Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Talking to Italian oboist Paolo Grazzi about style and freedom

On September 29th 2014, I spoke to oboist Paolo Grazzi at his home in Pesaro, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea. Besides being in demand as a performer, Paolo Grazzi devotes time to researching 18th century oboes and to making copies. He teaches at the Verona Conservatory, holding courses in Baroque oboe there.

PH: Maestro Grazzi, where were you born?

Paolo Grazzi: I was born in Mantua, a beautiful small city south of Verona.

PH: Are you from a family of musicians?

PG: Not really. There is a long tradition of playing and loving music in our family, starting with my great-great grandfather, but they were never professional musicians. However, of course, there is that musicality from my father’s line.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

PG: I was very fascinated by orchestral pieces, Romantic music in particular – composers like Smetana…Slavic music. My wish was simply to play music. We had a friend who played piano, we, being my twin brother Alberto and I, and we decided to start playing music, although we had no specific instrument in mind. We began music lessons when we were nine.

PH: What early musical training did you have?

PG: I played the clarinet for a few years, then moved to the oboe at age 12, preferring its sound and repertoire to that of the clarinet. I studied at the local conservatory, finishing my studies when I was 17.

PH: What then?

PG: I started with around one year of orchestral playing - in the Parma Theatre Orchestra, as 2nd oboe, then 1st oboe. I was also looking into oboe repertoire, when I discovered that the most beautiful repertoire was that of the Baroque period –the 18th to mid-19th century. So I decided to play that music; it was then that I heard Harnoncourt’s recordings and was totally “shocked”! This kind of interpretation was so lively and new, the paradox being that traditional interpretation for me was like visiting a museum where you must never “touch the artworks” and you must “keep your distance”, where as Baroque music played on old instruments was livelier, closer to feeling, more powerful and touching.

PH: In what way?

PG: I started thinking that here I could give the music my own interpretation, whereas before I was a little scared of tradition, of teachers, of the great soloists and great conductors. In a sort of way, in traditional playing, one was not allowed to change interpretation in a very radical way, while Baroque interpretation was much freer and would allow for my point of view of the music, yet still taking into account the music’s aesthetic ideas, technical issues, ornaments and everything else that is connected to Baroque interpretation. It appeared to me that it offered a free space for me to develop my own ideas.

PH: When did you start playing Baroque oboe?

PG: At age 17. Alfredo Bernadini and I met for the first time when I was 17 and he, 16. He was already playing Baroque oboe.

PH: With whom did you study?

PG: I taught myself. After some years I went to Brussels to study with Flemish oboist Paul Dombrecht, and, as I had never stopped playing modern oboe, I had the opportunity of studying both modern- and Baroque oboe with Dombrecht. (He is artistic director of the “Il Fondamento”.) It was a very nice experience. I was there for 18 months.

PH: Do you still play modern oboe?

PG: Yes. From time to time…not a lot, but I love playing modern oboe. I still feel at home with it. But, after playing Baroque oboe, it takes me some days to get back into playing the modern instrument. I like the Romantic repertoire, to play it in orchestras rather than playing Romantic chamber music, of which there is almost nothing for oboe. The best instrumental Romantic music is orchestral and I love it very much.

PH: Would you like to mention ensembles in which you have played?

PG: I have played in quite a lot of groups: “Il Giardino Armonico”, the “Accademia Bizantina”, the “Concert des Nations” and “H├Ęsperion XX”. After quite a long period of not seeing him, I met Alfredo Bernadini again in 1990 and we played a concert together. We realized that we enjoyed playing together very much and that there were ideas in music that would be nice for us to develop together – Alfredo, my bassoonist brother Alberto and I. Two or three years later we got together and decided to record the Zelenka sonatas for two oboes, bassoon and basso continuo. This is how Ensemble “Zefiro” was born. We really enjoy playing together, we look for new repertoire and also re-interpret old repertoire and, after some recordings of newly-discovered music – of composers such as Zelenka, Fasch and Luigi Gatti (he was a friend of Mozart and wrote very nice music) - we have come as far as playing Mozart concertos. This interpretation of traditional repertoire is mainly research work.

PH: Do you play them on Baroque instruments?

PG: No. On period instruments, of course…from the Classical period. These instruments are slightly different from Baroque instruments, not in the key system but in the dimensions of the holes and bore. The Baroque instruments are much sweeter-sounding, blending very well with strings. The Classical instruments begin to have a more individual character, standing out in the orchestral setting; they are more solid and their sound is more focused. But they still blend better than do modern instruments. As the instruments developed, their character has become more powerful and more individual, with emphasis on power, due to their being part of the symphony orchestra. I have experienced playing wind quintets with modern instruments and also with Classical instruments. You can never get the sound on modern woodwind instruments that you will with Classical instruments. When playing on modern instruments, I found that the ensemble did not sound like a group, but like five individual instruments. Then, within a short while of playing ensemble music on Classical instruments, I was completely astonished by the difference. I immediately understood the character of the timbre of that ensemble medium, a sound that I had never heard before. Classical instruments are maybe “less friendly” but still they blend well together.

PH: Would you like to talk about the instruments you build?

