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The Voice of the viola da gamba

January 25, 2011

Early Edition invited viola da gambist Lee Inman to contribute to the blog for the upcoming viol-centric performances presented by Early Music Guild this season.  Hear the Portland Viol Consort on Tuesday, February 1 at 7:30PM at Trinity Parish Church.  Hear Paolo Pandolfo and Thomas Boysen on Saturday, March 5 at 8PM at Town Hall.  Whether you haven’t heard a viol played in person before, or you’re already a passionate follower of this wonderful instrument, we hope to see you at these memorable performances!

What is there about the voice of the viola da gamba that has mesmerized so many people, often to the extent that they take up the instrument themselves?  I can’t answer that question precisely, except to say that the sound of the viol grabbed my ear over 40 years ago, and has never let it go.

It may not be apparent to viol aficionados today that expressing interest in the late 1960’s in something as esoteric as the viol, or in historical performance practice in general, was considered tantamount to becoming a card-carrying member of the lunatic fringe.  Music schools then tended to question the motives – and sanity – of any student expressing an interest in any music outside the classical canon of the time. Since then, attitudes have changed. The sound of the viol is now part of the musical mainstream, and leading conservatories all over the world are now prepared to offer viol performance degrees.

The reason for that evolution is clear, at least to me.  The human singing voice has always been the most highly-cherished and emotionally-satisfying instrument, matchless in refinement and in expressiveness. Historically, the viol was highly-prized for its supreme ability to mimic a singer’s flexibility and sensitivity. Both the voice of the viola da gamba and the voice of the singer still have the same effect, and the same appeal, in the twenty-first century, too.

Seattle is fortunate to have a noted viol virtuoso and teacher, Margriet Tindemans, resident in the city. In fact, the entire west coast has evolved gradually into a near-paradise for professional and amateur viol players.  Indeed, the San Francisco bay area is now bursting with viol expertise, and Portland and Eugene are also home to fine players, eager to find an audience.

Yet, even with that wealth of talent in our ‘neighborhood’, audiences rarely have the opportunity to hear viols in consort.  That’s unfortunate, because if one viol is engaging, an ensemble four or five can be completely charming.  Seattle will have one of those rare opportunities on February 1, when the Portland Viol Consort performs John Dowland’s complete “Lachrimae” cycle as part of the Seattle Early Music Guild’s First Tuesdays series.

The “Lachrimae” collection of Pavans, Galliards and Almans presents a bit of a quandary to modern listeners.  For one thing, the overall mood of the cycle is somewhat monochromatic. Musicians often go to great lengths to build an appealing mix of emotional impressions into a concert program, but the theme (melancholy) of the “Lachrimae” set doesn’t easily support that approach.  For another, Dowland’s quasi-programmatic structure for varying his thematic material has left us with little riddles that even expert musicological research has yet to fully answer.

On the other hand, “Lachrimae” offers modern audiences an opportunity to visit and to reflect deeply on a culture and sensibility that may seem foreign to us.  “Lachrimae’s” instrumentation – viols and lute – also works subtly on our perceptions, and requests our full attention to appreciate those subtleties.  Understanding of “Lachrimae” may come only after one puts aside the enigmas and mysteries that enshroud Dowland’s masterwork, then simply accepts its message at face value and savors its uniquely restrained beauty.

Paolo Pandolfo, photo by Evy Ottermans

After “Lachrimae” in February, we’ll just have time to catch our breath when, on March 5, Paolo Pandolfo arrives to perform what promises to be a dazzling program of pieces for bass viola da gamba, accompanied by his long-time colleague, Thomas Boysen on theorbo.  Pandolfo’s playing is invariably brilliant, his interpretations creative and insightful.  What has particularly impressed me is how relaxed he always seems with the instrument, even as he flawlessly navigates the most technically complex pieces.  He draws on years of musical experience and study to prepare his programs, and it’s a joy to witness his passion for the viol and its literature.  Pandolfo’s appearance in Seattle must surely belong on the “do not miss” list of anyone who’s ever fallen under the spell of the viola da gamba.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Macdonald permalink
    January 26, 2011 1:29 PM

    Very nicely put!

    Elizabeth Macdonald

  2. Patricia Gambell permalink
    January 28, 2011 1:56 PM

    Lee and all gamba players,

    This inlander enjoys all of your comments.

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