Its four-concert residency this March combines Corsican folk music with Italian music, explores the many sides of the tarantella dance, and revives the Spanish and Neapolitan Baroque tradition. In an interview with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall's director of artistic planning, Christina Pluhar discussed the genesis of her ensemble and the importance of improvisation in the performance experience.
What inspired you to form L'Arpeggiata?
I wanted to create this group to specialize in the music of the 17th century: mainly Italian music. And my big wish was to include improvisation in our performances because in the 17th century, it was part of every musician's skillset to be a great improviser. We are now at the stage in the interpretation of early music that we have spent a lot of time in source reading and studying the repertoire and our instruments, so we should feel comfortable enough to improvise as they did back then. You're not only an interpreter of music that has been written, but you actually create a kind of contemporary music because as an improvising performer, you're composing at the same time.
How much of the music is specified by the composer and how much is improvised by the musicians in L'Arpeggiata?
I love the music of the 17th century namely for the free rein that it provides. The composers of the time did not write very much into the actual scores. They gave the musicians freedom. As a performer, you have the possibility of coloring this music as you like. It's very flexible, so you can put a lot of creativity into it.
One of the things I admire most about L'Arpeggiata is that you revive lesser-known works for audiences today.
The music is not alive on the paper. You have to create it with the sound that you are making. Apart from going to libraries, we are looking all over the world to find what I like to call "the living Baroque." We don't casually mix different styles, but we always try to find connections with the music that we perform from the 17th century. We try to find the common roots: where they might have been and where they might still be alive in other types of music today.
Would you say that, in general, traditional music has changed at a slower rate than the Western classical canon?
I think that some musical cultures try to preserve rather than change. You can find this in Indian music and Persian music and music from many different cultures, where the high art is being transmitted from generation to generation. Very interestingly, this all includes a manner of improvisation that can only be learned: person to person. It's something that preserves the tradition and culture. And that's why it's quite hard to reconstruct early music because there was this transmission from the masters to the students. Once you were discovered as a musical talent, you trained every day. It's not like our system now, where you study and you see your teacher maybe for half an hour every week. Students would live with the masters back then, as you can still observe in the teaching of Indian music. It's a totally different approach than what we have now. And it's di)cult to try and reconstruct improvisation in early music because I cannot listen to a master like Monteverdi improvising. I can only try to imagine what he did.
A lot of your performances are driven by the interplay between performers. How much do you plan, and how much do you leave to improvisation onstage?
We discuss ideas before, of course. But there is so much creativity between the artists that things can change during the concert, and people really are so open and react to those changes immediately. Of course, we think a lot. We plan a lot. But we always leave ourselves the possibility of not sticking to what we have planned. We trust each other so much. We know that we can interact and turn things around, and people will just have fun doing that without getting scared. But this is not something you can study at home for a couple of hours. You really have to do it as a live performer in communication with the audience. And I'm often surprised by what happens in the concerts. Even if we know some of the pieces very well, if we are very comfortable with some of the repertoire that we've been performing for a couple of years, there is always a new surprise in every performance.