Photo credit: Erin McKinney

Natalia Duarte Jeremías

Baroque Viola

By G.A. Chaves

Interview completed in February 2021
Published in May 2021

Currently living outside of Venice, Italy, Costa Rican violist Natalia Duarte Jeremías embodies the greater global reach of baroque music and its social relevance for our time. Apart from a background in Anthropology and incursions in urban planning issues, her own multi-national experiences have shaped the ways she views her art:

 

“I come from a family of musicians. I played viola since I was a little girl, all the way through high school. I even completed a year of viola studies at the University of Costa Rica. But at the time I felt that I wanted to do my own thing, and since social issues are important to me, I majored in Anthropology. Then I went to the United States to continue studying, but there I joined a school orchestra and realized that that’s what I really wanted to do. It was very hard to get back in shape after several years without playing!”

 

Has there been any kind of cross-pollination between the two fields?

 

“Yes. Anthropology gave me a framework to understand the world, including the part of the world that is music. At the University of Arizona, I took lessons in Ethnomusicology, which is the most obvious point of contact between the two fields. But more recently I’ve been collaborating with a friend who is an architect and urban planner for an organization called Urbanalytica, trying to develop ways in which music can help create creative, sustainable cities, and become an element of communal integration. I find music such a specialized field, and musicians so removed from the world due to the long hours they have to put in for practice, that this is a great way for me to go back into the world and give something back to the community, apart from the music itself.”

 

So how did you go from these current issues to historical performance?

 

“I always liked Baroque music. I have an emotional connection to it. I listened to many records and performances since I was in Costa Rica, but always thought of it as somewhat unattainable. There wasn’t much of this type of music in the part of the States where I went, either, so I kept viewing it as far removed from my immediate reality. But then I moved to Barcelona to study modern viola at ESMUC, and there the world opened up for me. They have a department that specializes in historical music. I first took theory and inquired whether I could take part in the masterclasses. I began making friends in that scene, and since there is always a need for viola players, I got in, and loved every bit of it.”

 

Why the viola, of all instruments?

 

“When I was around ten years old, I heard a violist in Costa Rica play a G.P. Telemann concert and I fell in love with that sound, so I decided to switch from violin to viola. I had small hands, so they put viola strings on my violin and that’s how I started. But the viola also matched my personality. It’s a more alternative instrument. It holds things together, mediates between other instruments, but it’s not a protagonist. And that’s also how I feel I am. I don’t like the spotlight. Also, the viola has a history of being the ugly duckling of string instruments, since its mid-range frequencies were not as interesting to some as the bright tones of the violin, for example, and its register doesn’t quite correspond to its actual size. Its oddity made it very endearing to me.”

Was it hard at first to switch from modern to baroque viola?

 

“Well, at first, I decided to quit playing modern viola altogether, because of the technical differences. I was radicalized into playing viola exclusively with plain gut strings, but lately, I have reconciled myself with the modern style. At first, I had an identity crisis regarding my own sound. I didn’t recognize myself playing modern viola, but by now I feel I have succeeded to incorporate both styles.”

Photo credit: Erin McKinney

What’s been going on with your projects, like the Altus Ensemble?

 

“Altus is a project I have with Nuria Pújolrás, from Spain. Since we’ve been living in different countries for a while now it’s been hard to continue with that work, but now Covid provided a break for us to reconsider things, and we’re in the process of selecting a new repertoire, and research specific music that we’re interested in before we think of performing. All my other projects are at that stage: mostly planning while we wait for things to clear up with the pandemic.”

 

How was your experience playing with the Italian director and violinist Enrico Onofri?

 

“I was familiar with Onofri through recordings, but when I listened to him play and rehearse live it made me want to cry. I was very impressed. More than anything, playing with people like him exposes you to a contagious kind of energy that inspires you to play better, and that’s a great feeling. During rehearsal, they will explain things about how they perceive or understand the music that they’re playing, and that is a very formative experience.”

Do you recall a specific instance of something that really changed your playing?

 

“The first thing that comes to mind is, back in 2019, when I worked with Belgian director Philippe Herreweghe thanks to a scholarship I got from the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in England. He’s also a hero of mine, I grew up listening to his records. But he really made an impression on me when he explained that modern musicians seem to be obsessed with ‘playing the line’, phrasing the notes, sometimes at the expense of articulation, while baroque players seem obsessed with articulation at the expense of the line. Herreweghe insisted you have to do both. Easier said than done, of course, but that gave me a standard to measure my performance and understanding of a piece.”

 

What do you mean by “understanding”?

 

“Let me give you an example. In the historical repertoire, you find things on a score that any trained musician could play, but when you look at methods and treatises for that period they explain things as when you have two notes in a ligature, the second note should be shorter. That kind of ‘inside knowledge’ is mostly lost in contemporary music, but it opens up a window into that music's specific eloquence and cadences. Then it becomes a new sensibility, and it’s always good to have someone guiding you through that exploration. Then you learn that ‘precision’, as understood today, may not mean the same thing in the context of this historical music. That’s a whole new understanding of things that are not just technical, but experimental.”

Natalia-200.jpg

Photo credit: Erin McKinney

How did you end up in Italy? What have you been doing there?

 

“Originally, I came because my husband is from here. I applied for a student visa and went to study at the Civica Scuola in Milan. The school allowed me to network my way into the local scene. Since then, I’ve been teaching Spanish, English, and music, apart from playing, and I enrolled in the conservatory in Padua where I’m getting a degree in Music Education. That’s actually the reason why I reconnected with the modern viola because I have to teach it.”

 

Has teaching changed other perceptions you had about the instrument?

 

“Actually, it was the other way around: my experience as a performer changed my perception about teaching. I used to be very self-conscious when I was teaching in Costa Rica, but the experience of having so many different teachers throughout the years and having gone through the motions of playing modern and baroque viola has made me realize that there are many ways to teaching and learning. I feel freer to do things and more open to the needs of my students. I’m not about to impose a way to do things, but instead understand the possibilities that each student brings, what needs they have. There is structure, but also exploration. Again, I’m trying to mediate between people and their instruments.”

Back to the idea of mediation… Is that why you were attracted to Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred poetry, a mediator between humans and deities?

 

“Yes, she is the muse of eloquence—and not only of mediation but meditation! And that’s something I aspire to. I’ve been practicing meditation for a while now. It’s a way for me to listen to myself, understand my own volition, direction, and feelings. And eloquence is another aspiration of mine.”

 

Well, eloquence is a byproduct of articulation, and you already mentioned how important that is to you…

 

“Yes. And going back to the idea of mediation, eloquence is a tool of persuasion. It’s a door towards meaningful (and hopefully peaceful) communication like all music should strive to be.”

Photo credit: Erin McKinney