ResonanceSaturday, November 04, 2017
“The viola da gamba is not the ancestor of the cello!” depending on the musician who plays one this is sometimes whispered but most always dramatically stated.
Dance and music for me share a frustrating defect for me that they do not share with other arts or literature and sometimes with plays.
A dance performance and a concert are fleeting. You are there and then they are gone. This is particular true with modern dance where a performance might not ever be repeated. It is the same here in Vancouver with plays that don’t return.
At age 75 all those concerts I have attended are now mostly blurs in my memory. Some, very few, stand out. In some I have even my own photographs that prove I was a witness.
Such was the case for this past Friday’s Stylus Fantasticus – Virtuoso Flights of Fancy from the 17th Century at Christ Church Cathedral. The program was produced by Early Music Vancouver.
It happened simply because last year, when the luminary UK musical group Fretwork came to Vancouver (courtesy of EMV) its bass gambist, Sam Stadlen became friends with Victoria harpsichordist and keyboard player Michael Jarvis over beer.
They and Victoria violinist Paul Luchkow (and member of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra.) planned a concert that would expose us to even more 17th century music of the so-called- fantastic period.
This particular concert of which I enjoyed a one hoursampling the day before at Douglas College in New Westminster featured moments that I cannot forget.
Each one of the performers has qualities that in my eyes make them unique.
Harpsichordist Michael Jarvis is slowly but surely teaching me to appreciate the instrument beyond its usual role as the background continuo in very small orchestras and medium sized ones. In a 21st century of good enough is good enough it was almost a pleasure to see how punctilious (some might think s0, I don’t) in Jarvis’s persistence to tune his instrument (a notorious unstable one) to a perfection that probably would not be noticed by mere mortals like us.
Jarvis’s take on Louis Couperin’s (1626-1661) solo harpsichord work, Le Tombeau de Monsier Blancrocher was memorable for me in the acoustics of Christ Church Cathedral. The piece features the story of a man who falls down the stairs and dies in the arms of a famous harpsichordist/composer of the 17th Century, Johann Jakob Froberger.
Violinist (and in a pinch a very good violist) Paul Luchkow may have been born in the past century but he has maintained an intelligence and awareness of the importance of diversity by also being a reputable sound engineer and a recording one at that as he has recorded the program in a Victoria cathedral for a future CD release.
Luchkow is the kind of performer who once in a little church concert with Jarvis to which I was present with my wife, daughter and granddaughter, had the pleasant audacity of playing Arcangelo Corelli’s Violin Sonata in C major, Op.5 No.3 as an encore!
In Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Sonata Representativa (besides his well-known and exquisite Rosary Sonatas) Encyclopedia.com informs us:
A presumably early work by Biber, the Sonata representativa, shows the composer's imagination at its most vivid. Programmatic music, or music that depicts non-musical beings, scenes, or stories, was common in the Baroque era (1600–1750), but Biber here took it to a new extreme in a sonata in which the violin is made to imitate a whole menagerie of animals including the nightingale, cuckoo, frog, hen, quail, rooster, frog, and cat. Various unusual violin techniques, including the sounding of harmonics on the instrument's strings, are pressed into service in Biber's little animal portraits.
Luchkow showed his mastery of a very fast and most demanding virtuosity with this work in which both Jarvis and Stadlen also did shine. Part of the fun was Luchkow’s titling the animals in question with understated humour.
Sam Stadlen in the above piece slipped a paper under the 7 strings of his instrument to imitate the drums of the marching musketeers (that follow all those animals).
There are some instruments that are sometimes buried in little baroque orchestras and you can never really hear them unless you are a sonic expert. I can cite the harpsichord, the lute (including theorbos and archlutes), the baroque bass, and the viola da gamba.
This latter instrument has frets (which uniquely can be moved!) and is part of a family (treble, tenor and bass) of violas de gamba (that feature instruments that are played with a bow with the instruments in vertical position. They have frets so they are related to the lutes and the baroque guitar. Stadlen’s bass viol may look like a cello but it is certainly not one!
I can simplistically state here that if violins are the baseball instruments, the viols are the softball instruments as they are played with the hand holding the bow underhanded. I also noticed that the bow is more at an angle as opposed to violin’s more on the flat side.
In Marin Marais’s (1656-1661) Les voix humanes Stadlen navigates with a conversation in French between possibly two persons (the ornaments imitate the careful placement of long and short syllables in French declamation as per the notes to the program).
I have heard cello solos but nothing prepared me to listening to Stadlen’s instrument (I was on the first row) where I am sure I could hear sympathetic vibrations between the 2 a &A strings and the 2 d & D strings (this was volunteered by my Portland baroque bassist Curtis Daily in a phone conversation). I heard sounds that were almost whispers.
Stadlen explained to me that the instrument is lighter and the wood is thinner. I can only add that this instrument has resonance that exceeds that of any instrument I have ever heard.
Gluten-free Stadlen, whom I was honoured to have in my house during his Vancouver stay, was a delight of conversation. He has a Latin American girlfriend who is a translator. Stadlen speaks a nifty Spanish. I taught him one very important word used by the Spaniards. This is the word “fenómeno”. It is used to describe the unexplained talents of such people as Casals or Manolete. Did it come from the sorcery of the devil? Or did it come from God? I have used the word to describe Canadian ballerina Evelyn Hart.
I must now add that audacious word as a description of Stadlen’s playing.
This version of Les voix humaines by Jordi Saval is lovely but it lacks the presence of listening to the instrument very close in an intimate place.