PG: Yes. I make instruments that are replicas of those made in approximately 1720 by Thomas Stanesby Jnr., an English maker. It is true that English repertoire is not so important for the oboe; the main repertoire is French, German and Italian. But this instrument is very similar to the French Rotenburgh instrument; there was a direct connection between France and England, through French composer Robert Cambert, who went to England in 1671 with some musicians. They brought instruments with them. Among the group of musicians, there was Jacques Paisible (called James Peasable in England). They must have had Rotenburgh instruments as the Stanesby is almost a copy of the Rotenburgh; it is, however, shorter so the pitch is closer to the pitch we use today – a=415 Hertz. The French instruments are lower - around a=400 Hertz, perhaps 405 Hertz (or even lower than 400). It was not easy to copy the French Rotenburgh instrument. The Stanesby is almost a Rotenburgh but with higher pitch, more suited to “modern Baroque pitch”….which is a kind of invention, really. Because there were a lot of kinds of diapason in the Baroque, so, more out of choice than based on historical evidence, we have decided to play this music a half tone lower than a=440 Hertz. One must choose a pitch in which all can play together.

PH: Do you sell your instruments or make them for your own use?

PG: I mainly make the instruments for myself. It is a lot of work to build such instruments. I made around 15 oboes before finding a good compromise between what is both well-balanced and playable. So, it would have been a pity to just make one instrument for myself and then stop. I have a friend who helps me. I gave him all the tools and we work together. I do the final setting of the instrument; this is very important and is not easy - one needs time to reflect and play the instrument, to try reeds and understand the instrument. Fixing the intonation and finding a good balance is a long process. So, the final stage of the work is the most interesting part.

PH: Did you study instrument making?

PG: No. I observed it from Alfredo Bernardini, who also makes instruments and I look around at what other makers do, I ask, read and search. There is nothing very, very difficult about it. And, anyway, each maker has his own way of solving the problems that come up in instrument making. It is not necessary to have one teacher, and probably better to learn from a number of sources. We are lucky, because all the instrument builders I meet are open, friendly and do not seem jealous of others.

PH: Can you say something about your teaching?

PG: Yes. At the moment I am teaching modern- and Baroque oboe in Verona. It is a very nice experience, because the need to explain obliges you to read carefully and to make order in your own mind of all the things learned from friends, colleagues, teachers, books and lectures. Only then can you convey it to students. And it makes my own ideas about music even clearer. Teaching sometimes faces me with some problems that my students solve in a different way to how I might: so I am not only teaching but also learning from my students!

PH: What do you see as the most important 20th development of the authentic movement?

PG: For me it is the approach of "historically informed performance", the term having been used by Bruce Haynes. This is one of the most (or perhaps the most) important musical innovations of the 20th century. It has completely changed our approach to music - not only to Baroque music - also influencing modern musicians and conductors to put new life into performance of all musical repertoire. It has moved the focus more to the importance of the role of the performer in the interpretation of music.

PH: Do you edit music?

PG: No. It is something I have never done. If I edit a work, my idea of the music has been fixed, but I feel that students and musicians should have their own interpretations as taken from the musical source and should not take it from an editor’s input or even from an introduction. I do not feel editing is necessary.

PH: Do you compose music?

PG: No. Well, my “composing” consists in how I ornament music but I am not a composer.

PH: What is your relationship with contemporary music?

PG: I have great respect for contemporary composers, but I do not like modern music.

PH: Do you not play contemporary music?

PG: I have played it and, in fact, I like to play it. Listening to it does not interest me or, should I say, it does not touch me: there is something too intellectual about it, but that aspect disappears when I play it. When I perform it, its relationship with the instrument makes me more convinced. I always think that the composer has to explain his music to me and, if that is the case, there is something wrong with its communicative powers. If I as a player and a musician need an explanation of a modern work, what does the audience need? So I prefer to stay away from it.

PH: Do you do a lot of solo performing?

PG: Not a lot. Mainly chamber music…I like to be in small groups performing Baroque repertoire. This allows me to have close communication with the other musicians, “improvising” in the sense of “input” while playing, as a form of conversing with the other musicians. I believe one can play using this kind of “musical speech” in small groups. Of course, a large orchestra does not enable one to engage in such a way with the other musicians. Chamber music is nice in that way as you do not need to make decisions about everything ahead of playing, to mark everything into your music before performing it. Chamber music allows me to improvise. Each concert has a different history; this is very interesting and exciting for me.

PH: You are coming to Israel in October to teach at the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar. Will this be your first time teaching there?

PG: Yes, it will be my first time teaching in Tel Aviv. I taught master classes in Jerusalem some years ago and performed with “Zefiro” at the Academy of Music. Then later, together with my brother, I performed with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

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

PG: First of all the family – my wife, my sons, daughter and our 2½-year-old grandson. My other passion is sailing. I have now just come in from working on my boat. Sailing gives me a feeling of freedom that I like a lot. Every year we cross the Adriatic with some of my family; we go to Croatia and sail off the islands of Croatia. Maybe one day I will sail into Israel!

PH: Paolo, you have given us such a good glimpse into your professional life and approach to music. Many thanks.