Monday, February 15, 2021

"The Gut Feeling: Art and Science of the Baroque Violin", a two-day on-line event celebrating Walter Reiter's recently-published book - "The Baroque Violin and Viola: a 50 Lesson Course"

Walter Reiter (Timothy Kraemer)


To celebrate the release of Walter S. Reiter’s comprehensive new book - “The Baroque Violin and Viola: a 50 Lesson Course” (OUP, 2020), the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presented a concert on February 6th 2021. On February 7th, the JBO collaborated with the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance Research Authority to hold an international symposium - “The Gut Feeling: Art and Science of the Baroque Violin”. Following the symposium, Professor Reiter held a master class for young Israeli Baroque violinists and violists. The two-day event was especially meaningful as Walter Reiter spent many years in Jerusalem, had strong connections to the Baroque music revival there, till today, continuing interaction with JBO founder and director Prof. David Shemer.  Several of Reiter’s former Jerusalem students have gone on to making prestigious performing careers. 


“The Baroque Violin and Viola: a 50 Lesson Course”, a two-volume 700-page publication, is written in a style that is informal, accessible and authoritative. It consists of five modules - on ornamentation, four “Interludes” of historical and cultural interest as well as lessons focusing on topics as diverse as temperament, shifting, vibrato and dance. Of the book, John Eliot Gardiner wrote: “It shows Walter Reiter to be an expert guide in defining a rich cultural context for music-making - and not just violin-playing - and with the potential to shatter dull preconceptions. His practical experience, learning and articulacy combine to enrich and extend our purview of instrumental music extending over five centuries.” British violinist, conductor and Baroque specialist Rachel Podger has referred to the book as “a journey of discovery covering all technical aspects of playing the Baroque violin, from sound-production to the history of national styles via affect, articulation, rhetoric, intonation and temperament, ornamentation and improvisation.” 


Opening the concert program, David Shemer spoke of Walter Reiter and his long history in the performance of Baroque music, expressing his admiration for him. Commencing with an anonymous ensemble piece inspired by “My dove, in the clefts of the rock” (Song of Songs), the works in the February 6th concert were performed and filmed in various locations. Not only did this JBO production work very well, it also featured some of Reiter’s outstanding former Jerusalem pupils. In two movements from Sonata in A minor Op.9 No.5 for violin and basso continuo by Jean-Marie Leclair, Lilia Slavny’s definitively daring-, emotionally involved- and richly ornamented playing was well suited to the work’s multifarious requirements, both technical and expressive, and to Leclair’s style of writing. Joining David Shemer-harpsichord, Ophira Zakai-theorbo and Tal Arbel-viola da gamba, JBO first violinist Noam Schuss dedicated her performance of Dietrich Buxtehude’s Sonata in G minor Op.2 No.3 for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo to Walter Reiter. With her knack of keeping a line alive from beginning to end, Schuss gave free rein and bracing, suave, personal expression to the constant alternation between the fantastic and contrapuntal styles making up Buxtehude’s sonic world, with Arbel’s zestful, buoyant solos threaded seamlessly through the weave and reminding one of the composer’s preference to follow German tradition by using the gentler-sounding viola da gamba rather than the ‘cello. Listening to this performance, one is left wondering why Buxtehude’s instrumental chamber music has remained so neglected until recently. Schuss was then joined by flautist Idit Shemer to perform G.Ph.Telemann’s Concerto for flute and violin in E minor, the performance displaying the natural balance and insight acquired from the many years the two artists have been playing together. Especially charming was the lucid Adagio in G major, with the soloists playing the gentle cantilena against the “lute” accompaniment of pizzicato strings. The work signed out with an Allegro movement - an exhilarating celebration of Telemann's love of folk music. 


Violinist Kati Debretzeni referred to Reiter’s new book as “beautifully written and exhaustively researched”, and as one that will serve generations of players. For this concert, she chose to play the Passacaglia from Heinrich Biber’s Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas, a work she had heard played by Reiter many years ago, his performance having left a lasting impression on her. Biber’s only surviving work for solo violin, the extended Passacaglia (certainly no standard concert fare) spins variations over a simple 4-note descending bass pattern which is heard throughout. Clearly aware of the spiritual content of the piece, Debretzeni’s playing was transparent, sensitive and meticulously detailed - at times fragile, at others, robust and even elaborate - skillfully paced, personal and thought-provoking.


Though Giovanni Bassano was a composer of considerable skill, he is probably best remembered today as a musical pedagogue, the author of an influential volume “Ricercate, passaggi et cadentie”; the book’s content deals with methods of decorating contrapuntal lines, using motets and other works by Willaert, Clemens non Papa etc. Written in 1585, at the dawning of the Venetian Baroque, Walter Reiter’s choice to perform Bassano’s Ricercata VIII was not an unpredictable option: Reiter spoke of this style as looking towards the Levant, suggesting a connection to Jerusalem. Referring to the piece as “written down improvisation”, Reiter’s playing of the Ricercata was free and spontaneous as he addressed each motif and its course. We then heard the Largo from J.S.Bach’s Sonata for solo violin in C major BWV1005, with the artist viewing its dark mood as a memorial to Bach’s (first) wife Maria Barbara, who had died when the composer was away in Karlsbad. Reiter, finding the work appropriate to the mood of the present Covid-19 pandemic, gave a profound and moving reading of the Largo, its melodic, florid line, emerging from within the voices, sung over a simple bass.


