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Remembering Anner Bylsma

The great Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma died July 25 at the age of 85.

 

By Guy Fishman

I play early music on period instruments because of the great Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma, who died July 25 at the age of 85. When I was 14, I entered the classical music section of a Tower Records store where Bylsma’s recent release of arrangements of music for unaccompanied flute and violin by J.S. Bach, performed on his son’s 7/8-sized cello tuned like a violin, was being played. I didn’t pay much attention to it until Bylsma hit the final note of the prelude to the E major Partita, BWV 1006. It ended a driven but, as I realized much later, subtly nuanced and very “spoken” performance. It seemed the energy stored by what had preceded the note was fully released by it: powerfully, beautifully, emphatically, and most notably to me, without a hint of vibrato. I had never heard anything like it; it shocked and captivated me. I grabbed a copy and bought it. Anner changed my life, and would do so again.

Guy Fishman

I listened to the recording every day for months. I studied Bylsma’s liner notes and in pre-Google days searched for anything about the cellist I could find. A few years later, I was able to hear him play three Bach suites at the Walter Reade Theater, a woefully dry acoustic situated at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. He addressed the audience to explain why he was sitting on a “throne,” as he called it — a podium barely wider than a chair, regularly used by concerto soloists (“It sounds better, even without an endpin.”). During the fifth suite, he tuned his “a-turned-g” string while sustaining it in a cadence. I knew I needed to play for him. After getting his autograph, I asked if he took students. He said, “I have left school,” in a way that seemed as though he was recently matriculated in a degree program but decided to drop out.

It took some time, but I got my chance to study with Bylsma after all. During doctoral studies at New England Conservatory, I was awarded a Fulbright fellowship in Amsterdam, and because Bylsma was not affiliated with a university, I took private lessons at his home next to the Vondelpark. Lessons began with tea and biscuits in the kitchen, over which discussion was had on a variety of topics, musical and not. We then moved upstairs and worked for two hours in a room dominated by a massive library of first editions and copies sent by distant libraries, collected over a lifetime and organized in folders (“I’m very proud of my system.”). When I could take in no more, we would return to the kitchen to listen to some recordings while eating an aged Gouda and drinking Calvados, his favorite spirit. This weekly wonder of an experience lasted about three hours; when I said I needed to split lessons in two so that I could absorb more easily, Anner agreed to two weekly lessons, but what was presumably to last 1-1/2 hours turned into two 2-1/2 hour lessons. Anner had quite a bit to say about a great many things.

By the time I moved to Amsterdam, I had already released a CD and had steady work with the Handel and Haydn Society and Boston Baroque. In my arrogance, I arrived with a copy of Bylsma’s book, Bach, the Fencing Master, annotated with my various oppositions to the arguments he made in it. It didn’t matter. Anner made certain I didn’t waste too much of my time arguing by completely disarming me with an infectious wit and charm, delivered by an almost mesmerizing storytelling ability. Within a couple of weeks, I was converted; by the time I left, I wanted to be just like him.

The level of inquiry and erudition was intoxicating. There was not only what he had read, in either Dutch, German, French, or English, but the conclusions and extrapolations he created, usually presented as a scene that would give a South Bank director pleasure in creating, or a remembrance of some colorful event from his past, or just an entertaining analogy. “At the end of your bow, right before you change direction, you must slip on a banana peel”; “This note should be connected to the next by just the thinnest strand of spittle”; “My aunt Viola once heard vibrato. She exclaimed, ‘Why, I would NEVER do that!!!’ So here, in this measure, think of my aunt Viola.”  

But there was plenty of practical, technical direction. Anner was entirely aware of his place in the early-music world and how other cellists viewed him (while in Amsterdam, I heard Janos Starker give a speech in which he said, “The world’s greatest baroque cellist lives right here in Amsterdam.” There was no doubt as to whom he meant.) But he did not regard these as “baroque cello” lessons, and I understood why Hidemi Suzuki told me that Bylsma wouldn’t teach him baroque cello when he studied with him. Bylsma began playing on a cello fitted with gut strings and never gave them up. He won the 1959 Pablo Casals Competition using them; he was principal cellist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra playing on them. He recorded Debussy, Schubert, Hindemith, Messiaen, and Shostakovich on them. When his colleague Tibor de Machula asked him why he played on such old-fashioned strings, he replied that, surely, steel strings — having come around in a more global way in the 1920s and 30s — were by the 1970s themselves old-fashioned, and that everyone should use gut. Certainly the repertoire was Baroque — he assigned me works by Domenico Gabrielli, Antonio Vivaldi, and, of course, the suites for unaccompanied cello by J.S. Bach, although there was also Haydn, Romberg, Beethoven, Schumann, and Popper. But the element that is a highlight difference between standard and baroque instruments — gut strings — was not discussed.

