October 30, 2009

What are you DOing next week?

We know where we'll be next Thursday through Sunday, what about you?

(No, not at Shonen Knife! Well, maybe our Marketing Director Sasha will be, but he's weird.)

October 20, 2009

One of these people is not like the others... Comparing period and modern violin[ist]s (Part 3)

During the last concert set, David Wilson asked his colleagues in the violin and viola sections of Philharmonia Baroque the most important question about the difference between the baroque violin and modern violin: not about construction, nor about how the instruments are held or played, but
what makes a period violinist:

"As far as I know, no one has yet begun their violinistic career as a baroque violinist. We are trained as modern violinists and at some point along the way we discover this other path and begin to pursue it (I sometimes call this ‘going over to the Dark Side’). Doing so requires an open-mindedness, a willingness to try new things and possibly to discard a great deal of habit. Making the switch involves a great deal of time, effort, and even expense on the part of a player.

"So, why bother? I asked that question of a number of my fellow musicians, and here are some of the answers I got:
Baroque instruments are ‘native speakers’ of the musical rhetoric of their time. In original ‘dialects,’ they enable musicians to delve into and to genuinely articulate the elegance, emotional power and humor in baroque music.

It is the subtle, sensuous responsiveness that always draws me to the baroque violin. While playing on gut and especially while using a baroque bow, I feel I have a greater range of musical color, a more fleet, capricious ability to show the ever-changing character and mood of the music.
— Katherine Kyme

‘the baroque violin’
or, as it was called in the 18th century
‘the modern violin’

we use baroque instruments as means for a shamanistic exploration of the ways of our ancestors
– as the hunter dances in imitation of the game, in order to become the game –
we bring the words of our ancestors to our lips via their writings
we look through their eyes into their paintings and drawings
we put our ancestors’ hands before our eyes via facsimiles
we grasp their tools in our hands via their instruments
and so we attempt to reenter their world
or invite their spirits into ours
and thus reanimate
their voices
in our ears

I am able to do much more nuanced playing with the baroque bow, and the lower tension on the strings allows me to draw out a singing tone without effort. My baroque instruments, geared for chamber music and small orchestras, are more personable, intimate, individually expressive... and the best thing is you don't have to constantly shake the note to make it sing!
— Maria Caswell

Every culture has created its own particular sound world; and none of them are the same, all are unique. I suspect that many of us who love Baroque instruments have some desire to visit the people of that lost world, a curiosity and love which is somewhat satisfied in the playing of ‘their’ instruments in a way ‘they’ might have recognized.
Of course, we couldn't couldn't post this blog without asking David the same question he posed to his colleagues: Why baroque violin, David?
The first time I ever heard baroque music on period instruments, I literally had chills running down my spine and tears running down my face—I was profoundly moved by the sound of the instruments and the way that sound showed the power of the music. For me it was like having heard poetry read by a voice synthesizer, and then hearing it read by a poet. I knew I wanted to learn how to make music in that way.
— David Wilson

Libby visits the Fromm

Last Tuesday, period violinist Libby Wallfisch, who was in town to lead our October concerts, journeyed out into the rain to the Fromm Institute with David Wilson to speak at the weekly "Brown Bags" speaker series. Thank you Command Performances Representative Bob Morgan for having us! Here are a few photos from the day:

Libby talks about how her baroque violin is built differently than the modern ones that the "Frommies" are used to seeing played at the San Francisco Symphony.

Much like the wands of J.K. Rowling's imagining, rarely were two bows alike in the Baroque era, as every region had its preferred shape to fit the local playing styles and techniques, not to mention every bow craftsman had his own signature. Organizer Bob Morgan (left) looks on.

As you'll know from an earlier post, the baroque violin was played while held with the left hand and supported by the collarbone. This "chin-off" technique may seem odd to us now, but the violin began life as a street instrument. Libby demonstrates here how it was popular among Renaissance era fiddlers to hold the instrument at the "third rib" (she's miming an engraving that suggests that the fiddlers also found it fashionable to play with a pipe dangling between their lips, a tankard of ale on the table and a few buxom women on hand to... uh... woo).

October 12, 2009

Classical 101: From completely bamboozled to comfortably, enthusiastically, ignorant in Seven Steps

You might be surprised to hear that not everyone in the PBO office is an accomplished musician or lettered musicologist. So those of us who are bit more clueless than many of our work mates were happy to run into this article this weekend in the Irish Times (oh, how small the world is these days): Seven simple steps to a classical education. Enjoy!

