Leave It to Biber

Violinist John Holloway seeks the modern along Baroque byways.

Violinist John Holloway isn't taking refuge in the past; he's boldly striding through it, searching for something new.

"The longer we live," he says, "the more we feel that we've already heard everything, and so the more important it is for a musician to meet this challenge of having a feeling of spontaneity, of improvisation. I don't mean going on stage with a complete blank page and spontaneously combusting, but communicating with the audience can be a very spontaneous thing even if the notes one plays are overwhelmingly pre-composed."

The European-based Holloway is eager to return to Tucson's St. Philip's in the Hills Church, where he'll perform this weekend under the aegis of the Arizona Early Music Society. He says he enjoys the sort of communication possible between him and the audience in St. Philip's particular visual and acoustic atmosphere; he notes especially the large window behind the altar overlooking a desert landscape, and the heavy ceiling beams that somewhat blunt the sound, giving it more presence but less spaciousness than in a more "live" acoustic.

Spontaneity certainly abounds in Holloway's ECM recordings of sonatas by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (ca. 1620-1680) and Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704). These two central European violinist-composers wrote music that is sometimes hauntingly meditative, sometimes technically harrowing. Holloway's pure-toned, imaginatively ornamented playing can be freely, lyrically phrased or fiercely aggressive, as necessary, always with a vitality that makes the 300-year-old scores seem like music of this moment.

Works of Biber and his contemporaries constitute Holloway's Tucson recital. He'll be performing with organist Aloysia Assenbaum (Holloway's wife) and harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen.

If you think the early music crowd is mild-mannered, you haven't heard the arguments over Holloway's controversial decision to be accompanied by the organ and harpsichord simultaneously. Over the past few decades we've come to think of the standard Baroque sonata setup as solo instrument (in this case violin) backed up by one keyboard instrument and cello (or the related viola da gamba) filling in the bass line. But that, Holloway maintains, is an anachronism, appropriate primarily for music written between about 1750 and the rise of the duo sonata in the hands of such composers as Mozart.

Before that, in the time of Biber, Holloway insists that it was quite common for a soloist, particularly a vocalist, to be accompanied by organ and some plucked instrument--a lute or its bass counterparts, the theorbo and chitarrone. The harpsichord would fill in when a member of the lute family wasn't available, Holloway says. The violinist isn't insisting that this is the only way to play 17th-century violin sonatas, but it's a plausible way, and he believes that, in the kind of music by Biber and company he's performing these days, it's the best way.

"This combination offers the wonderful possibilities of the rich harmonization and the beautiful sustaining potential of the organ combined with the rhythmic drive of the harpsichord," he says. "I hasten to add that if someone can perform 17th-century music with harpsichord and cello in a way that is totally convincing, they should do that, because our job is to perform music in the way that we believe works best for us now, in the spirit of the past. We play with harpsichord and organ because we like it, and that's the most important thing."

Snicker though you may at heated debates over the nature of Biber's backup band, the argument illustrates the difficulty of balancing a scholarly concern with fidelity to the poorly preserved aesthetic principles of a distant century with providing a meaningful and engaging aesthetic experience for today's audience.

Holloway is certainly not an anti-intellectual; he knows the old treatises, and is professor of violin and string chamber music at the Hochschule für Musik in Dresden. But in musical matters of heart vs. mind, he seems likely to take the side of expressivity and aural sensuality. Of the two leading English early-music conductors he worked with most closely from the late 1970s into the early '90s, Holloway apparently absorbed more from the interpretively provocative Andrew Parrott than from the by-the-book Roger Norrington.

Holloway plays modern copies of Amati violins crafted in 1649 and 1669. Instruments of that era differed in subtle but important ways from those played by today's celebrity soloists and orchestral musicians. The necks were shorter (hence, fewer notes), the strings were of gut (producing notes less brilliant and less easily projected than on today's metal strings), and the bow was curved (making it easier to play on two, three or even all four strings at once). These and other physical differences, together with such performance practices as using vibrato only for special effect rather than as a continuous aid to tone production, make mediocre players sound like tortured cats. But they also enable a gifted musician like Holloway to guide us into a haunting, somewhat familiar yet somewhat alien soundworld.

This music is not for periwigged ninnies. Biber's 1681 book of sonatas, from which Holloway will draw the core of his program, contains what Holloway calls "great, extroverted, virtuosic pieces. The 1681 sonatas are about, 'Hey, what a fantastic violinist I am,' and how Biber could create a really modern and new music for his time."

Although it doesn't figure into the Tucson program, Holloway and Assenbaum have also commissioned music for Baroque violin and organ that's modern and new for our time.

"We try to keep in touch with the compositional process of today, partly because we think that musicians should be involved in the music of their own time," says Holloway. "But it's also partly because the music we play a lot of, when it was being composed, it was modern music. And one of the hardest things for any classical musician today, and jazz musicians have to some extent the same problems, is that we feel we've heard everything now, so how do we get the feeling of creating something new? That must have been a very important part of what Biber was doing in 1680.

"One of the things we can do today is remember that this was young once--the music, and the way in which it was performed, and the way in which it was perceived; it was more spontaneous and more human and more active."