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Article: Keyboardist Alexander Weimann finds the new in the very old

Alexander Weimann - Photo by Julien Faugère, Montréal

For Early Music Festival shows, Alexander Weimann reveals sonic extremes and jazzlike improvisation

Interview – GEORGIA STRAIGHT – by Alexander Varty, Published July 25, 2012

With four very different concerts to deliver during the upcoming Vancouver Early Music Festival, keyboardist Alexander Weimann has an enviably busy schedule. Ironically, however, the event he thinks will be the most taxing is the one in which he’ll play the least.

As part of Sweelinck and Gesualdo: Masters of the Madrigal From North and South, he’ll perform only sporadically, delivering harpsichord pieces by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Carlo Gesualdo as sonic relief between weighty choral works from the same 16th-century composers.

“Those madrigals are very, very intense,” he explains, on the line from an early-music summer camp in rural Quebec. “They’re about the most utter feelings of pain and joy both—but for the most part pain. More than 15 minutes of that without some sort of different sound or structure would be too much, actually. So I think it’s a wise decision!”

Having to perform Sweelinck’s instrumental works doesn’t faze the Munich-born Montrealer; he knows them well from his days as a church musician. Weimann’s also been playing Gesualdo’s two surviving harpsichord scores for more than 20 years, but familiarity has done little to temper what he describes as their “shocking and disturbing” nature.

“Gesualdo’s music is shocking because it will always violate your expectations,” he explains. “It will always lead you somewhere else than you expected it to. So every attempt to find orientation in what’s happening will fail. That’s what I mean by ‘shocking and disturbing’. He uses extreme modulation, extreme chromaticism, extreme dynamics, extreme gestures. There’s absolutely no comfort in that music, really.”

Weimann’s list of extremes could equally apply to some of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most iconic works, so it’s fitting that the keyboardist refutes the notion that early music is a fusty exercise in archival research.

“The really old, in a way, is like the really new, if that makes any sense,” he says. “It’s so far away that it’s like a new discovery.”

As a further example, Weimann cites Love’s Lament: Solo Cantatas Circa 1700, an intimate recital with Dutch bass Harry van der Kamp. In it, he’ll need to employ all of the improvisational strategies he’s learned in his other life as a jazz pianist.

“Harry is one of those singers that goes very far with time,” he notes, in his precise but noticeably accented English. “He’s a master of time-taking and time-giving. And he especially likes to do that in concert, without having rehearsed it before. So performing with him is very adventurous.

“Baroque music and jazz have very, very much in common,” he continues. “Very similar syntax, if you want, even though the words are different. And both have a very high improvisation part. I like improvising, and Harry will give me much occasion!”

Gabrieli’s Venice: A Polychoral Vespers will be a more structured and less risky event for Weimann, as trombonist Catherine Motuz is responsible for its programming. For festival highlight Orlando, however, he’ll be back in the spotlight, as music director for what he describes as “the most musical” of George Frederick Handel’s 50-odd operatic productions.

“I mean that the recitative portion is relatively low,” he clarifies. “There’s relatively little ‘speaking’—that sort of half-singing, half-speaking—and lots of accompagnati and beautiful arias. Because we cannot perform a staged rendition, it seemed to me to be the piece that works best in concert.”

Orlando, coproduced with MusicFest Vancouver, offers another chance to see how older musical forms can sometimes seem surprisingly modern, he says. As one of the first operatic works based on the psychology of its protagonist rather than on a historical or mythological subject, Handel’s work was groundbreaking in its time and remains fascinating still. Weimann cautions, though, that we shouldn’t read too much 21st-century relevance into its setting: a brutal, bloody war between Christians and Muslims.

“That’s the background to the characters,” he allows. “However, that does not play any role in the plot. I mean, in a nutshell the story is that Orlando has to come to the conclusion that it’s right for him to acknowledge his true destination, which is glory and not love.”

It’s easy to think of contemporary characters—athletes, activists, scientists, and, yes, musicians—who have to face a similar choice. In art as in life, some things never change.

Alexander Weimann will appear in the Vancouver Early Music Festival’s Sweelinck and Gesualdo: Masters of the Madrigal From North and South at UBC’s Roy Barnett Recital Hall on August 8; in Gabrieli’s Venice: A Polychoral Vespers at Christ Church Cathedral on August 10; in Orlando at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on August 15; and in Love’s Lament: Solo Cantatas Circa 1700 at the Roy Barnett Recital Hall on August 17.