Arion – A fresh take on Early Musicby Isabelle Picard
/ October 18, 2005
years ago, Claire Guimond had just finished her studies in baroque flute under
Barthold Kuijk in the Netherlands and Hank Knox had been in Paris studying
harpsichord with Kenneth Gilbert. A year later in 1981 in Montreal, the duo
joined Chantal Rémillard (viola) and Betsy MacMillan (viola da gamba) to form a
small chamber group, christening it "Arion." Today Arion is a baroque orchestra
with an enviable reputation. It has performed under the baton of such top
musicians as Monica Huggett, Jaap ter Linden, Daniel Cuiller, Barthold Kuijken,
and Hervé Niquet. It has played in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and
Europe, and has 22 recordings to its credit – something of a tour de force.
Playing early music today
Although early music was already well developed in
Europe when Arion came on the scene, it was still nascent in Quebec; only the
Ensemble Claude-Gervaise and the Studio for Early Music, inaugurated by
Christopher Jackson in 1974, were in operation. Heated discussion surrounded
questions of authenticity: should period or modern instruments be used? How was
one to respect the score? What would be left to the performer's discretion?
"You have to start somewhere," says Claire Guimond.
"What we enjoyed was getting close to the creative genius of the baroque
composers – that is, trying to overcome the gap of two or three hundred years
that separates us from them." She compares it to restoring paintings. "The
colours and vitality are lost under dust and a thick coat of varnish. When the
Sistine Chapel frescoes were restored, bringing out the original colours,
people said, 'How alive, how vibrant it is!' That's more or less how we
approach the question of authenticity – to provide a version that brings the
listener closer to the composer's creative genius. At that moment, the music
becomes today's music, although with a period aesthetic.
"When you touch early instruments you develop a taste
for what is genuine," continues Guimond. "When you work with an instrument, you
consult treatises on the subject. This is part of our job as musicians – going
to the source and taking nothing for granted. This quest for truth means that
interpretations have noticeably changed over the past 25 years."
Are early instruments necessary in this quest for
truth? "I think they make it easier," says Guimond. "I don't think it's
impossible to perform this music with modern instruments, but the instrument
itself tells us much. With the baroque flute, for example, you have a wooden
instrument with no keys. Each note has a special colour. I don't invent it –
the flute dictates it. When Telemann composed in one key rather than another,
he knew how it would sound. That's why I think using early instruments
is part of this search for truth. It makes things much easier for us. Perhaps
we're too lazy!"
But when one plays a historical repertoire and
maintains a fairly scholarly approach to research, is it hard to put oneself
into the music, to be creative as a performer? "Not at all," says Guimond. "At
that time composers left plenty of leeway for the performers. There's a whole
tradition of ornamentation and improvisation that's part of the baroque
aesthetic. It's something we really like; there's a kind of freedom. Of course
there are some rules, but you can be very creative. Often, for the bass
continuo, you have just a bass line with numbers for the chord changes, rather
like a jazz chart. The harpsichord has to improvise a lot, always using the
composer's harmony and style."
The birth of Arion
In 1981, early music performers had little chance to
exercise their art and had to create opportunities for themselves. Following
good audience reaction to their inaugural concert at McGill's Pollack Hall,
Guimond, Knox, Remillard, MacMillan and tenor Edmund Brownless (who stayed with
the group only for the first six months) set off on tour.
"We went to the Maritimes on our first tour," Guimond
remembers. "It was quite an adventure. We left in a borrowed family van – a
real old heap – furnished with a mattress. For about six months there were five
of us inside, along with the harpsichord, viola da gamba, and other
instruments. The tour was followed by our first Montreal concert series,
learning on the job as we went. We found out how to organize and promote
concerts, and how to attract concertgoers. Since then Arion has developed its
distinctive sound and found its place in Montreal's musical life."
After a few years the quartet expanded in order to
take on new repertoire. Its size varied, first with the addition of local
musicians, then with guests from outside the city. It was a stimulating
experience. "These people brought their methods with them. It made things
simmer," says Guimond, "bringing new blood into the group." The chamber
ensemble finally grew to orchestra status some ten years ago. "I think Montreal
needed a baroque orchestra that used early instruments," she notes. "Over time,
the Early Music Studio specialized mainly in choral music." There was a vacuum
waiting to be filled.
Change and continuity
Throughout its 25 years, Arion's approach, such as its
pursuit of excellence and its rigorous attention to detail, have made their
performances alive, fresh and personal. The fact that Arion grew from a quartet
has also left its mark. The orchestra functions without an official conductor,
thereby creating a rather collegial atmosphere. There are guest conductors for
every project, which has allowed great flexibility. "Conductors come, work with
a group that has its own personality, and there's an exchange of ideas and
methods. It's something of an incubator for artistic vision and musical ideas –
a very nourishing combination. We're privileged to be working with the greatest
names in early music and great musicians." Thankfully, these are opportunities
Arion shares with Montreal audiences. Without this orchestra, musicians like
Barthold Kuijken and Monica Huggett would not be heard so often.
Arion has a special place in the Quebec musical
landscape. It has had a loyal, "formidable" following for years, according to
Guimond, but is still relatively unknown to the public at large. What about its
future? "It must open its doors and reach new audiences." What about the
artistic side? "We have lots of plans. What we need are the funds to
carry them out."
For now, audiences await the start of a "Saison de
délices" beginning October 28, as well as a Vivaldi tour in Montreal's cultural
community centres in October and December. There are also the "Love Duets" tour
with Suzie LeBlanc, Daniel Taylor, and Jaap ter Linden in November (in
Sept-Iles, Rimouski, Shawinigan, and Alma), and three new CDs on its label
early-music.com between now and winter 2007. Tours of Asia and Europe are in
the works. Arion has indeed come a long way – and it's far from over.
Arion : www.early-music.com, (514) 355-1825
[Translated by Jane Brierley]
Favourite composer: There's the inimitable
Bach, but I prefer not to name one as I think it would mean I liked the others
Favourite work: J.S. Bach's The Musical
Offering and his B Minor Mass. Each time you work on it, you can
go even deeper. Again, it's difficult to choose!
Current reading: Once minutos (Eleven
Minutes) by Paolo Coelho, in Spanish.
Cell phone rings: The factory ring-tone. I'm
not very picky. I prefer to turn down the volume or leave it in vibration mode.
Contest: Subscribers of La Scena Musicale
can win one of three prizes courtesy of Ensemble Arion.
1st prize: a pair of subscriptions to Ensemble
Arion's 2005-06 season.
2nd prize: 3 CDs
3rd prize: a pair of tickets to an Ensemble Arion