Violinists Lilia Slavny, Noam Schuss, Kati Debretzeni and Dafna Ravid, also flautist Idit Shemer, all spoke warmly of Walter Reiter’s teaching, his wisdom, influence and mentorship. 


Seeing in the international symposium on the morning of February 7th, welcoming those present and thanking those organizations involved in joining the JBO for the event - namely, the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance Research Authority and the Jerusalem Music Centre (Mishkenot Sha’ananim) - was Gilli Alon-Bitton, CEO of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. The first speaker was Prof. David Shemer, who began by reminding viewers of the first steps of Baroque performance in Jerusalem taken by him and Walter Reiter in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He talked of Reiter’s playing as being characterized by “meaningfulness”, by playing that “tells a story”, always making one think. Maestro Shemer went on to extol the qualities of Reiter’s new book with its creative pedagogy, references to major sources and its insight into Baroque music. He spoke of it as mandatory reading for all Baroque musicians, not only violinists and violists, and also as being useful for modern string players making the transition to performing in the Baroque style.


Noam Schuss, first violinist of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, today teaching both modern- and Baroque violin and conducting a young people’s Baroque orchestra, spoke of her violin studies with three prominent teachers - Ilona Feher, Ora Shiran and William Preucil (Cleveland Quartet) - and of being trained in the “grand, large violin sound”. Then, 25 years ago, she met Walter Reiter, who was teaching at the Jerusalem Early Music Workshop. At the Eastman School of Music, she had played Bach on a modern violin with a Baroque bow, but now, playing repertoire new to her, such as Corelli, she was being informed and inspired by Reiter, who was encouraging her to be freer within the historical context. Schuss’ musical roots were taking a turn! Helping her move away from the traditional track, Reiter was convinced she was meant to play Baroque-style music. Reiter then introduced her to David Shemer. Thinking back to those early days, Noam Schuss has been mesmerized reading Reiter’s book, which counsels that “nothing is just for technique” and that playing this music means being an explorer. Schuss emphasizes the importance of taking time to experiment in these fast times. She refers to rehearsals of her youth orchestra as a “Baroque laboratory”. 


The next speaker was Prof. David Irving, a leading Australian musicologist, cultural historian and Baroque violinist, currently based at the Instituci√≥ Mil√† i Fontanals-CSIC (Barcelona). His research revolves around the role of music in intercultural exchange, colonialism, and globalisation from c.1500 to c.1900, with particular focus on Southeast Asia. His talk put Walter Reiter’s book into a global-historical context, showing illustrations of early bowed instruments and tracing their dispersal worldwide through colonialism, traders, etc. Irving discussed the kinds of wood used in the making of violins and bows and the choice of wood’s influence on playing and technique. He mentioned that Biber’s bow was made of snakewood.  Prof. Irving told of the arrival of the violin in China by way of a missionary, Pedro Pedrini, possibly a pupil of Corelli, who was writing sonatas similar in style to those of Corelli. Pedrini taught the Emperor musical notation, who, in turn, began to write music. We heard two movements of a Pedrini sonata performed by Nancy Wilson (violin) and Joyce Lindorff (harpsichord). Irving stressed the importance of violinists playing together with musicians of different cultures.


Prior to the printing of ”The Baroque Violin and Viola: a 50 Lesson Course”, Walter Reiter had requested violinist Rachel Podger to read through it. Podger felt honoured to do so. She spoke of Reiter’s wisdom and believes that students will find the book’s research attractive, encouraging them to go on to do more. Among Reiter’s many teaching strategies, Podger loves the singing and playing exercises using Italian words and the inspiration of sounds heard in one’s mind or even prompted by objects when “turning marble into sound”. She originally met Reiter when both were leading with the English Concert in the early 1990s and she has always felt a musical affinity with him. Podger made reference to conversations with him and to the humour and creativity of his word games and puns.


Musicologist, violist and director of the prestigious Israeli Carmel Quartet Dr. Yoel Greenberg studied modern violin with Reiter in the 1980s. Reiter was his first teacher. Although Greenberg did not go in the direction of Baroque performance, Reiter did introduce him to Baroque music, to the world of chamber music, giving him much musical background and arousing his interest in musicology. Today, Greenberg finds Reiter’s reliance on 18th century pedagogy a meeting point between the two of them. We then heard members of the Carmel Quartet playing a section of what sounded like a coherent and balanced piece of galant music. Greenberg then revealed that it actually consisted of fragments from works of Haydn, Dittersdorf, Mozart and Pleyel pieced together quite companionably, a manoeuvre impossible in styles later than the Classical style. He referred to the stringing together of schemata as researched by Robert O. Gjerdingen, a scholar of music theory and music perception, and to composer and music theorist J.P. Kirnberger (1721-1783), who had engaged in the replacement or addition of passages. Greenberg concluded his talk by saying that the two years of study with Maestro Reiter had given him a whole world. 


The afternoon was taken up with on-line master classes, in which Walter Reiter worked with young Israeli Baroque violinists and violists, concluding a festive and enriching two-day event in honour of his new and most significant book.