Interview with Baroque Violinist Rachell Ellen Wong: Recipient of 2020 Avery Fisher Career Grant

April 14, 2020, 1:23 PM · For violinist Rachell Ellen Wong, Baroque music has given her a sense of both physical and musical freedom.

Wong, who recently became the first-ever Baroque violinist to receive an Avery Fisher Career Grant, performed a Facebook Live concert on April 17 from the home where she has been sheltering in Virginia. Please enjoy the video from her performance below; listen as you read!

Rachell has been sheltering with her partner, violist Andrew Gonzalez, and so in addition to playing solo and Baroque works like Tartini's Devil's Trill, she also paired up with Andrew for a Mozart Duo and for the Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia. (Read the specifics about their program below.)

A native of Seattle, Wong recently graduated with a Masters in Music in Historical Performance from Juilliard. Before that, she earned a Masters in Music from Indiana University and a Bachelors of Music from The University of Texas at Austin. She is a founding member of two historical instrument ensembles, the New Amsterdam Consort and Dioscuri; and from 2017 to 2019 she was Artist-in-Residence with the Heifetz International Music Institute in Staunton, Virginia. She has played with numerous orchestras and won awards prizes at various competitions.

Last week I had the chance to talk with her about her love for Baroque music and how she came to possess her beautiful Baroque violin (with a lion's head scroll!).

Rachell Ellen Wong
Violinist Rachell Ellen Wong.

Laurie: What appeals to you about Baroque music?

Rachell: I think what drew me to Baroque music is the freedom. There is the actual freedom of not using a shoulder or chin rest, because the violin feels like you can also move it to dance with the music, and it is not stuck in one position under your neck. There is also the emotional aspect of Baroque music too, that is very freeing for me. When you first start learning about the Baroque language, one of the first things you hear are the many "affects" or emotions of the music. Getting to express these emotions on stage, you really feel like a storyteller. It's apparent in the audience too, and you can see them come alive with the music whether they are young or old. It is also freeing to know that none of the people during this period were doing the same things. This period was so full of invention and new techniques, like Biber experimenting with scordatura, and Westhoff writing his solo violin sonatas that were definitely an influence to Bach when he was writing his own solo violin works.

Laurie: You began your violin studies on a modern instrument. How did you become interested in historical performance?

Rachell: I think it started when I was really young, when my dad gave me a recording of Rachel Podger playing the Bach solo Sonatas and Partitas. I remember thinking that her playing sounded a lot different from the other recordings I was listening to at the time. I didn’t understand what the Baroque violin was at that point, but I really enjoyed Rachel's sound, so much that I started tuning my violin lower every time I practiced.

It wasn’t until my undergraduate years at the University of Texas-Austin when I discovered that there was such a thing as a "Baroque violin." I heard about the Early Music Ensemble, which was an elective class. This was also a time when I was very frustrated with the way I was playing Bach. I felt like I wasn’t doing the music justice. I was playing Bach the same way I was playing much later repertoire, and it felt wrong to me. When I joined the Early Music Ensemble, it was eye-opening. Our leader, Professor Olivieri, introduced me to the composer Arcangelo Corelli, who wrote 12 violin sonatas in the year 1700. He gave me the first sonata to learn, and I was enthralled with the music. I loved that this music was so much more complex than what was on the page. I could add my own ornaments, and there was so much more I could do, as long as I could imagine it.

My interest deepened further in graduate school at Indiana University. I was lucky enough to stumble into Baroque orchestra, where I got to take lessons from the legendary Stanley Ritchie. Stanley is one of the most generous teachers I have had - he let me play everything for him whether on modern or Baroque violin. He was awfully patient with me, considering that all his concepts were so new and foreign to me. I am still learning from his lessons now.

We worked on so much repertoire by composers I had never heard of - Biber, Pisendel, Farina, you name it. But the Beethoven Concerto was one of my favorite pieces that I studied with him. I happened to play it for him just a few days before the finals of the concerto competition, and I remember stopping during the cadenza in the first movement. I was playing Kreisler’s cadenza, and I suddenly felt unconvinced. I love Kreisler and his compositions, but because I had been studying historical performance, something didn’t feel contextually right this time around. Stanley saw my frustration and said he had written his own cadenzas. He had a cassette tape of the performance - maybe I could learn his? Believe it or not, the only way I could play a cassette tape was in my friend’s old Honda! So that night I listened to his cadenza, and I was blown away by it. It felt right, and I really wanted to play it. So I sat in the car and listened to it 20 times, rewinding and playing it. I managed to learn it for the competition two days later. Now when I play the Beethoven, I always use Stanley’s cadenzas, not just because of how great they are, but because I’m so grateful to him!

Laurie: I understand you have a Baroque violin and a modern -- tell me about you instruments.

Rachell:I purchased a Joachim Tielke-school violin from Claire Givens Violins. It was beautifully restored by Andrew Dipper and is from circa 1700.

Last June, I was in dire need of a Baroque violin. I had just graduated from Juilliard and returned the violin on loan to me, and I was about to go to London to perform. I still hadn’t found a Baroque violin I liked, after months of searching.

