'Early music superstars' L'Arpeggiata in New Zealand for concerts

Early instruments from the 17th century such as the theorbo and harpsichord play alongside the double bass and jazz guitar.
Michael Uneffer

Early instruments from the 17th century such as the theorbo and harpsichord play alongside the double bass and jazz guitar.

Chamber music can have the unfortunate image of being high-brow and stuffy, but Christina Pluhar turns that on its head with a series of concerts described as "urbane sexiness" on stage.

Playing her theorbo (a lute-like string instrument), the visiting Paris-based conductor does the unthinkable by bringing 11 baroque and jazz musicians together for a lively programme which celebrates 17th century musical heroes and compositions that have previously been overlooked.

Hailed as "early music superstars", L'Arpeggiata​ is a French baroque/jazz cross-over group playing a five centre tour as part of Chamber New Zealand's 2017 programme, including Wellington on Saturday, March 18 and Christchurch on Monday, March 20.

Christina Pluhar is in New Zealand with her European chamber music ensemble, L'Arpeggiata.
Michael Uneffer

Christina Pluhar is in New Zealand with her European chamber music ensemble, L'Arpeggiata.

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Jazz and baroque music are completely different languages, and getting musicians from both styles to join forces for a concert is like expecting an Arabic and Italian speaker to communicate.

On stage, percussionists play alongside musicians fiddling the baroque violin and harpsichord - early instruments which died out at the end of the 17th century, only to be rediscovered about 50 years ago. After being neglected for centuries, Baroque music has enjoyed a recent revival.

Says Pluhar: "You usually keep the two worlds quite separate, and it's definitely creating something new by taking the old songs and giving something new to it through jazz. It has to be done with a lot of delicacy and respect for each other. But it's very interesting what comes out, as new music is created."

The programme, "Music for a While", features the music of English composer Henry Purcell spiced up with jazz improvisation. The repertoire is inspired by Purcell's famous secular and sacred songs, hymns and dances, while L'Arpeggiata takes the theatre and court music of 17th century London and combines it with the sophisticated improvisation of jazz.

Just like a jazz concert, every night is different, thanks to the improvisation style.

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"Some people might not know this music but they will fall in love with it because it is so beautiful listening to it. One of my aims is to make this repertoire appeal to those who don't listen to much classical music."

While chamber music heroes like Bach and Vivaldi are household names, through the ensemble she founded in Paris, Pluhar sets out to discover early Baroque compositions from Spain, Italy and England, such as pieces by the Italian priest and composer, Monteverdi​.

Under her direction, she has also enlivened Purcell's music: he has traditionally been performed in what has been described as "a rather chaste tradition".

Describing Purcell as a genius in music history, the composer was just 36 when he died. "But in his very short life he wrote an incredible number of masterpieces. His work is very complex. He wrote very spiritual music, and also very funny music."

"There is still a lot of music out there that we don't know about, and I try to find pieces that aren't yet known to us, and try to discover new repertoires," she says.

The Guardian described the group as "an urbane sexiness, far removed from the rather chaste tradition of English Purcell performance".

Reviewer James Mannheim, of Allmusic, raved: "…not simply a jazz or rock version of Purcell but a wholesale rethinking of an antique repertoire for a stylistically diverse modern musical world."

Born in Austria, Pluhar learned to play the classical guitar before studying the baroque harp and other early instruments such as the lute and theorbo. The lute is her main passion today, an instrument of the period which was played in the Royal Court before dying out and being replaced by the classical guitar.

"The lute has such a beautiful, very soft, human sound. The music is very beautiful and the harmonies and melodies are very close to people's hearts."

She says the 17th century, particularly the first Baroque period, were both fascinating and revolutionary in music history. Around 1600, for example, the first opera, L'Orfeo, composed by Monteverdi, was first staged.

Pluhar travels and tours for six months a year with the ensemble, spending the rest of the time researching and composing, along with recording albums through Warner. "We are very excited to be bringing this music to you in New Zealand," she says.

For concert details and bookings, go to chambermusic.co.nz.

 - Stuff

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