Ars Lyrica Concert

Out with the new, in with the old: Baroque virtuoso Colin St. Martin keeps the classics fresh

Out with the new, in with the old: Baroque virtuoso Colin St. Martin keeps the classics fresh

Newer isn't always necessarily better, and in such a fast progressing and changing culture, it's nice to be reminded that it is essential to retain the soul and ethos of yesteryear while pursuing anything new and shiny.  

In that spirit, I embark on a quest to learn from baroque flute — also known as traverso — virtuoso Colin St. Martin, on faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. St. Martin frequents Houston to perform with Mercury Baroque and Ars Lyrica in addition to making appearances with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Smithsonian Chamber Players, New York Collegium and The Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra.

Yes, musically, St. Martin gets around.

This weekend, he lands in Houston again to perform with Ars Lyrica in a concert titled "Musical Alchemy," set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Artistic director Matthew Dirst has curated a bill that includes audiences favorites like Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and curious compositions that challenge the conventions of the instruments, and conventions of orchestration.

In the midst of rehearsals, CultureMap caught up with the busy soloist and conversed via email about his journey into the aesthetic of the baroque, his influences and the specific attributes that makes the traverso exceptional.

CultureMap: Where did your interest in period instruments come from? Did you start on modern and switch, or were you always fascinated with traverso?

Colin St. Martin: My first love was actually the organ. Both my parents were music lovers, my dad had a particular love for the music of J.S. Bach. I was often “required” to go with him on Sunday evenings to hear organ recitals at the National Cathedral near where I grew up in suburban Maryland. Hearing the works of Bach fed my desire to play the organ, but I was told that I was too young and needed to start on piano. So at age 9, I began piano lessons.

CM: Piano didn't work for you.

CSM: The percussive nature of the piano didn't appeal to me, so after a couple years, I let it go. About a year later, I was 12 by this point, I started playing recorder  — my oldest brother was required to play a little for his music appreciation class at the University of Maryland, so an instrument was at hand. My parents thought that I should have lessons, so for about two years I studied with a local teacher — Carole Rogentine — who was wonderful. 

For my 14th birthday, my parents took me to a recital at the Kennedy Center by the world-famous recorder player Frans Brüggen. The big surprise was that he devoted the second half of the program entirely to playing traverso. It was love at first hearing. I soon began taking traverso lessons with Michael Seyfrit in Washington D.C., who not only taught, but made instruments as well.

Playing the modern flute was never something I considered because the sound didn't "grab" me, nor did the repertoire specifically written for the instrument.

CM: How do you think baroque music changes when performing it on modern instruments? Playing devil's advocate here, but aren't contemporary instruments able to give you a larger range, dynamically and coloristically?

CSM: Eighteen-century instruments have two very strong qualities: they respond very easily to a huge variety of articulations, which is very important to the style, and, particularly in the case of wind instruments, each scale has a different quality. Though there is no question that modern instruments are capable of far more than is often demanded of them, playing in "baroque" style requires a whole other vocabulary that does not come easily for instruments designed to be as tonally even as possible. 

One must keep in mind that when you spend most of your time playing counterpoint, it requires a very different approach to the interpretation of individual voices and musical lines. Twenty first-century style, at least for classical music, is heavily influenced by contemporary orchestral playing, whereas in previous centuries, chamber music was the most common form that one would perform or hear. 

As is often the case with large groups —choirs or orchestras — finesse and subtlety must often give way to large gestures and generalized interpretations of certain styles of music.

CM: What about modern works? Are there modern works written from the baroque flute? Ever had a work commissioned?

CSM: I can't say that I'm very knowledgeable of contemporary works for traverso. There certainly are pieces — John Solum has been a big supporter — but it's still just starting. I did have a series of solo works dedicated to me, that really exploit the unique possibilities of the traverso.  In another case, I played a sonata for traverso and harpsichord that was composed essentially in serial style. Though it's an interesting work, the fact that the individual tone qualities of notes so characteristic of the traverso are ostensibly ignored, it leaves me feeling the composer didn't really “get it."

CM: Is there a way to use baroque instruments in contemporary composition and still honor the characteristics of the instrument?

CSM: Baroque instruments were conceived in a world where tonality and often modality were the norm, so to remove those “constraints” puts the instruments at a disadvantage. I think that the use of amplification and or electronic modification of the sound might make a better medium for old instruments if the keys used in a piece are to be considered as having their own specific characteristics.

CM: Do you have a favorite piece in this upcoming Ars Lyrica concert? What makes it great?

CSM: Though I've always loved Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, the Vivaldi Concerto is a really wonderful work that's not often heard.  It's a “flute” concerto, but the interplay of the oboe, violin and bass lines has a marvelous effect. Vivaldi did indeed write a version of the same concerto for flute and strings (Op. 10,  No. 6),  but, to my ears, it's much less interesting.

The variety of tone colors added by having the oboe in the band makes a huge difference. I think it's important for us “moderns” not to forget that Vivaldi wrote a huge number of chamber concerti for various combinations of instruments and did not necessarily favor the solo instrument juxtaposed against a string band.

CM: How do you approach ornamentation? How do you decide when to play something as written, or embellished as it was the custom of the period?

CSM: Wow, that's a loaded question! 

CM: I know! And I can't think of anyone better to answer it. 

CSM: One must do a lot of reading of treatises, original musical scores and extra musical sources to get a grasp of this. The goal of ornamentation is to try to make something more interesting and potentially more beautiful.

Where we run amuck today is that much of what we play has been heard numerous times “as seen in black and white” or on CD so that even the slightest variations by performers can be noticeable and often condemned by many listeners. We must try to keep in mind that in the 18th century, audiences mostly heard music that was very recently composed, and then, they probably only heard it once in their life.

CM: Perhaps that's why composers like Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Vivaldi were very prolific. 

CSM: Music was an extremely ephemeral medium — pre recording age — so the concept of honoring or respecting the written notes was not necessarily the performer's principal aim. They were representing themselves and not the composer. It always strikes me as funny that today we are so concerned about the sacred notes on the page whereas in the 18th century, when they were far more likely to have the “living” composer in the audience, they seemed far less constrained in that regard!

As far as when to ornament or not, I think it's merely a question of how easy it is. What I mean is that in the works of some composers — like Bach, Rameau, Handel — the sheer density of ideas does not leave a lot of room to “add” or “improve." Even so, I would much rather hear someone try to embellish things than play what's written.

Just playing the notes seems to me to be a mistaken or misplaced form of respect for the composer.  Learning to ornament an existing work takes a huge amount of hard work and freedom of mind. I imagine that people will come to this concert because they've heard one of the pieces on it and want to hear it again. My desire is that they listen to our performance with open ears, ready to hear the fresh new version in front of them.

Ars Lyrica presents "Musical Alchemy" on Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $31.25 and can be purchased online. Student discounts are available. 

News_Ars Lyrica_Colin St. Martin_Matthew Dirst
Colin St. Martin, left, and Matthew Dirst Photo by Anthony Rathbun
News_Ars Lyrica_Colin St. Martin_Matthew Dirst_Kathryn Montoya
Kathryn Montoya, from left, Matthew Dirst and Colin St. Martin Photo by Anthony Rathbun