I Mu­sici is a con­stantly evolv­ing or­ches­tra, con­cert­mas­ter An­to­nio Anselmi tells

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usic does not be­long in a mu­seum,” says An­to­nio Anselmi, the Si­cil­ian-born con­cert­mas­ter of Ital­ian cham­ber or­ches­tra I Mu­sici. “Our mu­sic is more like a lively democ­racy, in which ev­ery­body feels free to ex­press his own mu­si­cal ideas and feel­ings. But of course, at the end, the con­cert­mas­ter must leave his own fin­ger­print.”

Speak­ing to Re­view from China, where the group is con­clud­ing a tour ahead of a per­for­mance at the Queens­land Mu­sic Fes­ti­val next month, Anselmi, 46, is ea­ger to con­vey that the old­est con­tin­u­ously ac­tive cham­ber or­ches­tra in the world has not be­come tra­di­tion-bound or os­si­fied.

I Mu­sici, formed in Rome in 1951, has long held the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing both icon­o­clas­tic (go­ing con­duc­tor-less, for ex­am­ple) and tech­no­log­i­cally avant-garde (the group made what is still re­garded as the de­fin­i­tive record­ing of Vi­valdi’s The Four Sea­sons in 1955, which has since sold more than 25 mil­lion copies; recorded the first clas­si­cal CD for the Philips la­bel; and in the 1970s made the first clas­si­cal mu­sic video).

But since that time, Anselmi says the ensem­ble’s mu­si­cal style has changed con­sid­er­ably, along with broader trends in the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of baroque mu­sic. “The lan­guage of I Mu­sici has changed in a very nat­u­ral process since the early days,” he says. “Gen­er­ally speak­ing the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of baroque mu­sic has evolved a lot — the lan­guage, taste and artis­tic per­spec­tives — es­pe­cially in the last 30 or 40 years. Nowa­days, a baroque piece can sound more mod­ern than a ro­man­tic one.

“You can see it in the en­rich­ment of the basso con­tinuo sec­tion, the dif­fer­ent use of vi­brato, the en­hance­ment of or­na­men­ta­tion and of course the dif­fer­ent ways of ar­tic­u­lat­ing a phrase, or in­deed the de­sire to high­light oth­ers.”

De­spite stay­ing in the vanguard of change, the group — whose mem­bers in­clude cel­list Vito Pater­nos­ter and vi­o­list Mas­simo Paris, who both joined in 1977, through to vi­o­lin­ist Iu­ditha Hamza, who joined this year — re­tains a par­tic­u­lar rev­er­ence for the or­ches­tra’s founder, the Basque-born vi­o­lin­ist Felix Ayo. For Anselmi, that con­nec­tion is per­sonal.

“My par­ents were both pi­anists,” he says, “and when I was quite young, my mother had a tour with Felix Ayo play­ing all the Han­del sonatas, and since that mo­ment I had a very good and im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship with Mae­stro Felix Ayo — we are still in con­tact.

“In fact the re­la­tion­ship be­tween I Mu­sici and Ayo stopped many years ago when he de- cided to leave the group. But the old record­ings re­main a great ref­er­ence point for all of us.

“Of course we still have deep bonds of af­fec­tion, and we were all moved when we saw him to­gether with other orig­i­nal mem­bers at our 60th an­niver­sary con­cert at the Ac­cademia Nazionale di Santa Ce­cilia in Rome — it was a great joy.”

The other con­stant in the or­ches­tra’s world is Vi­valdi’s The Four Sea­sons, which re­mains at the cen­tre of I Mu­sici’s reper­toire. The trick, Anselmi says, is to per­form it each time like it is the first. “It is a ge­nius piece writ­ten by a ge­nius mu­si­cian,” he says. “Per­son­ally, I think it is very the­atri­cal mu­sic and to catch the dra­matur­gic as­pect of it is the most dif­fi­cult thing.”

But Anselmi’s en­gage­ment with the work is not lim­ited to re­peated per­for­mances — he has also in­vested con­sid­er­able time in study of its com­poser.

“I find most in­ter­est­ing the hu­man side of each com­poser. Who was Vi­valdi the man? What was the his­tor­i­cal and so­cial con­text of his work?” he says. “When we play, we bring to light pieces of the lives of these ge­nius com­posers who have made history, and I find this the most ex­tra­or­di­nary, fas­ci­nat­ing and de­mand­ing as­pect of our work.”

He is also ex­cited about the other “beau­ti­ful, ex­cit­ing and even funny” pieces of mu­sic in the first half of the Bris­bane pro­gram, in­clud­ing Rossini’s Over­ture to The Bar­ber of Seville (tran­scribed for strings); Verdi’s Pre­lude to Act 1 of La Travi­ata and Sin­fo­nia from Nabucco (tran­scribed for strings); and Mascagni’s In­ter­mezzo from Caval­le­ria Rus­ti­cana.

Anselmi, like many of the group’s mu­si­cians, will be per­form­ing on a rare in­stru­ment.

“I play on a won­der­ful 1676 Ni­cola Amati (prob­a­bly made by young An­to­nio Stradi­vari) and I was so lucky that I could buy it many years ago,” Anselmi says.

“For a vi­o­lin­ist the in­stru­ment means the pos­si­bil­ity to ex­press the voice of his or her own soul and the tim­bre of these par­tic­u­lar in­stru- ments from that golden age of Cre­mona is in­com­pa­ra­bly unique.”

That said, he con­cedes there are par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges in tak­ing such a rare in­stru­ment across the world. “The last time we were in Bris­bane, there were ma­jor floods a few weeks be­fore,” he says, re­call­ing the group’s 60th an­niver­sary tour in Fe­bru­ary 2012. ( The Aus­tralian’s critic Martin Buza­cott pithily noted the “tone-warp­ing down­pours”.)

“We re­ally hope the weather we’ll be kind to us: our in­stru­ments suf­fer much with chang­ing cli­mates, es­pe­cially ex­treme hu­mid­ity or dry. [Re­gard­less] in Aus­tralia we met such fan­tas­tic peo­ple and great au­di­ences.”

Other high­lights of the bi­en­nial Queens­land Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, cu­rated by trum­pet vir­tu­oso James Mor­ri­son, in­clude per­for­mances by US bass soloist Edgar Meyer, Ro­ma­nian pi­anist Mar­ian Pe­trescu, singer Me­gan Washington and the pop­u­lar Opera at Jim­bour. Af­ter its per­for­mance, I Mu­sici will record a CD of 18th-cen­tury baroque for Sony, be­fore tour­ing Ja­pan and sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries this year.

When not trav­el­ling up to six months of the year, Anselmi is based in Rome. Lis­ten­ing to him wax lyri­cal on the hu­man con­di­tion, it comes as no sur­prise to learn that but for mu­sic, he says he might have been a psy­chol­o­gist.

“Our in­ter­pre­ta­tions of mu­sic have changed be­cause so many things have changed in the hu­man soul, even our re­la­tion­ship with God and the meta­phys­i­cal,” he says. “And yet the charm of these baroque mas­ter­pieces re­mains im­mor­tal and their mes­sages pass through time, undi­luted.”

Mem­bers of the Ital­ian cham­ber or­ches­tra I Mu­sici, main pic­ture, and con­cert­mas­ter An­to­nio Anselmi, be­low

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