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!

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Get to Know The Bernardinis, Father/Daughter duo

For our upcoming concert in April, Bach: Keeping it in the Family, we invited the father/daughter duo Alfredo and Cecilia Bernardini to co-guest direct this (almost) all-Bach program. Both have performed with Tafelmusik in the past but it’s been a while since our last catch-up.

How did you come to decide to be a musician?

Cecilia Bernardini: As I little girl I fell in love with the violin; the longer I played it the more I became sure I wanted to become a violinist. The musicians’ life of my father and his friends seemed attractive and exciting!

Alfredo Bernardini: I sang in a choir and played the recorder as a child. When I heard my first Bach cantata aged 14 I decided I wanted to become an oboist and play that wonderful music.

What was your first music gig?

CB: It was a Schubert sonatina and a Mozart sonata (I think…) in a beautiful Orangerie somewhere in the Dutch countryside, when I was about twelve.

AB: Playing Handel’s opera Ariodante with Tafelmusik  at the Scala in Milan in April 1982, with Jeanne Lamon leading, Alan Curtis conducting and my teacher Bruce Haynes playing principal oboe!

What is your ‘guilty pleasure’ music to listen to?

CB: Stéphane Grappelli, Jacques Brel, Björk.. Although I don’t feel particularly guilty  about that!

AB: Rossini ouvertures and Latin American rhythmic music.

What are the last three songs/pieces you’ve listened to (on your iPod or phonograph)?

CB: “Royal Consort” of William Lawes by Ensemble Phantasm, Bach violin unaccompanied sonatas by Lucy van Dael and “The Willow song” from Othello (anonymous)

AB: Schumann symphonies, Les voix bulgares, Gesualdo’s madrigals.

What is your favourite thing to do on a day off?

CB: Going for a bike ride in the countryside, visiting my relatives in Amsterdam, or simply enjoying a good book and a glass of wine.

AB: Go to the peak of a mountain and find silence

You often perform together. What is the experience like, to work together as father and daughter?

CB: It’s wonderful; because we know each other so well there is a deep and natural musical understanding between us. The fact that we play two different instruments means that we can look at the same piece from slightly different angles.

AB: It’s an incredible pleasure and fulfillment to combine my two favourite things together: family and music.

In these concerts you are co-directing. How does that work?

CB: I usually leave it to my father to give the big outline and try to help where possible. Obviously I take the lead when it’s strings only. It does help to discuss things in advance so that we don’t end up contradicting each other by accident!

AB: I suppose we try not to interfere with one another too much. For that, it’s important to establish in advance how to share the pieces and the tasks.

Join us for Bach: Keeping it in the Family at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre from April 5–9, 2017. Tickets are available here.

A Chat with violinist Cristina Zacharias

Our upcoming concert series A Grand Tour of Italy, which features the Tafelmusik solo concerto debut of our own Cristina Zacharias, transports you to seventeenth century Italy, highlighting Italian composers and the violin. The Italians really embraced the violin — instrument makers, violinists, and composers: some would say this really is where the violin was born.  Cristina took some time to chat with our Marketing Associate, Andrew Eusebio.

Cristina holds a Master of Music degree from McGill University. A core member of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra since 2004, she has performed across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, and can be heard on over 25 recordings for the ATMA, Analekta, CBC, BIS, Naxos, and Tafelmusik Media labels. Cristina appears annually at the Carmel Bach Festival, where she is the Assistant Principal Second Violin. Cristina is a frequent collaborator, guest soloist, and director with a diverse group of ensembles, and is equally passionate about baroque, classical, and modern repertoire.

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Cristina Zacharias, violin. Photo: Sian Richards

Andrew Eusebio: How did you and the violin cross paths and what is it about the violin that audiences love?

Cristinia Zacharias: I started playing violin when I was five. My father had played violin as a child, and it was because of his and my mother’s interest in music that they signed both my three-year-old sister and me up for lessons in a Suzuki violin program. My sister later switched to cello, but I always loved the violin. I think audiences love the same things that that violinists love – the huge variety in sounds. The violin can sing like the voice, or can thrill with speed and virtuosity.

AE: We’ll talk soon about your solo concerto of Vivaldi’s “Le Cetra” but could you shed some light on the other pieces in the program? Are there any you’re particularly looking forward to performing?

CZ: I had the chance to play the Valentini 4-violin concerto many many years ago in Vancouver, and really loved the piece for its originality. I’ve tried a few times to find a way to play it in various concerts but it hasn’t ever happened. I’m very much looking forward to hearing it played by my talented colleagues!

AE: We’re very excited for your Tafelmusik solo concerto debut of Vivaldi’s “La Cetra,” op. 9: Violin Concerto in C Major. Can you talk about this piece and how you prepare for a concerto performance?

CZ: This concerto is the first of a set of twelve in Op. 9 that are all for the violin. You often hear jokes about there being too much similarity between Vivaldi’s many concertos, and I really think these are unwarranted! The more I study Vivaldi’s huge output the more amazed I am by his inventiveness and his wide range of ideas. When I study a Vivaldi concerto closely, I  love to discover how he weaves together his musical ideas. He had the gift of making very complicated structures sound simple. When preparing a concerto performance like this, the process is very similar to how I prepare most music: start with the score and get to know how all the parts interact, then focus on my own part.

AE: What can our audiences expect and discover from this concert and its repertoire?

CZ: I think everyone who hears this concert will come away with a new appreciation for the incredible inventiveness of this period in Italy. All of the composers are so different, and their unique voices offer a vast array of ideas, soundscapes, and originality.

Hear Cristina perform in her Tafelmusik solo concerto debut and join us for A Grand Tour of Italy December 1–4 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, and December 6 at George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available here.