From the very first notes of the Prelude, we enter the world of Bach’s cello suites with wonder – it’s almost like walking out on a perfectly clear night and seeing the sky full of stars. Oh, to be a cellist with the mastery to play in that sonic universe!
Pianist Eleonor Bindman has felt that amazement and has distilled it for you into a piano edition that is perfect for amateur pianists – and for anyone who loves Bach and wants to learn more.
“Anybody who plays [Bach becomes] a channel for his amazing spirit,” says Bindman. “You really feel like you’re getting something more than just the enjoyment of music: it can be a very transformative, spiritual experience.”
Bindman has arranged several of Bach’s works, including the Brandenburg Concertos (for piano duet) and selections from cantatas and orchestral suites, as well as favorites from the music of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. As a teacher, she is a committed advocate for amateur music-making, and says of amateur musicians, “You’re doing something you love – it’s not your job, you don’t have to do it – so you need to have repertoire that you love to play, and that isn’t going to take you weeks and months to learn.”
AMN concurs! And we are looking forward to exploring the starry skies of Bach with her on September 25.
We’re launching our Early Music for Modern Instruments month with a very special four-workshop series taught by Baroque violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock. The series begins Tuesday, October 6, at 7 p.m. PDT, and continues on Tuesday evenings through October 27.
Elizabeth is a longtime concertmaster, soloist, and leader with the Bay Area’s Philarmonia Baroque Orchestra and American Bach Soloists; concertmaster of the International Handel Festival in Goettingen, Germany; and artistic director of the Baroque Music Festival Corona del Mar. In a normal year, she’d be traveling almost nonstop to concerts and teaching engagements around the world. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s been sheltering in place in her rural New Mexico housing cooperative, where she’s reading, practicing, and “trying to create garden beds out of the rocky wilderness.” We spoke with her about her life in music and her plans for the AMN workshops.
How did you get started with the violin?
I’d started playing the piano when I was 6. When I was 7, and living in Princeton, New Jersey, my mother fell in love with a local violin player, and suddenly I was taking violin lessons. It didn’t work out between my mother and the violin teacher, but it worked out fine between me and the violin! I liked practicing, and I was reasonably good at playing in tune and in time.
I kept up with piano too, and also the organ, and for 21 years I played the organ in a small church in Richmond, California.
What sparked your interest in Baroque violin?
My mother had been a church organist, and so I grew up with Bach and other Baroque music. Then, when I was 21—this would have been in 1972—I was playing in a string quartet and the first violinist brought us the first recordings of all of the Bach cantatas on period instruments. I was instantly smitten by the colors, the timbre, the way the instruments blended together and how the music was shaped dynamically. I went away knowing this was what I wanted to do.
But actually doing it took a little longer! Hardly anyone in the U.S. was doing it at that time.
When did you start doing it?
In the years after falling in love with historical performance, I played viola in the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Gigged around the Bay Area, got married, and had two children. Then in 1980 I heard about a newly formed group, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of the Golden West, as Philharmonia Baroque was called then. I called them up and said, “I really want to play in your orchestra, but I don’t have a Baroque violin.” “We have one you can use,” I was told. “I don’t have a Baroque bow, either.” “Not a problem—we have one you use.” And that was pretty much it!
Nowadays there are 30 applicants for every open violin position and there’s a formal procedure with auditions behind a screen. I was very lucky to get in on the ground floor.
You now play a very special instrument. Can you tell us about it?
I play a violin made in 1660 by Andrea Guarneri, the founder of the famous Guarneri violin-making family. It’s on generous permanent loan from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a gift from an extremely generous anonymous donor.
When the gift was arranged, I was told I could start looking for a fine violin. Over the course of the next several months, and trips to Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Albuquerque, I selected a total of seven instruments to try again and played them for a group of violin colleagues.
There was one violin, from Boston—every time I picked it up I went ooohhh. It was so clear and colorful. That instrument was our nearly unanimous choice.Imagine—this violin was 25 years old when Bach was born! And that’s the one I now play.
