My Instrument: Julia Wedman and her Jacobs violin

Julia Wedman playing her Jakobs violin at Handel House in London.
Julia Wedman playing her Jacobs violin at Handel House in London.

By Julia Wedman

My baroque violin was made in 1694 in Amsterdam by Hendrik Jacobs. It is on permanent loan to me from violist Max Mandel, principal violist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, frequent guest with Tafelmusik, and my former partner and current dear friend.

This beautiful instrument was bought for Max when he was in high school. Max was a talented and serious musician from a young age, and his parents quickly realized he needed a professional quality instrument to play. They all fell in love with the sound of the Jacobs when Max tried it out at the shop of former Tafelmusik violinist Jack Liivoja, and Max played it throughout his teens and early twenties. When Max was a student at the University of Toronto, he switched to viola, and then moved to New York. It was at this time that the violin came into my hands. Max was broke (paying for tuition at Juilliard and rent in NY) and needed to sell the violin. It went back to the shop, but no one wanted it — everyone complained that it was too quiet. When I came home from studying baroque violin at Indiana University, I had the idea that maybe we would have more luck selling Max’s instrument as a baroque violin. We brought it home from the shop, I put gut strings on it, tuned it down a semi-tone from modern pitch (A=440) to baroque pitch (A=415), played a few notes, and proclaimed, “We can’t sell this violin!!! It is too good! I need to play it!”

The Jacobs loves being tuned to the low pitches — when it is tuned to A=415 or lower, the voice of this violin is free, warm, dark, and gorgeously rich. There is an intimacy in the quality of sound that I absolutely love and have rarely found in other instruments. The Jacobs can express a kind of emotional vulnerability that connects with people on a very deep level, and I am so grateful for the closeness my audiences feel with me. When I hear other people play it, I am always surprised by how soft it sounds, but its “limitations” demanded that I learn to use my bow in a different way — I have to use the instrument’s natural resonance with focus and strength to project the sound.

One fateful day — a blustery March evening of my second year in Tafelmusik — I was walking home after a concert, and as I turned the corner to my street, there was a big patch of black ice. I slipped and fell backwards, onto my violin case, which I had been carrying like a backpack. Ow!!! I dusted myself off, went inside, and took a hot bath to ease the pain. The next morning, I took out my violin to practice. I opened the case and to my shock and horror, the sound post (the little post inside the violin) had smashed through the top of the instrument! It looked so bizarre, I immediately closed the case and started walking around in circles, saying, “That doesn’t look right!” Finally, I worked up the courage to open the case again, and this time, I had to face the truth that I had broken Max’s beautiful violin. Choking back tears, I called our luthier, “Saint” Quentin Playfair, and explained the situation. He told me to gather every little shard of wood in a clear plastic bag, and bring it to him immediately! It took Quentin about six weeks to do a complete restoration. Miraculously, he was able to fix it so exquisitely that I can’t tell where the cracks are, and it sounds better than ever!

US Tour 2017: San Juan and Winter Park

By Julia Wedman, violin

One of the things I love the most about touring (and maybe life in general) is that unexpected things happen — both unexpectedly wonderful and unexpectedly challenging. This blog is dedicated to the highlights and challenges of touring.

Sitting next to me on the airplane the other day, our wonderful narrator, Blair Williams, inspired me by quoting Australian actor Zoe Caldwell, “Without a challenge a skin begins to grow around the soul.”

Julia Wedman, violin, and Dominic Teresi, bassoon, in San Juan. Photo: James Johnstone

Saturday, March 4, 2017

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 8pm Concert at the Sala Sinfónica Pablo Casals, Centre de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferre

Today’s Up

Concerts are often the best part of touring, especially when we are playing one of our memorized programs. This concert was a true highlight. The hall in San Juan is incredibly beautiful — the perfect size and acoustic for a group like ours! Named after the famous Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876–1973), it seemed particularly fitting that we would play the music of his favourite composer. Casals said, “For the past 80 years I have started each day in the same manner … I go to the piano, and I play preludes and fugues of Bach … It is a sort of benediction on the house.”

Sala Sinfónica Pablo Casals. Photo courtesy of Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré

I love the magic that performing in a great hall inspires in Tafelmusik. It is like an upward spiral — when we hear something beautiful, we are moved to respond with something equally striking, and suddenly the music takes on new shapes that we had never heard before. Adding to the momentum of the upward spiral is a completely engaged audience, like the one we had in San Juan. Just after intermission, I always go up into the balcony and play part of the Allemande from Bach’s D-Minor Partita. Even though it is exciting to be so close to the audience, it can be nerve-wracking to play so far away from the rest of the orchestra. In this concert, it was heart-warming to be part of the crowd. I got to see first-hand how the audience was responding to every sound and image — laughing, whispering to friends, and soaking up everything coming to them from the stage. There was a vibrancy in the response that gave me a true sense of community —everyone was seeing and hearing this concert with the same kind of excitement and love that I have for it! I think people coming to classical music concerts often think that they have to be quiet all the time. Yes, we do need still moments, but I love a boisterous audience and prefer genuinely spontaneous silences that come when the audience and performers are so tuned in that we all need a stillness. In a solo earlier in the program, I have a silence, and one of the tests of me, the hall, and the audience is how long I can draw out that silence. Tonight’s was one of the longest!

