Saturday 23 November 2019

Making the violin speak: I chat to Elisa Citterio, violinist and music director of Canadian ensemble Tafelmusik

Elisa Citterio and Tafelmusik (Photo Jeff Higgins)
Elisa Citterio and Tafelmusik (Photo Jeff Higgins)
The Canadian period instrument ensemble Tafelmusik is currently on tour to the UK, with a performance at the Barbican on Sundat 24 November 2019. The ensemble's programme, Love and Betrayal, with Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, is directed from the violin by Elisa Citterio who took over as director of the ensemble in 2017 after founder Jeanne Lamon retired (she is now Tafelmusik's Music Director Emerita). I recently met up with Elisa to talk about the ensemble's London programme, their new disc Vivaldi con amore (Elisa's first with Tafelmusik), making the violin speak, and her intriguing career path combining both period and modern instruments, including playing with the orchestra of La Scala, Milan.

Under the title of Love and Betrayal the ensemble's London programme includes arias by Handel and Vivaldi, sung by Karina Gauvin, along with Locatelli's Concerto in E-flat major, Op 7 No 6 'Il Pianto d'Arianna'. The concerto was the first work that Elisa played with Tafelmusik at the time that the ensemble was looking for a new music director and invited her to come and create a programme with them. She chose the Locatelli, which she describes as a cantata without a singer where the violinist is the protagonist, and she thought that it would be interesting to use it in the current concert of arias with a singer. This enabled her to alternate vocal and instrumental items and still keep the theatrical aspect to the programme.

Elisa Citterio (Photo Daniel Banko, Banko Media)
Elisa Citterio (Photo Daniel Banko, Banko Media)
In Locatelli's concerto, the violin comes in after the orchestral introduction and you can imagine the text, images of Arianna lamenting and weeping. It is a very dramatic work, full of contrasts. Similarly, the arias are chosen, not because of the particular works they come from (operas by Handel and Vivaldi, some well-known, some more unknown) but because Elisa wanted theatrical contrasts, a range of emotions from sweetness to anger and betrayal. Gauvin will be singing 'Amato ben' from Vivaldi's Ercole su'l Termodonte, and Vivaldi also wrote a concerto of the same name, L'Amato Bene (which is on the ensemble's new disc). In fact, Elisa first played the concerto before she knew the aria and always thought that the concerto was aria-like. In the aria, Elisa feels that there are moments when voice and violin sing together. At moments like this, Elisa tries to make her violin tone as close as possible to the voice, 'I will lose but I will try'.

This speaking with the violin is something that Elisa has been concerned to do, from the moment she played Monteverdi when young and understood how she needed to speak with her instrument. And not just speaking, but pronouncing each word not with the tongue but with the bow. This requires hard work with the bow and imagining the sound in the timbre of the voice.
Elisa's new disc with Tafelmusik, Vivaldi con amore (on its own label) not only has Vivaldi's L'Amato Bene concerto but his L'Amoroso and the whole disc is built around Vivaldi's love-themed concertos. Elisa was concerned to create a programme which was best for their first disc together. Not only does Vivaldi's music represent extremes of emotion and drama, but it enables her to showcase her colleagues in the ensemble, with the possibility of concertos for oboe, bassoon and lute to provide changes to the sonorities. Not all the concertos have explicitly amorous titles, the bassoon concerto is untitled but is a strong, intense piece with some very dramatic moments. Playing Vivaldi with Tafelmusik also enabled Elisa to work on the ensemble's Italian style.

Tafelmusik and Elisa Citterio in rehearsal (Photo Jeff Higgins)
Tafelmusik and Elisa Citterio in rehearsal (Photo Jeff Higgins)
Elisa, who is Italian born and trained, took over the ensemble in 2017 and last year celebrated its 40th anniversary with them. She describes Tafelmusik as a solid ensemble, with musicians who are very collaborative and keen to learn, to improve and to explore new areas. Elisa has been doing workshops with them on later repertoire. They opened their 2019/20 season with Mendelssohn's String Symphony No. 7 and music from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, composers new to the ensemble, and had workshops before the concerts. Elisa admits that this is only a beginning, you cannot do everything in one workshop and there is more to come.

She feels that under her the ensemble is combining its sweet Canadian sound with a strong dramatic tone. In her third year with them, their audiences are noticing that things are changing. Whilst they try to keep everything that the group has already achieved, she feels that they are enlarging dynamics and contrast.

