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.