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14.3.12

In Her Own Words: Christina Pluhar

One of our top picks for the month of March is a concert by the ensemble L'Arpeggiata at the Library of Congress next Monday (March 19, 8 pm). Since this is the first time this unusual early music ensemble has visited Washington, some readers may not be familiar with their work. We reached the group's director, harpist and lutenist Christina Pluhar, in New York earlier this week to find out about the ideas behind the program they will perform at the Library of Congress, called Tarantella. It is a variation on a selection of music that the group recorded a decade ago, for the Alpha label.

"It is quite unusual, of course, that a program we recorded ten years ago is still alive in the concert hall," Pluhar admitted. "So the music still obviously has a lot of success, and we are still asked to perform it in many places, but the program changes with every concert. The parts that are improvised, of course, are never the same, but it is more than that. For me the creation of a concert program and a recording are two very different things. The concert project constantly changes. It is necessary for the musicians: we want to keep our performance as alive as possible."

L'Arpeggiata is at its heart a Baroque music ensemble, named for a toccata by virtuoso lutenist and composer Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger (L'Arpeggiata) -- an indication of Pluhar's focus on plucked and strummed instruments. They play on mostly modern reconstructions of historical instruments, because the different construction of plucked instruments means that there are far fewer existing historical instruments of these types that one can actually play. In Tarantella as in many of her programs, Pluhar matches 17th-century music with much later traditional and folk music she believes is its continuation. "We combine a now living tradition and written music of that earlier period," Pluhar says. "One of our musicians, Marcello Vitale, plays an instrument, the chitarra battente, that is still alive in this music today, more or less exactly the same instrument as you find in the 17th century."


available at Amazon
La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae, L. Galeazzi, M. Beasley, L'Arpeggiata, C. Pluhar
(2001)

available at Amazon
Monteverdi: Teatro d'Amore, N. Rial, P. Jaroussky, L'Arpeggiata, C. Pluhar
(2009)
[Watch concert version]

available at Amazon
Los pájaros perdidos, P. Jaroussky, L'Arpeggiata, C. Pluhar
(2012)

Video performances:
Atanasius Kirchner, Tarantella napoletana (plus another version)

Cazzati, Ciaccona
Archival research and historically informed performance training only took Pluhar and her musicians so far, however. "There is something that you cannot find in the sources of the 17th century," Pluhar explains, "because music as it was written down was quite rudimentary. Much was left to the imagination, concerning instrumentation, for example, which the composer usually left open. Improvisation was a very important part: it was part of every musician’s education to be able to improvise, like jazz musicians." This is one reason why Pluhar has taken to collaborating with non-classical musicians, like the folk singer Lucilla Galeazzi, who will help recreate the Tarantella program at the Library. "Her style and her stage presence are quite extraordinary," Pluhar confides, "and that is why I in general like to work with non-classical singers, because they communicate the text much more intensely than classical singers. They are storytellers, and this is something you can find in sources, that emphasis on bringing the text alive, but it is a practice that has changed a lot in the style of vocal education in recent centuries."

Indeed, for Pluhar, the border between historical and contemporary is intentionally blurred, as she combines 17th-century music with a piece like Ah! vita bella, composed by Galeazzi, which will open the concert. "It is not unusual for singers in that style to write their own music," Pluhar explains. "For that type of performer, music is not something to be played but to be lived." The group's improvisational style is based first on study of manuals for teaching improvisation in the 17th century, but only so much of the practice could be written down, according to Pluhar. She has written of the “living Baroque” culture -- in South America, for their newest recording, in southern Italy for Tarantella -- by which living musicians of the folk and popular styles can help with the historical study of reviving a tradition, filling in information that could not be notated in musical sources. It takes the group's performances into territory that some listeners might call crossover -- the new recording, Los pájaros perdidos, concludes with Besame mucho of all things -- but if you like the music into which it crosses over, you are unlikely to complain.

"Some of the pieces on the program are completely improvised," Pluhar continues. "Some are based on music written down but further elaborated by us, and some are completely written out. What you will hear in our performance is that the audience will not feel the difference between the written-down and improvised performances. The more improvisation you fit into a performance of early music, the more early music becomes contemporary music. The performer creates within this pre-existing language his own piece." In fact, the tarantella as it was known in the 17th century does not conform to the later form it came to be associated with: according to Pluhar, only from the 18th century onward was a tarantella thought to be in 12/8 meter and quite fast.

"In the 17th century," she says, "the tarantella was not necessarily in triple time, and you find various kinds of meters, in minor, in major. The explanation was that different types of symptoms were observed based on different kinds of spiders that bit people." There is a tradition behind this music, associating it with a cure for the bites of various kinds of spiders -- not tarantulas -- in the region of Taranto in southern Italy. "The bites had no clear set of symptoms, manifesting differently in different people, so one had to find the right kind of piece for the right person." She laughs. "You had to play music in different modes and meters until the person reacted favorably."

Christina Pluhar leads the ensemble L'Arpeggiata in a free concert at the Library of Congress next Monday (March 19, 8 pm), in the Tarantella program featuring solo contributions by singer Lucilla Galeazzi and a dancer.

SVILUPPO:
My review of the concert by L'Arpeggiata at the Library of Congress: L'Arpeggiata Cuts a Rug (March 21)

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