Interview: Violinist Rachel Podger’s sunshine lights up this week’s Tafelmusik concerts

British violinist Rachel Podger leads Tafelmusik this week (L. Rajchert/Wratislavia Cantans photo).

It’s such a cliché to describe a person as a ray of sunshine. But British violinist Rachel Podger is living proof that clichés are based in reality.

The period-performance specialist makes her Toronto début tonight as guest leader and soloist with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in a programme of musical treats by J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Georg Philipp Telemann at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

The concerts, which continue to Sunday afternoon, are very likely to be one of the highlights of the concert season.

Podger, founder of several period-performance ensembles and a festival in Wales, leader of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, prolific recording artist and popular solo guest, is an unstoppable musical life force.

Her interpretations radiate the same luminosity as her personality, which lit up a pre-rehearsal breakfast interview yesterday morning.

There’s been a substantial shift in period interpretation over the past decade, as the original gang of pioneers from the 1970s and early 1980s give way to performers who have been immersed in period-performance rules and traditions from their student days.

As with every generational change, there is a fundamental desire to put a fresh imprint on art. Podger is an example of someone filled with the same desire, tempered by a desire to stay true to the basics.

“It’s an obvious thing to say, of course, but my guide is to always look at the score,” says Podger. “Everything starts and ends there. If it’s not true to what’s being said in the score, then why do it?

“Of course, you can go with all sorts of different effects and explore lots of different characterizations and timing and all sorts of things like that, and it’s really fun. But there’s a danger in that, because sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling procedure rather than something that’s in service of the music or what the composer had in mind.”

Then there’s the balance a performer like Podger needs to strike between her inclinations as a soloist and leader, and working with an established – and respected – group, like Tafelmusik.

“As someone who is coming in as a guest director, you need to respect that and then see how much you can liven things up or calm them down,” the violinist explains. “It’s always a challenge, but it’s a creative challenge.”

Anyone familiar with Baroque music knows there are styles of composition and performance peculiar to England, France, Italy and Germany. But each composer also adds a layer of individuality that an ensemble leader needs to parse.

As is the case with so many musicians, J.S. Bach provides the greatest fodder for a lifetime of study.

“I know it sounds like a cliché, but every revisit of Bach is a deeper experience,” Podger says. “It doesn’t matter how many times you play it, or with how many different people. Also, it’s a very rich experience, because every musician brings something slightly different to it and you hear things in different ways.

“It’s like ever-changing lighting, where you see different things all the time. Bach being so contrapuntal and complex, it can take so many different ways of doing it – different tempi, different emphases, different characters, too. It’s really remarkable.”

This week’s programme opens and closes with Bach: The A Major Violin Concerto, BWV 1042, and the golden Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, BWV 1049.

In between are concertos by Vivaldi and Telemann, including his Concerto for Three Violins (out of his Tafelmusik series) which Podger performs with orchestra members Julia Wedman and Cristina Zacharias.

“Vivaldi needs high energy. It’s power, power. It’s sugar,” Podger explains. “It needs effervescence and excitement. You kind of have to chuck it out at the audience.”

Telemann is a bit more of a puzzle. Podger describes his varied style as hard to pin down.

“There is so much variety in his style of composition. Sometimes it’s really folky and earthbound, as if you were wearing clogs and doing a clog dance. At other times, it’s very French and you can smell the fragrance; it’s sophisticated.

“I love all those changes, it’s so inspiring,” says Podger. But they demand a lot of thought: “You have to make some decisions so that you lay out a kind of geography and orientation.”

Although this is Podger’s Toronto début, Tafelmusik’s wide international reach means they have all met before.

The guest violinist became friends with Wedman in Banff during a three-month residency in 1997. She met other members of the orchestra while a guest at the summertime Klang und Raum festival in Irsee, Germany, where Tafelmusik was the founding resident ensemble.

Podger comes from an intensely musical family. Her brother Julian, a tenor and a conductor, was a guest soloist with Tafelmusik several seasons ago.

And, somewhere, somehow, in her nonstop schedule, Podger and her viola-playing husband have found a way to raise two girls, who are now 11 and 8 years old. They, too, are learning instruments.

But the eldest, Carus, as yet unmoved by her mother the performer, decided that violin was not the way to go, choosing piano, flute and viola instead.

“She was very sweet about it.,” Podger recalls, smiling. She quotes her daughter: “I don’t want to make you unhappy, Mummy, but I don’t really want to do the same as you.”


For all concert details, background information and tickets, click here.


For a deeper taste of Podger and her art, here is an interview related to a recording Podger made last year of Bach Violin Concertos with her Welsh festival ensemble, Brecon Baroque (she discusses the E Major concerto around the third minute of the video).

For a big musical treat, J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins played not at all the way Toronto heard it at Roy Thomson Hall last Saturday night. This performance, with fellow soloist Andrew Manze, is from the 2006 BBC Proms:

John Terauds


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