Another area of exploration is working with more contemporary composers, and they have six new commissions (from four Canadian and two European composers), with more to come. Elisa is keen to collaborate with contemporary composers who want to write for viola da gamba, for cornetto, and she feels that so many of them have so much to say. It is important for the ensemble to explore new paths, to keep a small space to work with composers. In one programme this season they played a programme of music by composers based in Vienna, including Vivaldi, Muffat and Fux, plus a contemporary piece written in the Baroque style by the Italian composer Guido Morini. It fitted the ensemble so well that many of the audience did not realise it was a contemporary piece. She goes on to say, that they are keen to explore a variety of contemporary music styles and not just modern composers writing in the Baroque style. So far this season they have premiered works by Andrew Balfour, Guido Morini and James Rolfe, with premieres by Cecilia Livingston, Vittorio Ghielmi, Gregoire Jeay to come.

Tafelmusik and Elisa Citterio in rehearsal (Photo Jeff Higgins)
Tafelmusik and Elisa Citterio in rehearsal (Photo Jeff Higgins)
She did not apply for the post of music director with Tafelmusik but received an invitation from them. When she looked at the responsibilities of the role it seemed, at first, rather daunting, requiring her to combine planning, conducting and acting as a soloist for some concerts (during her first year she played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with them, and during her second a Mozart Violin Concerto). She had much experience leading from the violin, and has found her experiences with Tafelmusik very exciting, and she is surrounded by a good team and has received a lot of support from everyone.

She has also found learning English a challenge, mainly because she has had to learn an entirely new vocabulary for events such as attending Board Meetings, where the language is very specific and rather different from the conversational English she already knew and the music English that she also used.

Elisa started to play the violin at the age of five. Her mother was a musician, and watching music on TV when young inculcated in Elisa a desire to play in a big orchestra. Rather remarkably for someone known as a Baroque violinist, from 2004 to 2017, Elisa was a member of the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala in Milan, playing 18th, 19th and 20th century operatic repertoire on a modern violin. But she was also playing in Baroque ensembles at the same time, and having a salary from La Scala enabled her to afford to study Baroque violin in Basel, and to choose the Baroque programmes which she played. It was a busy, but rewarding career and Elisa has always enjoyed mixing the modern violin with the Baroque.

In fact, she started playing the Baroque violin quite early. A friend was leading in a performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and one of the violinists cancelled. Her then husband was playing in the opera and persuaded her to stand in. For Elisa, it was like an epiphany, she loved it and started studying the Baroque violin. Six years later she joined the orchestra of La Scala, and learned modern violin with a Russian teacher, whilst still playing a bit of Baroque. She had played in Baroque ensembles like Fabio Biondi's Europa Galante but decided she wanted to train in an orchestra and so went to La Scala. She found it an amazing experience, and she was still able to keep playing Baroque violin as well.

Tafelmusik and Elisa Citterio (Photo Cylla von Tiedemann)
Tafelmusik and Elisa Citterio (Photo Cylla von Tiedemann)
She has always done the two, and she feels that playing the Baroque violin made her modern violin playing better. When playing modern violin she tries to shape the sound, as she would with the Baroque violin, rather than just using vibrato. But for the last two years she has been so busy that she has not had chance to play the modern violin.

In the 1990s when she was playing both modern and Baroque violin it was like two different worlds, with each saying to the other, 'you are doing it wrong', but now we are reaching a point where the different groups realise that we can learn from each other. When she started playing with the orchestra of La Scala, they looked at her Baroque instrument and said 'what's that?', whereas now La Scala has its own period instrument ensemble!

This tour with Tafelmusik is the first time that Elisa has been able to play in Europe with them, and she is starting in England playing Handel (though the combination is serendipitous rather than deliberate). And she hopes to be back soon, but as well as its huge season in Toronto, Tafelmusik does regular tours through Canada and to the USA.

Vivaldi con amore - Tafelmusik
Full details of Tafelmusik's season can be found at its website.

Sunday 24 November 2019, Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican - Love and Betrayal - Vivaldi, Handel, Locatelli - Karina Gauvin (soprano), Elisa Citterio (violin & director), Tafelmusik - full details

Vivaldi con amore - Elisa Citterio, Tafelmusik - Tafelmusik Media - available from Amazon

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