October 9, 2009

One of these things is not played like the other... Comparing period and modern violins (Part 2)

Now that we have some idea how a baroque violin is built differently than a modern one, we've asked David Wilson to explain the differences between playing period violins and modern violins:

"What makes a baroque violinist? Having period-appropriate equipment (violin and bow) is the beginning, but playing the baroque violin also calls for very different techniques than the modern violin.

"While watching the violin sections of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra perform, the first thing you might notice is that the baroque violin is held differently. The end of the violin rests on the player’s collarbone at one end and is supported by the player’s left hand at the other, rather than being held between the chin and the shoulder like a modern violin. The result is that the player’s head is free to assume a natural, relaxed position while playing."

Click to watch a video in which you can see how period violinists hold their instruments (you may recognize all of the musicians, they all perform with PBO!). Compare this to how modern violin teacher and professor Todd Ehle instructs his virtual students how to hold their instruments.

"The leader and soloist for PBO’s October concert set, violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, is one of the leading proponents of the 'chin-off' approach to baroque violin playing, in which the player’s head never touches the violin. All changes of left-hand position are accomplished by means of a graceful ballet of sliding and pivoting.

"Another important difference lies in the way energy is transferred through the bow and onto the strings. Modern technique (using a modern bow) involves (to a certain extent) a 'levering' motion with the wrist and fingers of the right hand to press the hair of the bow against the strings. To do this ergonomically, the right elbow is characteristically held at about the same height as the wrist. In contrast, a baroque violinist thinks more about using gravity to transfer the weight of the right arm through the bow and onto the string. As a result, again for ergonomic reasons, baroque violinists tend to play with the right elbow noticeably lower than the right wrist."

Click here to listen to period violinist Rachel Podger explain some more of the differences between playing period and modern violins.

October 8, 2009

One of these things is not like the other... Comparing period and modern violins (Part 1)

Our October concert features period violinist Libby Wallfisch and, of course, the baroque violin. We asked violinist and PBO staff member David Wilson to help clue us in about the differences between the period violins you see played in our orchestra and the modern ones by our friends at the Symphony:

"The way that violins are made today are very different than when the instruments were made in the Baroque period (1600-1750 or so), but only a few of the differences can be seen right away. One of the first things that most people notice is that a baroque violin has no chinrest. Invented around 1810, the chinrest is a wooden device much like a shallow cup or bowl that allows a modern violinist to support the violin with the chin and shoulder. The baroque violin is held differently – with the left hand and the collarbone – so no chinrest is needed. Another thing many people notice is that the fingerboard (the piece of wood which runs under the strings) is shorter on a baroque violin than on a modern violin. You can see these differences clearly on the violins below, the baroque violin is on the left and the modern one on the right.

"If you were looking at these instruments in person, you might also notice that the strings are different: three of the four strings on the baroque violin are plain sheep’s gut and the G string (the lowest one) is made of silver wire wound around a core of sheep’s gut. On the modern violin, the lower three strings are made of metal wire wound around cores of either gut or an artificial material and the highest string is a plain strand of steel wire. The high E string also has a special fine-tuning device visible on the tailpiece (the piece of wood near the chinrest to which the strings are attached).

"More difficult to notice (but very significant) is the differences in the necks of the violins. On a baroque violin, the neck is attached to the body in the same plane as the body, and the fingerboard sits on a wedge of wood on top of the neck. On a modern violin, the neck is tipped back at an angle to the body, and the fingerboard is attached directly to the neck. You can see this below.

These are just a few differences in construction that give the baroque violin a warmer, richer sound than its bright-sounding grandchild."

In case you you were curious, Timothy G. Johnson built both of the above violins during the same time period from many of the same materials (note the similarities of the wood used for the body). We thank him for the use of these photos. The baroque violin belongs to the author and is a Stradivari model. It actually has two siblings in the PBO family – a violin played by Maxine Nemerovski and a cello played by David Goldblatt.

Learn more about our October set: "The Concerto – An Adversarial Friendship."

October 2, 2009

Beer and Baroque a success!

Our first Beer and Baroque Series event featuring the Universal Piston Horn Quartet (PBO horn players R.J. Kelley, Paul Avril, John Boden, Alexandra Cook) and special guest Fred Holmgren was a sell out! Thank you organizers Michael Colbruno and Brian Gould, as well as sponsor Pyramid Alehouse, Brewery and Restaurant in Berkeley.

Check out photos on flickr or watch the video below!

PBO a "Silver Lining?"

According to San Francisco Chronicle's Jesse Hamlin in a special feature with San Francisco Classical Voice, PBO is a "Silver Lining" amidst Bay Area orchestras who are "Weathering the Financial Meltdown." Of course, we couldn't do it without our loyal audiences and generous donors – so thank you for helping us continue to make the music we all love!

There are many ways to support PBO:
But most important, tell your friends about us!