What was discussed, and the only bit of equipment Bylsma cared deeply about, was the bow. I started on my way to understanding the variety of weight and emphasis created by a limitless vocabulary of articulation that I had unknowingly encountered at Tower Records when Anner — who was not performing publicly any more — began demonstrating his use of the bow. The nimbleness of the fingers controlled not only an uncannily speech-like performance (“Is this music sung, like someone speaking with his mouth open? Or is it spoken?”), but also every imaginable sounding point on the string and therefore an ability to articulate a thought with sound density rather than pressure.

Anner’s wife, the superb violinist Vera Beths, once told me as an aside, “Anner has the best bow arm in the world.” I accept this statement as fact. This is easy to do because when I asked Anner why he used his Peccatte bow for his second recording of the Bach suites and his Bouman baroque bow for Haydn concerti, he answered, “What your ear hears, your bow must do.” There was perhaps no more important lesson to be learned. What is evident in the numerous tributes to Anner that over the last week have appeared in print and online is that the music world mourns the loss of the imagination that wielded that bow and created that sweet tone with which the music was spoken. It was driven by an indefatigable curiosity that Anner followed at any given moment, living fully in that moment, sometimes talking through it and suddenly asking a seemingly unrelated question as a new direction was suggested, or breaking out in laughter, his bushy eyebrows angling impossibly, as he did so.

Many thought Anner was a provocateur, but that is not who I experienced; he was fully committed to the journeys his curiosity and imagination took him on, and did not mind inviting us along, through performances, writings, recordings, and lessons, the last paired with a good Calva. I still have a list of questions I wanted to ask him, things he pointed to in lessons that hinted at one such journey or another. Now he’s taken a journey on which I cannot come, so, as I did after that Bach recital I once heard, I’ll have to wait.

Guy Fishman is principal cellist of the Handel and Haydn Society.

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Scott Allen Jarrett Named EMA Board President

Scott Allen Jarrett conducting Bach Akademie Charlotte in Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ in June. (Photo by Michael Harding)

 

Early Music America is delighted to welcome Scott Allen Jarrett as president of the EMA board. A leading Bach interpreter, he is artistic director of Bach Akademie Charlotte, director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, resident conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus, and music director of the Back Bay Chorale. He has maintained a long relationship with the Oregon Bach Festival, where he serves as conductor of the Discovery Series, teaching cantatas and motets. Jarrett was the first guest conductor to lead Miami’s Seraphic Fire, and he continues to collaborate with the ensemble and founder and artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley.

Amid activities last week at the Oregon Bach Festival, Jarrett spoke with EMA editor Donald Rosenberg. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Scott Allen Jarrett (Lydia Bittner-Baird)

How do you feel about becoming EMA board president?

It’s daunting but surely an honor. I was inspired by both Marie-Hélène [Bernard]’s leadership and Miguel [A. Rodríguez]’s leadership and vision. More recently, I was on the search committee that identified Karin [Brookes] to be our next executive director. I very much appreciate and value all she brings to our organization and what she’s doing for EMA on an hourly basis, day by day. I’m honored to help support the work of Karin and our amazing staff.

What impresses you most about the organization?

It’s quite remarkable what EMA is able to do with such limited resources, not just financially but in terms of the size of the staff. It actually feels like a treat for me to serve and work a little bit in support of what they’re doing every day. I also feel strongly that we have a fantastic group of board members. Over the past couple of years, every meeting has gotten better and better, and the quality of discourse over the course of those meetings has been deeply enriching and exciting to participate in. I feel excited for and confident about EMA’s future, both immediate and longterm, because we’ve got just a stellar group of people training their various foci and energies on EMA’s mission and vision.

Have you devised strategies to take EMA into the future?

I’m trying to think about different perspectives and establishing some goals I can put on a piece of paper to articulate for myself over the course of a six-month or year period. Those have to do with making sure I know how to reach out to our membership and what EMA is doing currently and what EMA can do in the future for its communities, members, and ensembles. I live in Boston. Now, with my increased energy in Charlotte and other places, I’m excited about the quality and breadth of activity in early music that is expanding exponentially across the country. EMA has a wonderful role as a connector for our members and their communities. That’s what’s been so inspiring: to learn the ways EMA serves as a support network for so many organizations across the country.

I’m also eager to increase access to early music and to our members. That includes advocating for the music we love and nurturing it. It means increasing access not just for our members but also to what it means to work in the field of early music and to cultivate the work. That extends beyond people who practice in the High Baroque or High Renaissance to those periods and musics that connect those dots.

Do you have ideas about how to broaden the appeal of early music?

