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28 May 2013

Banff residency: from Columba to Sainte-Colombe

Jennifer Eriksson Image: Jennifer Eriksson  

In early 2013 I undertook a short-term winter residency at the Banff Centre in Canada - one of the largest arts centres in the world. To be accepted, I had presented a proposal to prepare a recital called 'Six of the Best', which included works by five of the great French Baroque composers and a new commission by Australian composer, Rosalind Page.

As I approached Banff Township, which sits almost 5000 feet up in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I was overwhelmed by the spectacular scenery. I had an amazing feeling of expectation that I was going to experience something very special.

On waking the next day I met the music coordinator, received the program for the week and, most importantly, took possession of the key to my personal 'hut'. This was the place I would spend a lot of my time over the coming weeks. My hut was set in the forest not unlike the great viola da gambist Sainte Colombe's practice room as depicted in the movie Tous les matin du monde. I could imagine the young Marin Marais, Sainte Colombe's estranged student, secretly listening to his idol practising the viol from underneath the veranda as the legend goes. I was struck by the stillness and the quietness of my surroundings. There was no background noise.

The residency program was more structured than I had imagined, although it was up to each artist whether or not they participated in any activities. For example, there was a Monday morning meeting where all musicians got together, there were formal concerts on Wednesdays at 4.30pm (a so-called 'Mid-week medley'), and a Friday evening concert. There were self-directed concerts in a more relaxing venue, 'the Bentley'. On Tuesday evenings Henk Guitttart, the Dutch violist and Banff's music director, or one of the visiting faculty, gave a talk, or showed a DVD. I enjoyed these sessions which often ended up in heated discussions in Maclab, the on-site pub. The whole atmosphere at the residency in Banff was incredible.

I was lucky in that there was a fantastic harpsichordist in residence, Katelyn Clark from Montreal. Kate and I practised most days together, working through the repertoire I was preparing for my recital back in Australia. We also joined up with an Australian violinist, Christina Katsimbardis, to present a Corelli Violin Sonata.

I found it refreshing to be around musicians who were for the most part not early music specialists. It was interesting that nearly all musicians at Banff had never seen or heard a viola da gamba in the flesh. Viol playing colleagues, we should be appalled at this fact! There was a very special moment when I volunteered to be examined by a physiotherapist while playing in front of a room full of musical colleagues. I selected a Muzette by Marais and, as I played, there was total silence. Afterwards the whole place applauded - something they did not do for the other volunteers. I'd like to think that it was me they were enthusiastic about but I suspect it was the power of the music and the pure, stark beauty of the unaccompanied bass viol. Another highlight was performing minimalist Terry Riley's famous In C. Never common fare for a viola da gambist!

We were encouraged to take time to be inspired by the beauty around us, the mountains which soared to 12,000 feet. For me this took place in my daily runs, my numerous climbs up the spectacular Tunnel Mountain, my snow-shoeing at Lake Louise and probably the greatest day of all, a half marathon run on the frozen Bow River. (Yes ON the frozen river, not alongside it!)

Each morning I would arrive at my practice hut at around 10am and work to about 4pm. I would then break for concerts and often rehearse in the evenings. On the 5th day I wrote in my diary, 'Try to move the heart in the wonderful program I am preparing. Look for beauty in what you are playing. Look at the creation that surrounds you and draw inspiration from it.'

On the 7th day of my residency I came to realise that the program I had elected to do for my recital back in Sydney in April 2013 was undoable for me physically. I had chosen five demanding composers that together would be too much for me in one concert. What was so fantastic about Banff was that I could just go and talk to someone about my fears and concerns. I did this immediately and was supported with the decision to change the Marais suite I had originally chosen for one that was more 'under the fingers'.

This was quite a learning point for me. There is no reason why I cannot approach my musical community here in Australia when I need to talk through musical decisions. I think as musicians we can build barriers between us, especially in the close-knit community that is the Australian classical and early music scene. I know I am afraid to share my fears about any musical short comings I might have, but I would benefit much from seeking other people's views more often.

There were a number of visiting faculty at Banff. For example, pianist Hardy Ritter, cellist Shauna Rolston, trumpeter Marco Blaauw and violinist Marc Destrubé. We could choose to sign up for coaching, which I did with Marc - he does a lot of period violin playing including with the Orchestra of the 18th Century and our own Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. It has been a long time since I have had coaching like this. I found it hard to put my name down on the list, but in the room with Marc, and with his guidance, the music I played began to go to different places. I found this an incredibly humbling and worthwhile experience.

Part of my project, alongside expanding my command of the French Baroque repertoire, was to learn a new piece written for me by Rosalind Page. Rosalind was the reason I was in Banff as she encouraged me to apply for a residency in the first place, having been there the year before. It gave me great joy to be working in my hut on a piece that was written by an Australian friend and colleague who a few months before had been sitting in a hut just like mine!

Rosalind Page's piece Columba is scored for the seven-string French viola da gamba and theorbo, or bass lute. It is the second piece Rosalind has written for the Marais Project and one of more than a dozen that the Marais Project has commissioned from Australian composers. In developing the commission prior to my leaving Australia Rosalind wrote the following outline which draws on her own experience at the Banff Centre:

'As you'll be in Banff in winter, as I was, the same constellations will be present in the night sky. Looking to the Northern stars brought me joy as I walked back in the snow from my little studio in the woods at around 2am. One of the constellations present at this time is Columba, the Dove, said to be the dove from Classical literature that guided the Argonauts through the Symplegades, the clashing rocks. The name was officially recognised in 1679, appearing on the French astronomer Augustin Royer's list. This date fits into the life and times of Sainte-Colombe (Marin Marais' teacher)! Columba thus follows on from the theorbo work I wrote for Tommie Andersson, inspired by the Hyades constellation.

Remarkably, Colomba fitted in perfectly amongst the feast of ancient French composers. After the concert, we had many positive comments about the piece from audience members, indicating, as we have found in the past, that early music lovers are enthusiastic supporters of living Australian composers.

In closing I would like to thank composer Rosalind Page and my husband Phil for encouraging me to take up this residency. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Arts NSW who supported me financially.

AMC resources

Rosalind Page - AMC profile
'New for old - the thrill of commissioning for the viola da gamba'
- an article on Resonate by Philip Pogson.

Further links

The Banff Centre (www.banffcentre.ca/)
The Marais Project (www.maraisproject.com.au)

Jennifer Eriksson is one of Australia's best-known professional viola da gambists. She was educated at Sydney Conservatorium and undertook three years post-graduate study with Jaap ter Linder at Rotterdam Conservatorium, the Netherlands. She is founder and Artistic Director of the Marais Project, formed in 2000 to perform the complete works of Marin Marais and other works for her instrument. She has released four commercial CDs, the latest of which is Lady Sings the Viol. The Marais Project presents an annual concert series in Sydney and tours regularly.


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