CBC Listen: This Is My Music for May 16, 2020 - Violinist Julia Wedman
Each week, This Is My Music is hosted by one of Canada's foremost international classical artists. The host selects a program of mainly classical music and presents it in a lively, engaging manner, enriched with personal anecdotes and insights.
Julia Wedman and her Jacobs violin - Breaking Baroque blog from Tafelmusik, written by J. Wedman (2018)
My baroque violin was made in 1694 in Amsterdam by Hendrik Jacobs. It is on permanent loan to me from violist Max Mandel, principal violist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, frequent guest with Tafelmusik, and my former partner and current dear friend.
This beautiful instrument was bought for Max when he was in high school. Max was a talented and serious musician from a young age, and his parents quickly realized he needed a professional quality instrument to play. They all fell in love with the sound of the Jacobs when Max tried it out at the shop of former Tafelmusik violinist Jack Liivoja, and Max played it throughout his teens and early twenties. When Max was a student at the University of Toronto, he switched to viola, and then moved to New York. It was at this time that the violin came into my hands. Max was broke (paying for tuition at Juilliard and rent in NY) and needed to sell the violin. It went back to the shop, but no one wanted it — everyone complained that it was too quiet. When I came home from studying baroque violin at Indiana University, I had the idea that maybe we would have more luck selling Max’s instrument as a baroque violin. We brought it home from the shop, I put gut strings on it, tuned it down a semi-tone from modern pitch (A=440) to baroque pitch (A=415), played a few notes, and proclaimed, “We can’t sell this violin!!! It is too good! I need to play it!”
The Jacobs loves being tuned to the low pitches — when it is tuned to A=415 or lower, the voice of this violin is free, warm, dark, and gorgeously rich. There is an intimacy in the quality of sound that I absolutely love and have rarely found in other instruments. The Jacobs can express a kind of emotional vulnerability that connects with people on a very deep level, and I am so grateful for the closeness my audiences feel with me. When I hear other people play it, I am always surprised by how soft it sounds, but its “limitations” demanded that I learn to use my bow in a different way — I have to use the instrument’s natural resonance with focus and strength to project the sound.
One fateful day — a blustery March evening of my second year in Tafelmusik — I was walking home after a concert, and as I turned the corner to my street, there was a big patch of black ice. I slipped and fell backwards, onto my violin case, which I had been carrying like a backpack. Ow!!! I dusted myself off, went inside, and took a hot bath to ease the pain. The next morning, I took out my violin to practice. I opened the case and to my shock and horror, the sound post (the little post inside the violin) had smashed through the top of the instrument! It looked so bizarre, I immediately closed the case and started walking around in circles, saying, “That doesn’t look right!” Finally, I worked up the courage to open the case again, and this time, I had to face the truth that I had broken Max’s beautiful violin. Choking back tears, I called our luthier, “Saint” Quentin Playfair, and explained the situation. He told me to gather every little shard of wood in a clear plastic bag, and bring it to him immediately! It took Quentin about six weeks to do a complete restoration. Miraculously, he was able to fix it so exquisitely that I can’t tell where the cracks are, and it sounds better than ever!
Mj Buell - theWholeNote (2017)
Violinist Julia Wedman first caught the attention of Southern Ontario audiences in a 1998 concert with the innovative I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble. A core member of that ensemble from 1999 to this day, she joined the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in 2005. Wedman is regularly featured as a soloist in Tafelmusik’s home concerts as well as their North American and international tours, and she contributes her skills and creative thinking as an occasional leader and collaborator in the development of new programming. Wedman is also a member of the Eybler Quartet, a period-instrument ensemble that plays well-known but also often relatively unknown classical repertoire. Increasingly busy performing outside of Canada, Wedman is also a sought-after teacher and coach in Canada and abroad.
Born in Prince George, BC, Wedman and her family moved to Saskatoon when she was six. After high school, a former violin teacher helped Wedman move to London, Ontario, where she enrolled at Western University, followed by studies at Indiana University and the University of Toronto.
Suppose you're chatting with a friendly fellow traveller who asks what you do for a living?
I always say I am one of those lucky people who makes a living doing exactly what I want to do – I get to spend my days playing incredible music with dear friends.
Tell us about your violins?
I play two different violins....One is a 1694 Hendrik Jacobs (Amsterdam). Jacobs was one of the most famous Dutch violin makers, and the sound of the instrument is deep and beautiful. This instrument likes being at low pitch (A=415 or lower).
My second violin is from about 1860 and is from an unknown maker in Milan, Italy. Its sound is brighter and very sweet. This violin likes to be at a higher pitch (A=430 and up). So I generally use the Jacobs for Baroque music (Tafelmusik and I Furiosi) and the other one for later music (Eybler Quartet, etc.)