It’s not mine to keep, though. When I stop playing with Philharmonia I must give it back to the orchestra.
In the second session of your AMN series, on October 13, you’ll discuss “rhetorical music.” That term may be new to many participants—what does it mean?
Baroque music has borrowed a lot from rhetoric—the art of public speaking. Composers embedded the techniques of effective public speaking into their music, and it was also embedded in the approach to performance. Phrase structure is like sentence structure, with commas and periods and leaning on important “words.” When you play in the rhetorical style, I suspect you turn on the part of the listener’s brain that processes speech and meaning. You tell a story through music.
What are some tips for modern violinists who want to play early music?
Expression in the Baroque style lies in the right hand—the bow arm—and not so much in the left. If you choke up on your modern bow, like you’d choke up on a baseball bat, it shifts the balance and makes it behave a bit more like a Baroque bow.
What would you do if you weren’t a musician?
Part of me always wished I could dance. But in a way, playing the Baroque violin is so gestural that I feel as though I am in fact dancing with my arms and hands and fingers!
You’ve played Bach, Vivaldi, and Haydn for years on your modern instrument. But have you ever wished to play that music in historically-informed style … without investing in costly period instruments?
Now you can! Throughout October, Amateur Music Network is presenting Early Music for Modern Instruments, a series of online workshops for skilled amateur musicians taught by early-music mentors Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin), Eric Zivian (piano and fortepiano), and William Skeen (cello).
“With most of us still stuck at home, there’s never been a better time to expand our musical horizons,” says AMN founder and director Lolly Lewis. “If you’ve worked hard on the standard classical path, you know the repertoire. Now you can learn new tools and approaches from early-music specialists that will give you even more appreciation of the music you love.”
What makes early music different from modern music?
The history of music is a history of technology—and of loudness. “Before the early 19th century, smaller ensembles were the rule. Large concerts were rare, outside of opera, and art music was mostly a private thing, something for the homes of wealthy patrons,” Lolly says. “It didn’t need to be very loud because audiences were small.”
That changed in a big way in the early 19th century, as instrument technology improved. Orchestras were getting larger and wind instruments could freely modulate and stay reliably in tune. Composers began writing virtuosic concertos to be played with the larger orchestras: “The solo artist needed to project over that big ensemble sound,” Lolly explains. Violins, violas, and cellos, the primary solo instruments, had to adapt to handle more string tension. Their bridges were raised to create more resonance; necks were set at a steeper angle; bows were redesigned with a concave curve to allow more tension in the hair.
“Now we have big, lush string sections and big wind and brass sections with a huge sound,” says Lolly. “That’s what ‘classical’ music sounds like to us—but it’s not how it sounded three centuries ago.”
When she isn’t managing AMN, Lolly is a recording producer. Her interest in early music was sparked in the 1990s when her studio, Transparent Recordings, worked with Bay Area early-music specialists the Artaria Quartet. “It was completely new to me,” she recalls. “I knew it sounded different from modern music, in the intonation and a generally more muted sound, but then I realized that the dynamic range was turned upside down! Instead of emphasizing loudness, there’s a potential for exploring a vast expanse of subtlety that’s almost unlimited. That was really exciting for me.”
Modern instruments aren’t just louder: they’re also able to play reliably in tune in any key. “It all changed with the piano,” Lolly says. “Unlike its ancestor the fortepiano, the modern piano has true ‘equal temperament’—the tuning doesn’t vary across registers and tonal centers. This results in a manufactured tuning system that’s equally out of tune in all keys. Sounds weird, but we’ve become so accustomed to it that this is what our ears are comfortable with now.” Once pianos set the standard, other instruments followed suit.
Professional early-music specialists invest in original or replica instruments—a good bow alone can cost many thousands of dollars. But skilled amateurs can adapt their modern instruments—and their technique—to explore the phrasing and articulation of historical style. The limitations of instruments in the past are now opportunities for discovery for the players of today.
Join us in October to explore some exciting new approaches to familiar and beloved works of music.
NOTE: If you already have Baroque equipment, that’s great! You’ll love working with these great mentors, too.