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