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Ángela Lobato del Castillo

Baroque Cello

by G.A. Chaves

Interview completed in December 2020
Published in January 2021

In my literary work, I have always been interested in what the past can teach the present about the ways in which we humans express our experiences. Can we the (mostly) urban humanity of 2021 still have a way of relating to the feelings expressed in pastoral poetry, for example?


Spanish cellist Ángela Lobato del Castillo is an ideal conversation partner if you want to go down that rabbit hole, as she herself has spent her life working to create connections in the present with the great music of the past.


Photo credit: Clara Anastasi

“This year’s physical isolation has made us look for other forms of connection, and somehow we’re creating a more mental collaboration among ourselves to get through everyday life and work.”


Ángela had moved to New York in 2019 to study at Juilliard, but her time there was cut short due to Covid. Still, she finds the experience enriching:


“I’m from Spain and went to an Italian school, and then studied in London. My education has been mostly European, and my field is mostly Eurocentric. And even though that’s my identity, it’s a shame to constrain myself to that sphere. I needed perspective.”


Apart from the musical training, she claims to have a new-found way of understanding her own role in her work:


“Americans are better at putting themselves out there and saying ‘This is me, this is what I do’; but more importantly, ‘I can do this’. This taught me self-confidence, and I understood that it’s not a bad thing to showcase yourself that way. I still know I have to keep on learning, but now there’s more of me involved in the process, like practicing a new language. The world has changed and nothing seems to make sense. We’re all struggling. And yet that’s what it took for me to find my own voice and a way to project it in my work.”


And she seems to have also found a way to convey that in the very theatricality of historical performance:


“Playing a score properly is hard enough as it is, but if you just follow what a19th century composer has written, it will sound musical. That doesn’t work with baroque music. It’s more like jazz; it wants to tell a story. You have to provide the performance. The dance, the older eloquence or rhetoric you find in that music, are all elements that I think you need to create on the spot. You have to bring them back to life to make them work, and for me that is more interesting, because it’s my responsibility to make it work.”


Her own teaching experience, far from diverting her from her art, has made her understand it more fully in connection to her community. “We’ve been told this lie that those who can, play; those who can’t, teach, and it’s so damaging. In my experience, the teachers who can really make an impact are the ones you see doing and exploring the very things they’re trying to teach you. And the other lie is, of course, that music education is just for people who want to become professionals. It’s important to include those who just want to learn music to enjoy it, without necessarily becoming professionals. Not everybody needs to know what Carnegie Hall is, but we all have creative impulses that we should put to good use.” And she means this very personally:


“This pandemic has helped me realize that there are many things that I like but had not been able to enjoy because of a mindset I have as a professional musician: the mandate to always improve and reach a certain level of competence; but that has very little to do with our inner sense of art, the way it moves us. Technique is a way to improve communication, but there’s also the need for expression: I may not be a good dancer, but dancing does good things to me and I enjoy it. I’ve also been learning to paint watercolors, and I’m not particularly good at it, but I enjoy it. Especially at a time like this, busying your mind with a creative outlet is a very healthy thing to do. And to think that if something isn’t perfect is not worth it seems to me the opposite of healthy. Also, doing things for their own sake trains your judgement and sensibility: you don’t appreciate something because somebody tells you it’s good, but because you understand its inner workings at a personal level.”

Photo credit: Clara Anastasi

I had to ask her about another one of her passions, the iconography of the cello:


“It’s an almost sociological concern. I began looking at paintings featuring cellos and wondered how I would ever be able to hold the instrument the way it was presented there. That gave me a window into the social and musical evolution of the instrument, because some of these paintings reveal things that may not necessarily apply to music. Sometimes you have a portrait of a nobleman in a garden with a cello to represent that he was an enlightened, educated person. It does not mean that all baroque music needs to be played in a garden. These paintings have more to do with the social representations of music throughout the ages. Some other painters, however, paid more attention to the physical act of the performance. You can even see muscles tensing up in some of these paintings that you recognize today as actual performance gestures.”

The hand position in Pompeo Batoni’s portrait of Luigi Boccherini is a good example of this, she tells me:


“There’s room to wonder whether this is an actual depiction of the way Boccherini played or whether this is just posing. But apart from that, it also sheds light into the historical approach to the instrument. My cello was built in Germany in 2012. It’s not like one of the cellos played by Boccherini in the 18th century, so it’s still an ergonomically-interesting painting to analyze. It gives you an option as to how to approach the instrument beyond what a teacher can tell you. You can turn your intuitive understanding of the painting into your own technique.”

As for all other performers around the world, things have changed for Ángela since the lockdown began, but she now perceives the challenge more like an opportunity:

“Things were already hard before Covid, but now I understand that it’s impossible to wait around for opportunities. I’ve learned that I need to take the initiative and start my own projects, and consciously work on the things that were on my mind before and that need to finally come to fruition. During lockdown I have played with musicians I truly admired, collaborations that would have required lots of traveling in the past. So, there are new possibilities out there. The musical part is still not the best, but the collaborative aspect has been great, and we’re all growing together. I’m trying to create a space where all the people I’ve met can come and contribute to something larger that our own individual efforts. That’s how I see my role as Thaleia: a way of creating support networks with like-minded talent.


Ritratto de Luigi Boccherini 

circa 1764-1767

Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)

That is the muse she asked to represent for Mount Parnassus, and again she has a very personal take on the meaning of that role:


“Thaleia is the muse of pastoral music, among other things. In Italy, she’s largely present in vocal music and secular poetry, with very familiar storylines: the broken-hearted shepherd and the cruel maiden. This is the stuff of boleros! The aesthetic refinement is great, but this music is expressing very common things, with plenty of jokes in between. You see it all the way from Monteverdi to Handel, as well as in Antonio Caldara, whose cantatas are the topic of my Master’s thesis. But Thaleia is also the muse of comedy, and to me that includes ideas of playfulness, wonder, and new fantasies. All of the surprising elements that we’re used to seeing in a rock concert, for example, are things that I find in this muse: it has to be an experience for the audience.”

Photo credit: Clara Anastasi

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