• Tanya Tomkins
  • February 10, 2013

That Takes GUTS!

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Last week I went to a concert of friends and colleagues at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It was under the auspices of Jean-Michel Fonteneau’s faculty recital. It was disorienting in the best sense. Some of the modern string faculty plus two modern alumni were playing a concert on….. yes… gut strings!

Some of you may not understand the significance of this event, but those of us who have been in the early music scene for the last twenty years or more, still remember the days that we were ridiculed as lesser players just trying to find a niche. Gut strings were considered inferior, gimmicky and were frowned upon in any standard chamber music setting. Noses would go up, and there were complaints of scratchiness or not enough volume as compared to the steel strings of the “normal” players. Playing on period instruments was just not cool.

Have things changed since then!

First Juilliard gets a Historic Performance department. This is very important because Juilliard, until very recently, was the center, the breeding ground for a standardized “modern” way of playing stringed instruments. The best students emerged from that school concerned with a sustained, spinning, brilliant sound that would penetrate a huge hall right to the back row. New York’s esthetic for nearly a half century was based on the sweet and constantly vibrating tones of Pearlman, Zukerman and Stern.

Now, however, there is a whole new generation that grew up hearing the numerous recordings and performances available on gut strings and it has entered the mainstream. Still, there are many modern players who won’t touch the stuff. Not so with Axel Strauss, Jean-Michel, Jodi Levitz, Pei-Ling Lin, and Joseph Maile who put gut strings on and performed Brahms and Mendelssohn Viola Quintets more beautifully than I have ever heard those pieces. The combination of a great group of musicians willing to take some risks and grappling with a new set of equipment resulted in music making that was imaginative, inspired, well voiced and had an enormous palette of sound colors that they exploited as a result of using the gut strings. Steel strings didn’t exist at the time this music was written, after all. Hats off to them for trying this in public and producing such a great performance on their first try!

For me, the concert represented a barrier broken between two musical worlds I have straddled for a long time, feeling somewhat apologetic to the one that I was involved with the other, and vice versa. It was like leading a double life. We are now just musicians together, experimenting with our equipment to get the best musical result. This is as it should be. OK, maybe I’m just a little jealous… It took me years to learn how to play on gut strings!  On the first try?  Not even one squeak!

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