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Interview in Chelys Australis

with John Weretka
How did you first become involved with the viol?
In 1998, while studying modern violin in Vienna, I met Jose Vasquez, the professor of viola da gamba at the Vienna Hochschule for music. How it all started was really quite mysterious. While walking past the hochschule one day, something possessed me to get in touch with Jose. I called the secretariat, who gave me his number. Immediately, I gave Jose a call and explained my interest to learn the viol. I told him that I did not own a viol and hoped that it would not be a problem. He laughed it off and invited me over the same evening, where I joined him and some students playing Castello duets on baroque violin. It was then that I realised he owned a museum of original instruments. He lent me one of his viols and enrolled me under the hochschule's lehrgang studies. Back then it was not possible to do a degree in early music in Vienna, so after 6 months I had to venture elsewhere.

Could you tell me about your experiences in Europe?

Jose suggested I go to the United Kingdom, which I did. A scholarship to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama allowed me to study the baroque violin, as well as the viol to a lesser extent. Looking back, I feel that Jose gave me all the viol technique that I will ever need in that 6 months. After finishing with Wales, I moved to Holland, where I travelled between Amsterdam and the Hague for lessons.

I did most of my playing as a baroque violinist. I remember doing things like Monteverdi's Vespers and Poppea, Bach's Brandenburg concertos, Handel's operas, Mozart concertos, etc. As a viol player, I did more playing in Holland. I often collaborated with Takashi Watanabe, the harpsichordist. We even got as far as finalists for an early music competition in Germany. I would like to think I was one of the few active solo viol players of my generation around. I played everything in concerts, mostly Bach, Couperin, Forqueray, Schenk, but never Marais. I have never been fond of Marais and I think it has been done to death by violists. I always try my best to avoid his music.

I know you're involved in giving concerts in Singapore. What are the viol and early music scenes like in Singapore?

There is not very much activity in Singapore because the early music has not quite had enough exposure yet. In 2000, I managed to form an early music group to explore performing in Singapore. We managed to perform almost all the major genres of baroque music. We probably were the first in Singapore to ever do a 'one voice per part' Bach cantata, French air de cour, Monteverdi opera and so much more. We were faced with a surprising enthusiasm by our audience, most of whom were probably not sure what kind of musicians we were. I still hope to return to Singapore and resurrect this group, but my commitments are with Australia now.

As a viol player, I did solo concerts in Singapore. Solo meaning, unaccompanied. I played anything and everything that was written for solo viol, even modern music. Recently, it has been mostly solo French music: Dubuisson, Hotman, DeMachy, Sainte-Colombe. I've done occasional "cross over" performances, with other artists like poets, singers, dancers, etc.

What particular challenges face the viol player in Perth? Are there challenges in Australia more generally?

In Perth, there are no other professional viol players, so playing consort is out of the question. Although there is a greater appreciation for classical music in Perth than there is in Singapore, there is probably less awareness in early music here. There is only one early music group, which is made up of the faculty of the university's music department. Occasionally I do join them. In the meantime, I spend more time teaching violin than anything else. At the moment, I am discussing representation by a local agent, which I hope will advance my career somewhat.

There are challenges anywhere. It just changes according to where you are.

Could you describe a typical lesson with José? What kinds of things were discussed in your lessons, and what did you play?

Most of my formative years of gamba playing consisted of technical exercises, e.g. bowing and finger exercises. A typical lesson would begin with me playing a piece that I've prepared, and then we would work from there. If there was a technical issue, the passage would be analysed in detail and the exact physical movement required to execute this passage would be discussed. It's an extremely efficient way to learn, which in time teaches the student to teach himself. Most, if not all, of his musical ideas are extremely expressive, sometimes going beyond the boundaries of what some consider tasteful, but I loved it.

What was the most important thing you learnt from José? How did his approach differ from other teachers you’ve encountered?

My bowing technique. Most of the other teachers I encountered did not seem to have a specific technique or a methodology, they just played. I think this is because the viol's repertoire is not so difficult that you cannot get away with some shortcomings, so there isn't really the need to be as regimented as our modern string player counterparts. Imagine if you had little concept of violin technique? You wouldn't be able to play Bach, let alone Brahms or Beethoven.

