We are so excited that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is coming on tour to Australia. What repertoire are you looking forward to in this tour program?
We’re so excited to be coming to Australia - it’s been too long since our last visit! I’m looking forward to everything that we'll be playing, and particularly to working with the fabulous Rachel Podger again. We have collaborated with her many times before and she has an infectious energy in her playing that draws you in and keeps you dancing. If I had to pick one piece it would be Mozart's A Major Violin Concerto.
What inspired you to pursue period performance?
As a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, I auditioned for the Baroque orchestras hoping to get some inspiration of what to do with all the repetitive quavers in basslines. I found plenty of answers and discovered that I loved the attitude I found amongst the directors and colleagues: the questioning about why we were choosing to play the way we were, and the approach to phrasing, which I think probably chimed strongly with me because of my years singing Latin mass in our amateur church choir as a child. I find it a particular joy to find a continuo section sound with cello and keyboard colleagues in baroque repertoire. And I fell in love with the sound of the old instruments and the way they blend and complement each other in a totally different balance to modern orchestras.
What advice can you give to musicians who are interested in learning more about HIP and perhaps pursuing it themselves?
If you want to learn more about HIP a great place to start is a book ‘Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners’ by Judy Tarling. She introduces a wide range of topics with a CD of examples and ideas of further reading. If you’re more of a listener than a reader, find CDs of period orchestras and immerse yourself in their sound. Go and see them in concert when you can and look them up on YouTube!
My main advice is 'keep questioning’! That’s where the HIP movement started - by players questioning and rebelling against the norm. See what evidence you can find and what conclusions it leads you to. Challenge those of us that have been part of the 'establishment' for a while. Bring us new thoughts on what you've discovered. That will keep HIP alive. That said, if you are wanting employment and some income, then you also need to be aware of the discoveries and choices that have been made so far, so that you can fit in with the ensembles who might have work to offer.
So: read, listen, go and grab experiences, and experiment.
Tell us about the three and a half basses you own! Which one is coming along to Australia, and what is special about it?
Well, it's now FOUR and a half!! Luckily I have a patient husband who is a percussionist with many more instruments than I will ever own!
What I call 'the half' is my G violone - a fretted instrument with 6 strings. It's much smaller than my double basses and plays at cello 8ft pitch rather than double bass 16ft pitch. Its range is from the G below the bass clef stave (the G below the cello bottom string) so there is the facility to play quite a lot down the octave if a 16ft texture is desired. I used it recently for Bach’s Brandenburg 6 for which it felt perfect.
The latest addition is a modern copy of a Thier which I have had converted to an 18th Century Viennese set up: a fretted instrument with 5 strings tuned basically to a D major chord including a D major triad on the top 3 strings. This is the sort of instrument Haydn's solos in Le Matin, Midi, and Soir symphonies were written for, and it makes so much more sense of the Viennese concertos by the likes of Dittersdorf and Vanhal, which exploit the triad so much of the time
I still have my first bass bought when I was 17. It's a German 19th Century flatback which I hardly ever play anymore, but haven't quite brought myself to part with yet.
The bass I'll be playing on this tour is an 18th Century English bass thought to be a Hill. It has a very distinctive shape with narrow shoulders and a relatively wide bottom and a beautiful golden colour. I tend to use it for classical repertoire and later.
And last but not least is my oldest instrument - a 17th Century Italian bass (Brescia). It looks like it's from the ark and has seen many repairs over the years, but retains a great sound that is full of warmth and character. I have it strung with 4 plain uncovered strings and tend to keep it at baroque pitch for the earlier rep we play.
How do you prepare yourself (and your instruments) for a tour, and what do you do to keep yourself in optimum playing condition over the course of a long tour?
Preparing my bass for this tour has been quite time-consuming as the airlines have imposed a really strict weight limit on us, which is about 10kg less than my bass’s usual touring weight. So how do you put a bass on a diet?!
Various avenues of research put me in touch with an Australian bass shop that sells extra light flight cases, and I'm incredibly grateful to an Australian colleague, Jacqui Dosser, who brought mine back to the UK for me. It took some extra work to then find and cut bits of lightweight foam to pack around the gaps left by the fact that my bass isn't a standard shape - that narrow top and wide bottom again! Then there was the business of trying to label the case to make it totally and unequivocally clear to baggage handlers which way up to stand it.
And then to me. My physique means I tend to be susceptible to back problems so I have been particularly careful to make sure I have been to either an Alexander Technique lesson or a Pilates class at least once a week for the last 6 weeks, especially before a tour that starts with the longest of long-haul flights. I have a range of exercises that I can do on my own to keep me balanced and flexible throughout the tour, and I’ll sometimes be seen doing a quick march around a car park or an airport to get myself moving if I’ve had to sit too long. I also find some mindfulness and breathing techniques really helpful in managing not just the physical, but the mental strains of being on tour too. It’s great fun touring but the lack of autonomy and the disruption to normal life can take some adjusting to.
Finally, many of our readers are young musicians with burgeoning careers. What advice do you have for getting a career started in music?
I’d say seize all the opportunities that come your way. You never know who you might find yourself working with and how one thing might lead to another.
Respond quickly to messages and requests, preferably with a definite answer, but if you can’t it’s better to say something like ‘Thank you for your message. I can’t answer now but may I get back to you by…?’ than to not reply for ages.
Be reliable. Turn up when you said you would, and be on time.
Be prepared. Look at the music in advance. Find out what you can about the group or situation.
Be nice! Appreciate other people’s hard work and effort.
Be flexible. Yes, go for the dream, but be prepared to move the goal posts, or to notice the totally new playing field you hadn’t previously known existed. It’s what has led to me being on my way to Australia this week!
Musica Viva presents the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Rachel Podger on tour from November 9. For more information and to find a performance in your city, head here.