Thursday, September 2, 2010

Viola da gamba player, conductor, teacher and researcher Roberto Gini in Israel for concerts and a workshop on 17th century performance practice

On August 26th 2010, I met with Maestro Roberto Gini in the comfort of Drora Bruck’s living room in Ramat Gan for a talk. No newcomer to the Israeli concert scene, Gini, a pioneer in the revival of the viola da gamba in Italy, is a virtuoso viol player, he directs and conducts, performs, records and teaches. A specialist in the musical style and performance practice of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, Professor Gini is in Israel to perform concerts and teach an intensive 17th Century Music Workshop in Tel Aviv. Gini’s teaching, performances and presence in Israel are contributing to a process whereby early music is reaching mainstream status in this country.

PH: Roberto, what were your earliest musical experiences?

Roberto Gini: I was born in Milan in 1958. All my family members were amateur musicians. My maternal grandfather, born 1898, played the violin and ran an orchestra. He was conscripted in both the First World War and the Second World War. During the Second World War, all men under the age of 50 or 55 were obliged to join the Fascist army in the Repubblica di Salo’. Fighting in two wars made life difficult. He had two children, one being my mother. Still, he was a fine musician. My mother played the piano in his orchestra, her sister, the violin; both young woman married men who were players in this orchestra. My father also played the violin. Of course, we had a piano at home and, as a small child, I began playing by ear and improvising. My parents understood that I had musical talent and also that I tended to pay special attention to bass lines. At age 9, I began learning the ‘cello with a wonderful teacher, Attilio Ranzato, learning to read music very quickly. I gave my first professional concert at age 16.

I continued my musical studies in Milan till the age of seventeen. The mid-sixties saw the beginning of the rediscovery of early music. The radio was beginning to play early music, a style of music I had not heard before. Till this time, “early music” for us was J.S.Bach, but nothing before Bach. From age twelve or thirteen, I would go to hear the Milan RAI (Italian Radio Authority) Symphony Orchestra rehearse and there I heard and saw several great conductors, among them Celibidache. I became the mascot of the ‘cello section of the orchestra. One day, when I was sixteen, I went to the Guiseppe Verdi Hall where I heard a choir rehearsing. I was blown away by the beauty of the work they were singing. I was as if drugged, in a dream. I approached the conductor to ask what this work was and he told me it was a Monteverdi madrigal. I then went off to spend days upon days at the local library, reading about- and copying out examples of this old music….the monumental works of Monteverdi, Obrecht, Dufay, Lasso, etc. I had become so engrossed in these works that my score-reading teacher suggested I take the old editions of these works, written in all the various clefs used then, and transcribe them.

It was also at this time that I first heard and saw the viola da gamba played by the great Belgian player Wieland Kuijken. This was in 1974 or 1975: hearing Kuijken on the viol was a second life-changing musical experience for me. I did not have the courage to approach Kuijken but Jordi Savall visited Milan in the same season and I was introduced to him by friends. He invited me to visit him at his home in Basel and to play for him. So, not having ever studied the instrument, I traveled to Basel with my first viol and played for him. There I met a student of his, Pere Ros, today an esteemed viol player now teaching in Spain. Savall accepted me as a student at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and he was to be my first and only viol teacher. His Hesperion XX consort was in its early days and he invited me to play in it. My family was shocked with my decision to abandon the ‘cello for an instrument basically unknown in Italy. All the same, I began my studies in Basel in October 1976, made my first recording with Hesperion in January 1977 and began performing, graduating from the Schola Cantorum in 1982. I continued playing with Hesperion XX till 1986.

Actually, when in Basel, the Schola Cantorum lent me a Baroque ‘cello and I had a Baroque bow: so I was, in a way, returning to my first instrument. To my great surprise, I discovered that my teacher in Milan. Attilio Ranzato, had been training me to play in the correct Baroque technique. He was a teacher of the “old school” and I did not need to make any major changes of technique in order to play Baroque ‘cello.

PH: But your main focus is on the viola da gamba.

RG: Yes. It is difficult to make a career playing both ‘cello and viol. I now feel closer to the repertoire and era of the viol. It gives me more opportunities to play an extended repertoire. Of course, the viola da gamba is not one instrument but a family; playing different members of it is as like being both a violinist and a ‘cellist. So I perform on the viol, teach it and conduct master classes for viol players. I stopped teaching the ‘cello six or seven years ago.

PH: Would you like to talk about Ensemble Concerto?

RG: Yes. I founded it in 1985 and it has been important for putting into practice my research into the performance style of Monteverdi’s music. With this fine group of players, we made several recordings, among them, the Monteverdi “Vespers”. The ensemble’s last production was Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” in 2007.

PH: What does your performing schedule look like nowadays?