Avoiding Marais is a big challenge for a viol player. What turns you off Marais, and what are you finding in Schenck, Forqueray and others that you’re not finding in Marais?

The music of Marais is generally overplayed by viol players everywhere. This is understandable, since most of his music is pleasing and technically not too challenging. But after 5 books of Prelude, Allemande, Courante, etc., I am starting to feel that these books were intended as a commercial venture, rather than an artistic pursuit. Why I say this is because, in the context of baroque France, there are far better things. Lully, for instance, who can regarded as a benchmark for all things French, created the most wonderful sacred works. I know this can be considered a far fetched comparison, but the level of artistry and imagination that we get from Lully, in my opinion, is far more developed than anything we see in all 5 books of Marais. Not to mention, Lully's style was established before Marais', and Marais definitely knew how great Lully was. I think we are being shortchanged somewhat.

I am aware of many modern viol player's admiration of Marais, occasionally treating his music as the Rolls Royce of the French viol. My feeling is that these 5 books simply cannot represent the best pieces of the great Marais of baroque France. In giving these pieces more worth than what they have is simply misrepresenting the abilities of the French viol. Do you think Marais would sell his best pieces to just anyone? Everyone would start to sound like him!

I have a lot more faith in the works of Antoine Forqueray (Pièces de viole - Paris, 1747). The context in which they were transmitted is a clear indication of what we should expect from the French viol - a more varied style with greater technical requirements. These pieces were published posthumously by Jean Baptiste, his son, and possibly against the wishes of Antoine. I believe that they are an almost exact copy of Antoine's collected personal pieces. I am aware of the modern opinion that these pieces are actually the work of Jean-Baptiste, not those of Antoine. I completely reject this idea, since there is no historical evidence for this except for some similarity of the musical language with certain French violinists, which itself is not a compelling argument for the attribution of an entire collection of viol pieces. Many pieces share the more traditional idiom of 'jeu d'harmonie', which had been developed far back in the 1620s, as seen in the unaccompanied pieces of Hotman and similar composers that come after him, however with a more 'modern' musical language. In fact if you play Forqueray alone, you will find that most of it is already complete. Just listen to Forqueray's arrangement for harpsichord and the transcription for theorbo by De Visée. Doesn't it sound like unaccompanied music? Maybe that is why the basso continuo part for the viol sounds sometimes so redundant. I often play unaccompanied Forqueray to audiences, and so far, no one has ever realised that I was actually playing music that requires basso continuo. The texture is so rich and complete, and for a very good reason too; he never intended anyone to back him up. A truly great soloist wouldn't need any back up, would he? We could not do the same for Marais as his music has a completely different purpose. Marais' music is music meant for the general public, but Forqueray's music represents the actual pieces that he played himself; music we should expect from a great virtuoso of this period. There are some pieces of Marais that I would never perform for an audience. Do you think Marais would?

Susie Napper and I had a discussion about Isabelle Panneton’s ‘Ellipses’, which Les Voix Humaines performed while they were in Australia. This was a piece that had been inspired by Sainte-Colombe’s concerts and yet, in some ways, the music didn’t sit well on the viol at all, something you rarely feel in Saint-Colombe’s own works. What is your exposure to modern works for the viol, and do you feel, as one sometimes does with Schenck, that you make the music work in spite of the instrument?

Writing for the viol must be very difficult for the modern-day composer. As far as I know, there are no manuals out there to teach you how to write for this instrument, so understandably, there are pieces out there which do not suit the viol as well as one would like. But as viol players, we must be used to this. Bach's gamba sonatas are not all that idiomatic for the viol, but because they are such great pieces (more likely because it's Bach), we work as hard as we can to make them sound pleasing. Perhaps an even better example are Couperin's suites for the viol, which are the most beautiful pieces ever written for the viol, but don't always make too much sense technically (however I am starting to better decipher his intentions). In fact playing Schenk and Forqueray is far easier for the hand and the bow, despite requiring more pyrotechnics.

Where will you be in twenty years?

This is a very hard one. I suspect I will be doing something completely unrelated to music in some tropical island somewhere.