Friday, October 28, 2011

Ivan Velikanov talks about Alta Capella, the first professional early music ensemble to come out of Russia

On October 15th 2011, I met with Ivan (Yohanan) Velikanov on the terrace of Jerusalem’s lively Paradiso Café-Restaurant. Velikanov, 25, is the founder and musical director of the Alta Capella Ensemble from Moscow, four of whose members are in Israel for a short concert tour.

PH: Ivan, are you from Moscow?

Ivan Velikanov: Yes, I am. Our group is based in Moscow, but not all players are originally from there.

PH: How many players are you?

IV: All in all, 13 players, but the number depends on each individual program. We have some permanent members and others whom we call on when we need them. And the permanent members play different instruments, according to what we are performing; we play a wide range of music and from several periods. For example, for 15th century music we need shawms but we do not need violins. When we play 17th century music, mostly on cornets and sackbuts, we need Baroque violins as it is normal for this music to combine these with basso continuo. So you could say our ensemble is flexible. We have a choice of Baroque violinists in Moscow, but when it comes to instruments like the shawm, bombard and cornett, the core of the ensemble provides those. For example, when it comes to the cornett, played in the Renaissance and early Baroque, our instrumentalist Maxim was the only player in Russia. Actually, I have begun playing it now; so you might say there are now one and a half cornett players in Russia! We play music spanning from the 13th century up to the early 18th century.

PH: How long has the ensemble been in existence?

IV: A little over two years. Almost all the players are students or graduates from the Moscow Conservatoire. I, myself, studied composition there and now I am back there studying orchestral conducting. Maxim, with us here in Israel, who plays first cornett, bombard (alto shawm) and other instruments, graduated in orchestral conducting.

PH: How do you create such an early music ensemble in a country that has very little tradition in performing music from this time? How do you find teachers?

IV: Finding teachers is a big problem. There have never been shawm- or cornett teachers in Russia and there still are not. We, ourselves, will be the first generation of professional masters of these instruments in 10 or 15 years. So we are self-made early music instrumentalists, although we have much training in other musical fields. What I do is invite some of western Europe’s finest early music specialists to give master classes in Moscow – such as the great French cornettist and expert in Renaissance improvisation William Dongois; his guidance was very useful, not just for cornett players. The brilliant Italian shawm player Isacco Colombo has tutored us. We have also been to Germany to attend master classes.

PH: So you are the first professional early music ensemble in Russia.

IV: You could say so. There are some instrument makers in Russia who dabble in the playing of early instruments. Do they play authentically? Well, the question of authenticity is a tricky one. How do we know how the shawm should really sound? It is not like the clarinet, whose uninterrupted history allows us to know the styles of playing of the various schools. As to professional playing of early brass instruments, we are the first.

PH: What is important for you to develop in such an ensemble?

IV: The music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance offers much opportunity for improvisation, more than we could hope to do as yet. In fact, what is written down is more a recording of improvisation than composition itself. In the 15th century, the tenor line might be written out, but even that was not always necessary as many works were based on well-known melodies. We need to be flexible enough to play many styles from many countries.

PH: You have much fine music teaching in Russia. How do the great masters relate to this newly developing field?

IV: They are steeped in their own tradition and their work is to pass on this strong musical tradition. If a conservatory professor of modern violin hears or senses (perhaps in the sound or bowing) that the student is playing Baroque violin, he will feel it his duty to stop him/her. For them, the huge range of medieval and Renaissance music is categorized as “pre-Bach”!

PH: What, then, is the situation in Russia regarding Renaissance music?

IV: We are the pioneers. As to early trombones, we now have the first sackbuts in Russia. I purchased four in Switzerland and gave them to four of our players to learn. They do not tell their trombone teachers, but their teachers have picked up their new approach to brass playing, wondering why they are playing so softly, when orchestral trombonists need to produce fff sounds! Renaissance instruments demand different techniques, a different way of thinking, in order to give the music its correct meaning. The players need to adjust to smaller mouthpieces, to a different use of lips and muscles.