Fortunately, I was also playing for the Boston Early Music Festival, and I knew that one of the largest early instrument conventions happens there each year during the festival. I had contacted Andrew months before, while on my search, and he had invited me to come to his booth during the convention and try out his violins. I remember trying the Tielke violin, and I had the feeling that Harry Potter must have felt when he tried his phoenix wand in Ollivander's: I knew it was the right violin.

Andrew Dipper told me the history of the violin: He had purchased it in England in 1983, and he immediately recognized it as a significant violin. Then he waited for the right time and opportunity to restore it. The peg box is especially cool: Andrew himself carved the lion's head peg box, which is a unique characteristic that the Tielke violin would have had in its original state. Andrew is not only a luthier, but also a sculptor. A lot of people think it's the original peg box. I also get so many compliments on the sound of my violin, and how far the sound projects. I am so lucky to have the violin.

Tielke violin lion head

My modern violin was made by Carlo de March, who lived from 1904-1993 and was a relatively well-known maker. It was made in 1953 in Venice. The story was that I had been playing on a Gennaro Gagliano violin for three years that I was absolutely in love with, but unfortunately I had to return it. My goal was to find a violin that reminded me of the sound and the feel of the Gagliano. I tried hundreds looking for the right one, and when I finally played the de March I knew it was the right fit! It feels like the Gagliano, and I love the deep, rich sound that I can coax from it. I never feel like I completely know everything about the instrument - a new sound surprises me from time to time. I also love that it sounds great with either modern strings or gut strings.

Laurie: Tell me about your two ensembles.

Rachell: The New Amsterdam Consort is directed by my good friend and harpsichordist Robert Warner. Our group is a period instrument string ensemble that plays one-on-a-part music, from the Renaissance through the High Baroque. The set-up is not very common: two violins, two violas, and continuo, which is usually a cello and harpsichord. As you can imagine, it’s pretty hard to get such an ensemble together, so a lot of this music is not commonly heard, which is a shame because there are so many wonderful compositions and composers, from Byrd to Muffat.

I recently founded the historical instrument ensemble Dioscuri with my good friend David Belkovski, an amazing keyboard player that I met while at Juilliard. I describe him as a keyboard player because he’s equally comfortable on historic instruments like the harpsichord and fortepiano, or modern concert grands. Dioscuri is the name associated with the mythological Greek twins Castor and Pollux, whose story inspired a great deal of Baroque art, including Rameau’s opera. We relate the role of concertmaster and keyboardist to the twins. These two positions set the example for the rest of the ensemble in terms of energy and spirit, serving a more vital role than a typical conductor. David and I share a unity of musical intention that we feel not only encourages and bolsters one another, but the ensemble as a whole.

Laurie: Tell me about the pieces that you will be playing on Friday.

Rachell: Here are some thoughts on each one:

Tartini Devil's Trill Sonata, 3rd movement

Tartini was actually the one who gave the Sonata its name. The legend told by Tartini himself, was that one night while he was sleeping, the Devil visited him in his dream. The Devil played on the violin the most haunting and virtuosic piece Tartini had ever heard. When he awoke, he tried to jot down what he had heard, but he could only capture a shadow of the genius that the Devil had displayed.

This piece is well-known to violinists, and quite popular. The technique is very difficult because of the double stop trills in the third movement - like the famous passage in the first movement of Sibelius Violin Concerto. I grew up hearing this piece played with modern piano, and it never satisfied me. I decided that since Tartini wrote the accompaniment for a continuo line, I could actually just play both parts. So I made my own arrangement for solo violin. I think a solo piece is probably what Tartini heard in his dream - I mean, who dares to play continuo for the Devil?

Bach Sonata no. 3 in C major, Largo and Allegro Assai

These two movements come from my favorite Bach sonata. I love all his solo works, but the C major is special to me. It comes right after the dark D minor partita with the Chaconne. I think of the overall arc of this sonata as a hopeful response to the D minor. I love the Largo. In my mind, this movement shows Bach to be so selfless. I also love the joy in the Allegro Assai - we need more joy, especially during this weird time with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Mozart Duo for Violin and Viola in B flat major

In these "stay at home" days, I am lucky enough to be isolated with my partner, violist Andrew Gonzalez, whose musicianship I very much admire. We decided to play pieces for one violin and one viola. It is not easy to find such repertoire, but we are lucky that Mozart wrote two duos for that instrumentation! I notice that most people play the G major duo which I love, and that the B flat duo doesn’t get played nearly as often. I think it should be! So we decided to learn it. Mozart wrote this piece when he was around my age, and I like to imagine what the composer was going through. Even though we live in completely different times, maybe Mozart was feeling similar things as how I am feeling nowadays.

Corigliano Caprice No. 5

This solo caprice is the last of the Caprices by Corigliano, which were composed in conjunction with his soundtrack to the movie The Red Violin. I understand that Corigliano composed the pieces to fit with the different historical periods in the movie, and I hear influences of Paganini and Baroque music, especially in this last caprice.

Passacaglia by Handel/Halvorsen

This is another famous duo for violin with viola or cello. It's also the first piece I played with Andrew after we met. We decided since this piece is played so much we would make our own twist on the piece, so some parts will be new and different!

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