In Conversation: Rachael Beesley

In Conversation: Rachael Beesley

Violinist, director and concertmaster Rachael Beesley on historically informed performance, creativity and her passion for Baroque music.

Rachael Beesley
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Rachael Beesley

Violinist, director and concertmaster Rachael Beesley on historically informed performance, creativity and her passion for Baroque music.

RM: When we talk about historically informed performance, the research and educational aspects of the music seem to have a great importance to those performing the works, which gives audiences a way to dig their teeth into what you are doing on stage. Do you find this unique to the art form? 

RB: I love engaging with the audience in that way - breaking down barriers and allowing performers to speak about the music and their own personal experiences of exploring the repertoire. The research aspect of performance is a conscious choice as it enables me to really get inside the music - I feel closest to the composer’s intention when I’ve explored every possibility. Knowing the background to the compositions, the effects of the music and knowing which movements have been influenced by which dances or texts whilst exploring the aesthetic and the cultural background of the time - discovering all these things is a huge part of my preparation before I even touch the instrument and begin studying the notes. And then, you also must consider the modern concert hall and the affects it has on the way you play and prepare. I like to think that we are able to create a new opening for this repertoire to be heard, without the years of changing technique layered on top of the original music. 

RM: Can you explain the idea of how time, and the changing methods of performance practice, create layers on top of the original score or idea? 

RB: In explaining this idea, I usually draw parallels to painting: take a famous work like the Mona Lisa, for example. If you see it now you expect it to be of the time; as in, it looks as it was when da Vinci first created it. It has been refreshed, of course, and some work has been done to restore it, but really you’re still seeing the original. You’re not looking at a piece of artwork that has had the subsequent 500 years of artists paint on top of it over and over again. That could be a valid work of art in itself but it wouldn’t be the original, it would be a completely new piece. That’s what I think has happened over time in the world of music - we tend to layer different approaches on top of one another. So what we’re trying to do here is refresh our eyes and ears; looking at what has been added and what was there originally and then as performers can make informed choices. Musical choices are not always made from this research base but perhaps by looking deeply at what was happening at the time of composition and why certain aesthetics and affects appeared this brings you closer to what the composer intended the audience to feel.

RM: What does playing on a historically accurate instrument mean for you as a performer? Does it change the way you are able to naturally interpret the music? 

RB: I personally feel a deep connection with the gut strings whilst using a period bow. The articulation allows us to speak the music and show the rhetorical gestures much more clearly, and actually, it’s a bit easier! Modern instruments are all about evenness and showing a silky-smooth exterior, while the historic instruments are grittier and allow for a little more nuance and texture. It results in a different play or balance between the instruments and this creates a very special quality on stage. I love that exploration.

RM: The idea that you’re presenting a modern audience with an experience that is as close as possible to that which a 17th, 18th or 19th century audience would be receiving is completely fascinating to me. I wonder, from your experience of performing the works on a modern instrument compared to a period instrument, what are the differences in how you experience that as an audience member? 

RB: Audiences are often a little shocked by the experience! They’re forced to be more active as listeners, as they’re made to be aware of different sounds, unusual sounds perhaps. A piece that they may know quite well will not sound as they expect it and that shock creates a different energy in the concert hall. The audience then becomes a living part of the performance. Performing on historic instruments does require a different kind of engagement and this positive response we receive from the audience, highlights how their experience is enhanced by this knowledge and insight.

RM: Because we listen to music differently now due to changing technologies and the modern concert hall set-up, we’ve changed the way we allow audiences to experience the work of the performer. Do you find this to be true? 

RB: There is perhaps more physical distance now, between the performer and the audience and many people now only listen to recorded music on devices, so are often not used to sitting and listening to music performed live. But music also has a different meaning for society - if you were playing for the king, you would have played in a way that wasn’t the same as performing in church for a congregation. So as a modern performer, you have to understand what your role is and how to communicate the composer’s intention in a 21st century setting by bringing people on a musical journey.

RM: Do you have words of advice for young musicians interested in a performance career, whether historically informed or otherwise? 

RB: Stay curious! Keep asking questions and never stop learning. Explore and improvise with many different styles and approaches to music and find ways that work for you. 

Catch Rachael Beesley performing ‘Biber’s Violin’ with the Continuo Collective at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Tuesday 28 August at 6:00pm. Photos by Nick Gilbert.

Rachael teaches at several specialist European summer schools and places are still available to enrol for the Summer Course Academy of Ancient Music 2018 "Bruder Mozart" July 29 - August 10 in Bruneck, Italy and for the Baroque Orchestra Masterclass presented by Les Muffatti and Famenne Ardenne Baroque Music Festival October 2 - 9 in Belgium.