One of things I’m thinking of is access broadly — other musics that qualify as early music. My own way of addressing the challenges of inclusivity and diversity in our field is thinking of ways to increase opportunity and access and honoring and recognizing all kinds of music and practice, not just the old dead German guys, whom I, of course, love and adore.

Scott Allen Jarrett conducting Bach Akademie Charlotte. (Harding)

 

How do you view the breadth of early music from your perspective in the vocal arts?

As somebody who practices and teaches the music of Josquin this semester and next semester will teach Mendelssohn and Brahms, I’ve never been aware of or made the distinctions that characterize so many musical disciplines. A nice departure for me is that I’m excited to advocate for everybody who comes to early music. The other exciting thing is what characterizes my experience and perspective as somebody who works with voices: Our training these days is trying to match the sound to what the music wants. I find faculty studios acknowledge that you might have a different approach. I find in particular string faculties are opening up to not applying the same beautiful tone and bowing to Corelli as you would to Paganini caprices. In short, I sense the academy catching up with professional practice and expectation, driven by the inspiring sense of entrepreneurship that so defines today’s classical music markets across the country.

There’s plenty of room, then, for the field of early music to increase its impact.

I do find in residencies and teaching and conversations with our friends in academia across the country that more and more schools of music and faculties of music are aware of the importance of preparing their students for what the workplace actually is. There’s an awareness to share and create opportunities for their students to experience a variety of ways of making music, and schools of music are encouraging that. They’re being driven by market and entrepreneurial drivers. However it’s happening, I’m happy for it. People are discovering and trying to jettison their fears about something they’re not quite comfortable with. EMA is contributing through our Young Performers Festival, Emerging Artists Showcase, scholarly opportunities, and other facets we can accomplish together.

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Celebrating The Baroque In Colorado

Orchestra members perform on a stage.

The Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado in concert. (Photos by Amanda Tipton)

 

By Kyle MacMillan

Nicknamed the Mile High City, Denver is well known for its easy access to the mountains, its non-stop fervor for professional sports, and, more recently, its enthusiastic embrace of legalized marijuana.

It might come as something of a surprise that Denver is also home to the 14-year-old Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado. More than a mere regional outpost, it has built a national reputation as a first-rate period-instrument ensemble. Todd Williams, a nationally known exponent of the natural horn, has joined the orchestra a handful of times and describes the ensemble as “really wonderful.”

Natural horn player Todd Williams

“Last year was their first time for a complete Brandenburg cycle,” said Williams, principal hornist of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, “and that’s really a big undertaking and quite an achievement to get through. So, that in and of itself is a testament to their willingness to be challenged.” He was referring to the chamber orchestra’s four performances in May 2018 of the complete set of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, among the most famous instrumental works of the Baroque era.

Another milestone for the ensemble will come May 11 and 12 with its first-ever concert performances of L’Orfeo, one of the three extant operas of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Serving as conductor will be Stephen Stubbs, co-artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival, who also led the chamber orchestra’s performances of St. Matthew Passion in 2015.

Taking on the role of Silvia, the Messenger, will be Seattle soprano Danielle Sampson, a 33-year-old early-music specialist who graduated from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music in 2007. She has been a soloist with the ensemble three times and has considerable praise for its performance level. “It’s so high,” she said. “(Concertmaster) Cynthia Freivogel and (violinist emeritus) Tekla Cunningham are fantastic musicians.”

Denver’s early-music scene was relatively barren in the early 2000s when harpischordist Frank Nowell, who has lived most of his life in the city, began contemplating the formation of a baroque chamber orchestra. Around the same time, Freivogel, 42, then based in the San Francisco Bay Area, was spending her summers at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder playing modern violin — rare breaks from her usual focus on period performance. In 2004, the two met when the festival presented a Baroque program that included Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, with her as a soloist and Nowell on continuo. After the two became acquainted and played through some sonatas in their off time, the harpsichordist realized she would be an ideal concertmaster and leader for the conductor-less group he envisioned.    

“I wanted someone who could complement me as an artistic director,” he said, “and I really wanted someone who was a strong leader from the violin. There are different models you can use for a baroque orchestra, but that is the one I wanted to make happen. And it seemed like the two of us were very well matched in terms of our interests and strengths.”

Artistic director Frank Nowell

Nowell called the group the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado because he envisioned it traveling around the state. And it has done outreach concerts in such towns as Grand Junction, Winter Park, and Silverthorne, and, in September, it gave its first concert in Fort Morgan, in the state’s northeast corner.

Given the paucity of early music in Denver, Nowell wasn’t sure how this new ensemble would be received when it debuted in 2005. “In the early days, that was a challenge,” he said. “I didn’t know how much support there was and if we could sustain it. But after we made it through the year, it became clear that there was a community of support that would respond to this music.”