Do you remember that childhood photo being taken?
No, but I definitely remember practising as a child and those pajamas were my favourite ones! My earliest memory of playing violin was that I had a little box and a stick. We had to wait for a violin to be ordered because I was too small for the ones available. I remember the excitement of my first real instrument. It was so beautiful, and it made a sound!
Your absolute earliest musical memory?
Probably my dad playing some tunes on his violin – he would take out his violin and play from a book with old folk songs like Amazing Grace and Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair. I loved that book.
What did your parents do to earn a living?
My father is a financial advisor (I know – that part didn't rub off). But the workaholic qualities may have! And he sings in the Victoria Choral Society choir. My mother is retired, but worked as the administration person for the Lutheran bishop of Saskatchewan for many years. She started piano lessons last year!
Why the violin?
One day driving home in the car, my dad said to my older brother and me, "Ok kids, would you like to play violin or cello?" Already I had a wacky sense of humour, and I thought he said "jello" and started laughing hysterically. "How can you play jello? I can't play such a silly instrument! I'll take the violin!"
Music in your childhood home?
Home was mom, dad, my older brother Chris, my younger brother Mark, my younger sister Naomi and our little cockapoo dog Rusty. We all had to take music lessons for ten years. Chris is an accountant now but still plays percussion in the Saskatoon Concert Band. Mark was more interested in sports and is a mechanical engineer, but now he puts his musical training to use practising with his two daughters who both take music lessons. Naomi is an English teacher in Barcelona and a wonderful violinist, composer and improviser. She plays more contemporary music - country, folk, rock, blues, etc.
My mom used to put on recordings of music at 6:15am, then bring hot chocolate up to our rooms at 6:30 to get all of the kids up to practise before school. My sister and I often produced recitals, complete with programs, for our dolls. We all played or sang at church and sometimes under great duress played for guests that came to the house. My siblings and I would often raid our parents’ record collection and dance around the living room. Favourites were Mini-Pops, Grease and Jascha Heifetz playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto …
What can you remember about a first music teacher?
One of my first music teachers used to cut my fingernails with these horrible rabbit scissors with beady red ruby eyes. They were so short they hurt and I would cry. She wasn't a warm person either and I complained a lot. My mom one day said, "Do you want to quit?" I looked at her in surprise “Of course not! Why would I want to quit?" Instead she found a wonderful teacher (Ellen) who suited me a lot more, and became one of the biggest influences in my life.
A first experience of making music with other people?
I went to group classes when I started violin and often played with family members at home. A particularly vivid memory of an early chamber music experience is of a friend and I playing a little piece called After you, My Dear Gaston. It was a little jazzy and I loved it. I don't remember my first time playing in an orchestra - it feels like I have always played in them! I do remember a spectacular blue spring coat that I received as a celebratory gift for playing in the music festival when I was about eight.
Where did you attend high school? And right after high school, what happened next?
After high school (Holy Cross High School, in Saskatoon), I took a few months off until my former violin teacher decided I needed to get off my butt (she was right!) so she helped organize a move to London, Ontario. I lived with her family and babysat to help pay rent, and enrolled as a music student at the University of Western Ontario. Ellen is like a second mom. She kicked my butt in university and opened her home and heart to me when my family was falling apart and my parents were separating. She is still one of the most treasured people in my life.
Do you remember the point at which you began to think of yourself as a career musician?
I think I was about six, watching a Saskatoon Symphony concert, thinking "That's what I'm going to do!"
Did you ever think you would do something else?
Sometimes I think about what else I would do... It would probably involve education or psychology, but I can't imagine not making music every day. It's the only thing I am happy to do even when I am sick or completely exhausted. I am not sure how I could survive without my daily sojourns to the magical world of music where real life fades away...
Where does music fit into your personal/family life at home today?
I don't listen to a lot of music at home because I play so many hours every day - I like to have some quiet time at the end of a day. I find it difficult not to give any music my full concentration. I don't really like background music - it's very distracting!
I do a lot of singing with Oskar, my two-year-old friend who lives upstairs, and we also like to dance and play avant garde recorder duos.
If you were driving or showering (and all by yourself) and could sing along to ANY recording, what would you choose?
I am terrible at remembering words, and I play so much music it's a bit of a "love the one you're with" kind of a situation....I sing the music that is in my head at the moment! I always sing whatever I am trying to memorize! Right now a lot of Bach for Tafelmusik’s “Circle of Creation” program that goes on tour to the USA February 28. During I Furiosi weeks I am inevitably singing our encores...I would say the biggest ear worms have been songs by Coldplay, Adele, Prince and Kurt Cobain. I often sing walking to the subway...I don't drive!