RG: I am not looking for too many opportunities to perform. I prefer recording. The truth is that I like playing concerts in Israel but not in Italy or Europe. In Italy, playing concerts has become problematic. With not many public concerts nowadays, the accent is on speed and on creating a resounding impression on the public rather than on performance that is close to the musical text. The new trend is to adapt the musical score to the necessity of mass impact; this seems to be what gives pleasure to today’s concert-going public. Famous “victims” of this mass media practice are Vivaldi and Monteverdi. And paying artists less money for performing means fewer rehearsals; I really can not agree with this approach. So I am happy to do solo recitals. I can not perform in a way that is against my principles because of public demand. I must perform along the same lines as I teach: I teach my pupils that a performer must be serious and approach the score with humility. Learning takes time.

PH: On the subject of learning, you are a renowned- and devoted teacher. Where are you teaching at the moment and what is your goal?

RG: I am teaching at the A. Boito Conservatory in Parma (Italy). And I teach in Israel. I believe in a general vision of the universe, where the arts are one and the same expression, music being one part of this whole. As an artist with 35 years of musical experience behind me I feel my interest in the visual arts, theatre and poetry has led me to understand music better. Music is not separate from the other arts. That is what I want to pass on to my students.

PH: From September 22nd to September 29th, you will be one of three tutors teaching in an intensive 17th Century Music Seminar in Tel Aviv, working with 41 students. Would you like to talk about the course?

RG: Yes. Well, it is a course unlike other early music courses. It will focus on secular music, this music being close to theatre. But, practically, I hope it will provide us with an opportunity to approach the music of the age of Monteverdi in an entirely different way. The students will be surprised to be listening to recordings of actors; they will even hear extracts from speeches given by Mussolini. My aim is to draw their attention to importance of rhetoric in music and theatre.

PH: Where does Mussolini come into the teaching of early music?

RG: Let me start from the beginning. If you compare a recording of a Mozart symphony conducted by Bruno Walter, recorded in the 1950’s, and a later Nikolaus Harnoncourt interpretation, you can discern a big difference between them. Walter’s tempi are slower, Harnoncourt’s are faster. These choices stem from the cultural experience of the age where a performance takes place. Walter’s reading is relevant to the reading of a Mozart score in the 1950’s. Harnoncourt’s interpretation reflects a newer approach in the 1980’s. Both interpretations are equally great, with each conductor giving his own interpretation of an Allegro- or Andante movement. Let’s go back to Monteverdi. There are no such “Allegro” or “Andante” markings, but the system of the tactus (basic beat), one of arithmetic proportions is all-important. If the performer is not aware of the significance of these proportions, a section of a Monteverdi work can sound Presto, when it really is designed to be an Adagio. I say this not because I believe I am the greatest expert on this subject but because I have made the same tempo mistakes myself. For decades, recordings of Monteverdi’s music have been based on mistakes due to tempi that are taken faster and faster. Where Monteverdi writes three whole note beats, for example, many performers will take them at the speed of three quarter notes; however, these whole notes are meant to be understood as slow beats. Listeners are not aware of this; they have no tempo markings to guide them; they are only guided by what they have heard on recordings.

Our pace of life is fast; we are exposed to fast music with percussion, whether it be pop, ethnic or other styles of music; this is our present reference point and we believe it to be the correct one. But Monteverdi’s music is based on rhetoric, rhetoric being a vehicle that brings together all emotions. A priest giving a sermon in a church must present the text slowly and clearly in order to be understood by his listeners. On the theatre stage we have to speak more slowly and pronounce the words in a specific way; even facial expressions need to be more pronounced for the audience to comprehend. So I take my cue from the practice of magnifying voice and gestures. I am not interested in his political career, but Mussolini was, in this way, brilliant. He had real, natural theatrical talent; he could mimic like an actor, grotesque as it may look to us nowadays. If he had chosen a theatrical career instead of politics, he would have been a very great actor. I can follow a musical progression in his style…a recitative, followed by an accelerando, with a cadence to follow. In one film clip, I will accompany his speech on the harpsichord to demonstrate this. Not many public figures have had this gift and, of course, he did not have all the technical support that a public speaker has today. His is the technique used in the commedia dell’arte and the silent movies. Students watching theatre and film should learn to appreciate the many sides of an actor or actress; take that famous, brilliant and tense scene from “The Little Foxes” where Bette Davis decides not to save her husband’s life. In this scene, all is expressed in her facial expression, making for truly virtuosic acting. Singers can learn much from watching this example of great theatre. We musicians are all “actors”, even instrumentalists whose text is non-verbal: they have a plot and must base its development and their emotional reading of it on artistic sincerity. This is no different to the rhetoric of poetry. Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwaengler both spoke of what music “has to say”. Strange as it may seem at first for early music students coming to this course, the young performers will see video extracts of Mussolini addressing the public, Italian actors and comedians and excerpts from silent movies. These will demonstrate the importance of playing with grand gestures and large phrases. Understanding how to perform Monteverdi’s music, therefore, ties in with this approach to meaningful expression: all gestures must be magnified. In fact, my recording of the Monteverdi Vespers fills almost three CD’s, whereas most recordings of other artists fill two.

PH: You have had a number of appearances with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, to the great enjoyment of its audiences.

RG: Yes and I look forward to more collaboration with its director David Shemer and with the JBO players.

PH: How would you explain the reason for your frequent visits to Israel?

