October 20, 2014 / Jesse Irons
Last month, I took my first Musicker field trip. I'm intending to travel a good amount this year to become exposed to a wider variety of historical styles, approaches, and philosophies. London, New York, Toronto, Amsterdam... all are on my short list, and I can hardly wait to see what surprising and amazing performers are out there. So, a lonely mountainside overlooking the shrubby desert just north of Albuquerque, New Mexico might seem a curious choice for my first trip. What brought me to this wide-open country, as unlikely as it is beautiful? One person: Elizabeth Blumenstock.
Elizabeth is one of the most well-respected and quietly influential HIP performers in this country. As the long-time concertmaster for Nick McGegan and San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque, she has performed all around the world, worked with all the seminal figures, and recorded scores of albums.
She was also the first full-on professional baroque violinist that I ever studied with. Back in 2009 I was just getting my feet wet in historical performance with the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra (a wonderful training ensemble that, conveniently, doesn't require Harvard affiliation, and even provides loans of historical instruments). The director of HBCO, Phoebe Carrai, twisted my arm as only Phoebe can do - when she gets an idea into her head, there is no denying her, and so when she decided I needed to study with Elizabeth that summer at the International Baroque Institute at Longy (IBIL), that's exactly what ended up happening.
The summer of 2009 at IBIL was an eye-opening experience for me, and in many ways profoundly frustrating. I was a professional violinist who had been supporting himself for years at that point, but I was also a rank amateur when it came to historical techniques. My inability to create a satisfying messa di voce and my general impatience with myself created a destructive little feedback loop, and I might have given up entirely if not for the astounding coachings and performances that Elizabeth treated us to daily. On the last day of the institute, she gave me a little colored rubber half-crescent ball thing (sorry - there's not really another way to describe it), the shape of which represented a true messa di voce. It's been in my violin case ever since.
When I bumped into Elizabeth this past summer in Norfolk, Connecticut, I knew I had to include her in my Musicker project. We corresponded by email and settled on a window of time when I could come out to her beautiful new home in New Mexico. I was coming directly from a Gut Reaction concert in Seattle and, as commonly happens, I was entirely without prepared solo repertoire. As Elizabeth showed me around, I came clean - I didn't have any special repertoire prepared but would be happy to pick some pieces to work on, hang out, talk shop, practice together, play duets together, and generally make the visit as organic as it could be, given that I was invading her home and routine.
To my immense relief, she was perfectly at ease with this proposal and so we spent four intense days together doing all of these things and more. One of the most memorable days was when she allowed me to essentially eavesdrop as she practiced "out loud" a challenging piece for an upcoming program. It was so great to watch her make decisions about the music, balancing sometimes-contradictory clues from the harmony, melodic contour, beat structure, and 'rhetoric' while keeping everything organic and musically satisfying - it was certainly not an academic's approach but it was also not at all ignorant of any academic factor.
It's tempting to spill the beans on all that we talked about and worked on, but much of it was specifically relevant to my personal technique, and therefore not very interesting to anyone else. Other aspects of what we talked about will undoubtedly emerge as I progress through the year. I'm intending to write up a couple of articles she shared: one on... what else? messa di voce, and the other a nice contrarian foil to all of the pro-rhetoric readings I've been exposed to up to this point. Mostly I'd like to publicly thank Elizabeth for her incredible generosity of time, spirit, and knowledge. I hope our paths cross again soon!