In praise of the viola da gamba
by arwulf arwulf
Published in November, 2015
Do you suffer from the frenetic pace of life in a perpetually imploding technocracy? You might consider seeking refuge in an intimate recital hall where chamber music can invoke the calming grace of a rising winter moon. On November 24, Kerrytown Concert House will welcome Chicago-based cellist Anna Steinhoff and U-M harpsichordist Francis Yun for a beautifully balanced program of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann.
The program opens with the first of Bach's six cello suites, the one with the prelude that seems to evoke the beginning of the world as seen through a portal overlooking the eternal present. Here for all to experience is what poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca meant when he announced that "the dawn never ends."
The immaculate prelude cleanses the air and lays the ground for the rest of the suite, which unfolds as a series of old world dances; the elegant, thoughtful allemande; the perky, mellifluous courante; the ruminative saraband; a pair of handsome minuets; and lastly the agile gigue, cousin to the jig. Steinhoff will perform this masterpiece and a comparably gorgeous sonata by Telemann on her baroque cello, its low-tension gut strings resonating gently rather than projecting with the brighter force of its modern, metal-stringed counterpart.
Telemann's sonata is sure to contrast pleasantly with the better-known and oft-performed Bach suite. Whereas old Bach's constantly evolving weave of intricate logic never ceases to amaze, his friend Telemann's chamber music can feel whimsical and pleasantly unpredictable by comparison. This is even more likely to be the case during the second half of the recital, when Steinhoff switches from Baroque cello to the viola da gamba, one of the modern cello's many indirect predecessors. "Gamba" means "leg," and the instrument is played while laid across or propped between the legs.
With its seven strings, sloped shoulders, wide ribs, flattened bridge, and decorative woodwork, the fretted viola da gamba is fascinating to look at. And because its bow is held with the palm facing upwards, the violist is able to maintain finger contact with the horsehair, varying tension to make subtle adjustments in articulation. If its sound could be distilled into scents, the viola da gamba would suggest a delicate blend of oleander, juniper, laurel, and sage. It's quite unlike anything else you are likely to hear in this part of the world.
[Originally published in November, 2015.]
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