be to attract students, especially from outside of Europe. I very much love teaching, but, interestingly, find it the most tiring of all. For me, standing on the Concertgebouw stage and playing a concerto is much easier than a day of teaching! Being with the students demands all your energy. At the end of a performing project, I go out with my colleagues for a glass of wine. At the end of a day of teaching, I can’t even talk! It is difficult to combine the teaching with my performance projects, as I am always traveling. (There are periods when I fly every second day). But I am trying to change that a little. However, the good thing about teaching semi-professionals is that you don’t need to be there to teach them every week. In extreme situations, I teach a block of lessons, meaning four consecutive days in one month, but I try to avoid that and prefer to go to teach them every two weeks and give double the lessons. That seems to work...we make it work.

PH: How is the present corona crisis affecting your work?

BA: Well, concerts have been cancelled, but I am presently teaching online two days a week. In the past, I could never have imagined doing that, but these are different times. It’s a bit difficult teaching music online, not seeing the students’ posture so well and with the problems of making reeds and adjusting them. But, because of teaching online, I am able to meet with students every week and it is nice to see their progress.  

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

BA: I find myself in the garden a lot. In Holland, we have a roof terrace and looking after the plants there takes a lot of time. I also enjoy reading and yoga. We have a holiday house in Portugal, where we are at the moment; to be honest, it’s the first time we have had time to spend in it and to enjoy the garden! We now start the day with juice made from oranges picked from our own tree, which is very nice. But, normally, my day consists of 20 hours of music! It’s all constantly about music...even dreaming about music! This also means all the organization around concerts, travel, etc. My partner has started a festival here in the beautiful national heritage city of Évora (this year, it will probably be cancelled), but it was held last year and the previous year, attracting a lot of interest. Most of the concerts were absolutely sold out! 

PH: Many thanks for your time, Benny, and for sharing your thoughts and so much interesting information.