Today’s Down

Some days our tech team faces big challenges on tour. We travel with our own computer, projector, and large-scale screen, and our technical team (Raha Javanfar, Glenn Davidson, and Glen Charles Landry) arrives several hours before the orchestra in every venue to set up the screen and the projector, focus the lights, and tape the floor medallion to the stage so that Blair and the orchestra know where to stand. One of the biggest challenges at the Sala Pablo Casals was finding a place for the projector so that the image had a clear path to the screen over people’s heads. In order to make that work in San Juan, Raha spent 90 minutes scrounging around backstage “MacGyvering” a stand for the projector in the lighting booth. The resultant pyramid consisted of the projector on top of its own case, on top of scrap pieces of wood, on a table, on the conductor’s podium, on top of a skid. It worked perfectly!

Sunday March 5, 2017

San Juan, Puerto Rico, Free Day

Today’s Up

It was my first true day off (no practising!) since the beginning of January. Rhett Lee Garcia, one of the wonderful organizers of our San Juan concert, set up a last-minute tour of the rainforest in gorgeous Yunque National Park. Hector, our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide, picked us up at 10am, and after a scenic drive past incredible coastal views, we stopped at his friend’s grocery where we picked up delicious fresh pineapple, mangoes, and coconut candy. As we drove up into the mountains, he described the medicinal qualities of the trees. “For every disease there is a cure within 20 feet in the rain forest,” he declared. He dropped us off at the top of a narrow stone trail, from where we followed a small stream of water which gained volume as we walked down amongst the lush vegetation, leading to stunning waterfalls. About ten minutes into the walk, I felt my lungs expanding and a deep breath entered my body. It was as if I hadn’t been breathing for months! When we got to the falls, we dipped our feet in the cold water, and the two Glenns bravely dived straight in! Today was an exquisite reminder of nature’s power to heal body and soul.

Photo: James Johnstone

Today’s Down

This was such a wonderful day that even the challenges were fun! We had planned a big dinner for the whole orchestra at a beautiful restaurant in the old city, and a few of us went in early to walk around. After a day of perfect weather, the sun gods decided we had had too much, and a torrential rain storm rudely interrupted our visit to the sixteenth-century citadel, Castillo de San Felipe. We arrived at the restaurant soaking wet, freezing, and starving. Unfortunately the restaurant, located in a charming former convent, was not having its best night. Soon after we arrived, a scuffle (fistfight!) ensued between two members of staff, and our server, who was new, was visibly rattled. The restaurant was understaffed so the food took a long time to arrive — two and half hours! In true Puerto Rican style, they kindly gave us free appetizers, but the food wasn’t quite up to the high standards of many of the officianados in our group. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the ambience and the company, and I took advantage of the tiny hand dryer in the bathroom to dry out my socks while we waited for dinner!

Storm clouds brewing. Photo: Julia Johnstone
Food time after the rain. Photo: Dominic Teresi

Monday, March 7, 2017

Winter Park, Florida, 7:30pm. Concert at the Tiedtke Concert Hall, Keene Music Building, Rollins College

Today’s up

After an early wake-up and a long day of travel we arrived in sunny Winter Park, Florida, to play for The Bach Festival Society concert series, which was founded in 1935 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth. One of the things we all love about touring is having a chance to visit our musician’s family members around the world. Many of us get the most nervous and also play the best when family members are in the audience (both in Toronto and on tour). Tiedtke Concert Hall in Winter Park is not far from oboist John Abberger’s family home. Not only did we have the honour of playing on such a prestigious and long-running concert series, filled with an audience of smiling Bach-lovers, we were treated to a lovely reception organized by John and his brothers! We were treated to Lester Abberger’s delicious homemade smoked salmon, got to cuddle with Will Abberger’s beautiful golden Labrador, and were treated to a viewing of family treasures, which included the sweetest portraits of John and his brothers as children. It is always fantastic to meet family and find out more about our beloved colleagues’ early years. We also had the pleasure of seeing Tricia Ahern’s mother and Chris Verrette’s brother. We will definitely have to come back to Winter Park soon!

Today’s down

One of the other challenges of touring with a baroque orchestra is that we don’t travel on airplanes with our own harpsichord, so we need to find harpsichords in the places we perform. Today’s harpsichord presented a problem when guest harpsichordist James Johnstone arrived before the orchestra to practise and tune. Many harpsichords have a transposing mechanism that enables them to play at A=440 (modern pitch) or A=415 (baroque pitch). When James arrived, the Dowd harpsichord was at A=440, and the mechanism to switch it over was stuck. After 20 minutes of struggling, Glenn Davidson (from the tech team) came over to help. They were pressed for time because we had arrived almost an hour late to the hotel (delayed flight, faulty GPS on the bus getting to the venue). It caused a little stress — a harpsichord tuned at the wrong pitch would not do! The orchestra would be arriving soon and everything needed to be in place for the dress rehearsal. The stage was a different shape than usual (wide and narrow), so the screen had to be placed beside us rather than behind us. We needed every bit of rehearsal time for re-organizing choreography and getting used to the new space. James had almost fixed the problem when Glenn Davidson arrived to complete the last puzzle piece. Crawling under the harpsichord, Glenn discovered an extra screw that needed to be taken out for the transposition to fall into place! James quickly began tuning as the orchestra arrived, and rehearsal only started about five minutes late. That was great for me because I was late too. I have a lot of food allergies and hadn’t been able to eat anything at the airports that day. My food supply was low, and I had to find a little grocery store after getting to the hotel. In a rush, I dropped my rice cooker, and I thought it broke. But I was able to fix that too!

The orchestra is in California with performances scheduled in Santa Barbara, Long Beach and La Jolla. Then the tours ends in Seattle, Washington.