The ensemble began with an annual budget of $25,000, and that has soared to $225,000 in 2018-19. Nowell made sure its members were compensated right from the start. “That was really important to me in the beginning — that we pay the musicians and that we pay them competitively,” he said. As a mark of the group’s maturation, it was among 35 Denver arts organizations selected in September to receive a portion of $43 million in grants as part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Arts Innovation and Management Program. The national program provides two years of operating support and wide-ranging management training.

Unlike some baroque ensembles which rely on itinerant performers to fill out their ranks, about three-quarters of the 16 or 17 core string members of the chamber ensemble reside in the Denver area. (It imports wind and brass players as needed.) Freivogel said the chamber orchestra has a sense of cohesion that many others can’t match. “It’s one of these rare birds where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” she said. “It’s really an ensemble. It’s not a collection of players.”

Concertmaster Cynthia Freivogel

The group’s musical approach largely derives from Freivogel’s energetic, assertive style and personal aural aesthetic. “It is definitely my sound,” she said. “I had a picture of how I heard the sound, and they do it.” She has expectations of how it should be built from the bass up, with a specific ringing quality and chordal balance and a constant sense of motion — the music “landing, going, and coming” from the weak to the strong beats.

While Freivogel focuses on what she calls “nuts and bolts stuff” like overseeing rehearsals and stage configurations, Nowell, as artistic director, devotes his energies to programming, long-range planning, and community engagement. “I just love his programs,” the violinist said. “I love what he dreams up for us. I love his vision.” She praised the harpsichordist for finding works that stretch her playing in ways she never imagined. One example came in September 2011 with Pietro Locatelli’s Concerto in G minor, Op. 3, No. 6, with its technically daunting capriccios. “I didn’t even really realize I could do it until I heard a recording of it,” she said. “I actually came to him almost in tears, saying, ‘Wow, Frank, how did you know that I was capable of that, because I didn’t know.’”

The group presents four main programs each season, as it has from the beginning, but the number of performances for each has grown from two to three, with sometimes even a fourth added for higher-profile line-ups. Area churches remain among its prime venues, but the ensemble also appears in the 520-seat concert hall in the King Center on the Auraria academic campus near downtown Denver and the 320-seat Lakewood Cultural Center. Audiences typically range from 150 to 300 people.

The chamber orchestra, of course, showcases mainstream repertoire like the Brandenburg Concertos or Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, but Nowell also makes a point of including more obscure selections as well. “I worry a little bit about the music that is not so well known,” he said, “Maybe we don’t always have our biggest audiences at those (concerts), but people respond really well. They say they love encountering something new.”

Notably combining both familiar and not-so-familiar works was a January 2018 program titled Corelli’s Circle, which featured the music of Arcangelo Corelli and two generations of composers in London he influenced — Charles Avison, George Frideric Handel, and John Stanley. The chamber orchestra released a recording of the line-up in September.

The Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado

 

Besides the group’s strong sense of ensemble and distinctive style, what also sets it apart is what Williams describes as the laid-back and friendly atmosphere Nowell and Freivogel have fostered. Playing with some groups can feel rote, but that is never the case in Denver. “It’s just very nice to be there,” he said. “There’s something homey about it, something folksy about it.”

Sampson echoed his words, noting the feelings of “warmth, calmness, and trust” that Nowell brings to the group. “I always feel completely supported,” she said, “and completely free to rely on my own artistic sensibilities when I’m singing with Frank and the other musicians that he chooses.” She is still grateful that he took a chance on her when she was a novice and cast her as Dido in the chamber orchestra’s concert version of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in February 2009.

In addition, the ensemble is putting an increasing emphasis on collaboration. This season, it launched its Confluence series, in which the group teams with a range of artists from other fields who cast different and sometimes surprising lenses on Baroque music. Nowell said the mission is simple: “Let’s try some new things and explore and see what happens.” It began in October with an artist creating new paintings in response to the music, and it continues Jan. 25 and 27 with Dissolve…Baroque+Spoken Word+Hip-Hop Dance, a program featuring spoken-word artist Assétou Xango and three hip-hop dancers. “It’s not what you would expect or what I would expect,” he said.

Freivogel moved to Amsterdam about six years ago when her husband got a teaching job at a university there. Although she gave up many of her other regular engagements in the United States, she maintained her post with the chamber orchestra. (Nowell found the money to pay for her plane trips back and forth.) While the presence of her sister in Denver was no doubt a factor in her decision, her principal motivation was not wanting to lose the sense of camaraderie and artistic challenge she felt with the group.

“Whenever I go back there, it feels like home now,” she said. “It’s always worth it.”

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.

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