PH: You have also founded a Renaissance festival.

IV: Yes. The first one was just this last April. It mostly consisted of several days of classes (Colombo was teaching there) and it finished with a concert in which we played together with the tutors. I feel this is a very important step in our development.

PH: This must be new to the Russian concert public. Are your concerts well received?

IV: Audiences show curiosity, just as they might if there were a concert on Japanese instruments or any other exotic instruments. People are curious and do ask questions, especially about the instruments. But beginning to perform to Russian audiences is no simple matter. We can not change styles of playing to create a more familiar musical environment in order to “win over the public”; and the other extreme is playing “music for musicians”. So the musical direction of a group such as ours is a delicate issue at this time of early music development. However, I really want to expose the rich gamut of early music to the Russian public.

PH: So what instruments do you play?

IV: I started with the piano as a child but, from age seven or eight, I have wanted to be a composer. I still play piano but had never intended to be a professional pianist. I play harpsichord and organ and I play the organetto – a small portable pipe instrument, pumped with one hand and held on one’s lap…and it has a dynamic range - this instrument was played only in the 14th- and 15th centuries and can be seen in paintings, such as frescoes of Giotto. I bought my organetto in Germany and took some master classes with Guillermo de Pérez, a great exponent of the instrument. There is much polyphony one can play on it, even with one hand. It sounds wonderful with strings – we have a fiddle player. And, as mentioned earler, I am now playing some early brass. We early musicians can not limit ourselves to one instrument.

PH: Ivan, do you sing?

IV: I am currently studying the singing of medieval music with a very fine singer – a Russian woman who has studied at the Basel Schola Cantorum.

PH: Would you like to talk about your composing?

IV: Yes. The life of a composer is very difficult, especially if one does it to the exclusion of other musical activities. At age 14 and 15, I studied composition and musicology. Composing is emotionally so difficult; I actually underwent a crisis and stopped writing. But nowadays, I do compose sometimes….even for our ensemble. For example, I wrote a piece for cornett and theorbo for our players.

PH: In what style is your music?

IV: I do not permit myself to think about style. A composer considering that nowadays will be lost. It is not natural for a composer to choose.

PH: Let’s talk about your performances at the Yehiam Renaissance Festival (October 16th to 18th)directed by harpsichordist Marina Minkin..

IV: Our performances have two separate themes: one is music “Outside the Castle” and the other, “Inside the Castle”. In the first, we will perform authentic Alta Capella music - music of the 14th-, 15th- and early 16th century on shawm, bombard (alto shawm), slide trumpet and percussion. We will perform on the terrace of the ancient Yehiam fortress. In these concerts, will explain a little about the instruments and works and I will also be singing. The program will include works from Landini, to Dufay sacred music, to the anonymous dances collected by Italian Renaissance dancing master Domenico da Piacensa. Our second program will consist of 16th- and 17th century music with continuo – organ or harpsichord. And here, coming back to improvisation, we will be playing music such as sets of diminutions (improvisations written down) for the entertainment of the Yehiam festival-goers that did, originally, have didactic aims. In a Palestrina madrigal or Lasso’s “Suzanne un jour” the ornamenting of the top line is a musical, stylistic and emotional process.

PH: So you have two very different programs.

IV: Indeed. Both musically and instrumentally. In the second program, I will play not percussion but continuo, Maxim is playing not bombard but cornett, George is playing not shawm but recorder and Alexandra is not playing slide trumpet but natural trumpet. In the “Inside the Castle” program we will present music that is more “gallant”, more delicate, and, as I said earlier, much written down improvisation – works of Bassano, Frescobaldi, and more.

PH: Ivan, thank you for being available to talk on your short and busy Israel tour. I wish you all much success and hope to hear the ground-breaking Alta Capella Ensemble here in Israel again soon.