RG: This is not easy to define. I am not Jewish. I met recorder-player Drora Bruck in Lanciano, Italy in 1994, where I was teaching an early music course and she was a student. We neither of us spoke the other’s language, but an instant mental- and emotional understanding formed between us, we shared the same musical philosophy and became very firm friends. It was as if we had something in common in our past history, a connection. In 1995 we together made a film on Salomone Rossi for Israeli television’s Channel Two television. Produced by Tel Ad Jerusalem Studios, it was filmed in Mantua and Venice. That was our first project.

Other Israeli students then crossed my path. ‘Cellist Orit Messer Jacobi, a member of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, was a student of mine. I believe in the history of existence. This feeling of identity was unbelievably strong the very first time I arrived in Israel in 1995 and it is so when I meet Israelis and Jewish people. There may be some Jewish relatives in my mother’s family, which came from Vercelli, Piedmont. There was an important Jewish community there and I have done some research on it.

PH: You seem happy teaching in Israel.

RG: Indeed. I have very good students in Italy, but here my students are especially involved in the learning process and have a connection to the music of a kind that is difficult to explain…let’s call it an emotional, spiritual and cultural connection. I am able to share my ideas and experience with them and they drink in my every word. I find them of a good standard and hard-working, too. It is no wonder that I feel so musically alive in Israel! Well, early music is still developing here but most teachers are open-minded and many of the musicians involved in playing early music are very experienced players, have been trained in different European countries, then returning to Israel. So this is the right time to build up an early music tradition in Israel and I have the dream of creating a school here, one that I can not in Europe. As a didactic process, all teachers will need to be involved, to discuss and compare as a team. The Israel Conservatory of Music (Tel Aviv) is building a large new center to be opened in October 2011; it will officially open its Early Music Center then and there, and we will conduct our next early music workshop in the new building. Drora Bruck, head of the Early Music Department, has made me honorary professor of the current faculty. Orit Messer, lutenist Bari Moscovich and Bruck herself were all trained in Italy. This faculty will be expanded. Early music players in Israel are generally very interested in education. And there is another exciting new project: there are plans to create a Junior Baroque Orchestra in the Early Music Center. This will be a collaboration with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and its musical director, David Shemer. The time seems right to start these projects.

PH: What is your feeling about Israeli concert audiences?

RG: In all the concerts I have given here, it has been clear to me that Israeli audiences are a music-loving crowd. They come to listen to the music, rather than to sit there passing judgment on the performance, on tempi, etc, After a concert in Haifa, a member of the audience approached me to discuss how beautiful Telemann’s music is and why it surpasses Handel’s music! This has never happened to me in Italy. There is a different approach to music in Israel and that is why I like to say a few words about the music performed in my concerts. Looking out into the concert audiences in Jerusalem, I would say that half of them are made up of young people; this is most pleasing.

PH: Roberto, do you compose?

RG: I was a composition student at the Milan Conservatory and this was an important experience for me. I composed music in the style of Monteverdi. This may seem a useless practice but it has proved important for me for performing works such as Monteverdi’s “Incoronazione di Poppea” (The Crowning of Poppea) where only some parts of the original score have survived (in the Biblioteca Marziana, Venice.) . We have needed to reconstruct the score, keeping it faithful to the style. That is where I apply what I learned in my composition studies as I need to write in what is missing. In some early 17th century madrigals the ritornelli exist only with a bass line. In 1607, Agostino Agazzari wrote about the method of playing upon the bass line for violin and what he called the “ornamenting” instruments; but we do need to have a score for the bass line.

PH: What other interests do you have?

RG: Theatre.

PH: Attending theatrical productions or acting?

RG: In a sense, both. In my concerts I am not really acting. However, I am on a stage where I have to be “somebody” and I have to communicate. I know what I am doing, how I am doing it and I sense the “temperature” of the audience, whether the performance is overdone or too understated, whether the audience is friendly and concentrating.

PH: Professor Roberto Gini, many thanks for your time and for sharing your wealth of ideas.

Roberto Gini will be performing the following concerts:

Saturday September 4th, 21:00
Studio Theatre, Beit Hecht, Haifa
Roberto Gini-viola da gamba
Drora Bruck-recorders
Orit Messer-Jacobi-Baroque ‘cello
Bari Moscovich-theorbo
Miri Singer-harpsichord
Music of J.S.Bach, C.P.E.Bach, Telemann

Monday September 6th , 20:30
Felicja Blumenthal Center, Tel Aviv,
Same program as in Haifa

Saturday October 2nd, 20:30
Einav Center, Tel Aviv
Roberto Gini-director, harpsichord
Antonella Gianesse (Italy)-soprano
Ayala Sicron-soprano
Yair Polishook-bass
Drora Bruck-recorders
Noam Schuss-violin
Orit Messer-Jacobi-Baroque ‘cello
Eitan Hoffer-lute
Music of Monteverdi and Peri

The Early 17th Century Seminar in Tel Aviv
September 22nd to September 29th
Tutors: Roberto Gini, Drora Bruck, Antonella Gianesse

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