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An Interview With Anthony Martin

June 15, 2009

Violinist/ violist Anthony Martin is one of the Bay Area’s core of string players who have specialized in early music, or “historically informed performance.” A cofounder of famous ensembles like Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Frans Brueggen's Orchestra of the 18th century, he has viewed the tremendous expansion and growing popularity of early music performance from the trenches. Although he also plays modern music, he’s most recently been playing with the New Esterházy Quartet, which has just released its second recording of Haydn string quartets, Big Hits From the 50s. (See review.) Here, he answers a few questions about the group and his life in early music.

Do you consider yourself a violinist who plays viola or a violist who plays violin?

I feel that such a distinction should not be necessary. It is as unfortunate as the distinction between modern and period instrument specialists. Someone who plays only period instruments is a specialist. Someone who plays only modern instruments is a specialist, too, only she/he doesn’t know it yet.

I assume the New Esterházy Quartet came together to perform the Haydn cycle of quartets. Is that correct? Aside from their historical importance what makes the whole cycle so absorbing to you?

All string players who love quartets say that they’d love to play all the Haydn Quartets, but violinist Kati Kyme has actually made it happen. Very few have accomplished it, and of those, even fewer have ever done it in public. The New Esterházy Quartet is the only group in America, in this hemisphere even, to have done it on period instruments.

Why Haydn? Not only did he create the Viennese Classical tradition for symphonic and chamber music, setting the standard for all who followed, but his humanity, as revealed through his creations, is the most complete and admirable of all those who have composed in that tradition. Haydn’s quartets encompass learning and naivete, humor and pathos, simplicity, and complexity, and all in such generous profusion that he never wears nor pales.

You've grouped them by theme in your presentation. Why? Is there a theme behind The Fabulous Fifties recording?

I have to admit that the individual programs we have played are somewhat arbitrary in their construction. The Princes and the Frog, for instance, is little more than a silly pun. But such is the consistency of Haydn’s inspiration that nearly any combination of three or four of his quartets will satisfy the requirements of unity and variety.

That said, it seemed best to avoid lumping together too many of the early Divertimenti or the densely worked-out Op. 76 quartets on one program. And we also wanted to combine compatible keys and equal responsibilities for the violinists within each program.

The Greatest Hits of the 50’s CD began simply as three separate concert recordings that pleased us. It was violinist Lisa Weiss who noticed that they represent all three of Haydn’s opus numbers from “the fifties” (Op. 50, 54, and 55) and thus gave us the opportunity to allude to historical recordings in another genre from another century.

Are there other recordings in the works? Will the NEQ declare “Mission accomplished!” when the cycle is done and disband?

Yes. And No. We have three commercial recordings in various stages of discussion and planning, and there is always the opportunity to self-produce more of our live concert recordings. Check out our Web site or subscribe to our e-mail newsletter for details. Disbanding is the farthest thing from our minds. Our third season will bring not just the completion of the Haydn cycle, but the beginning of a new series of at least six concerts, each one anchored by one of the quartets dedicated to Haydn by Mozart.

Along with Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets will be pieces by some of the other dozen or more composers who dedicated sets of quartets to Haydn during his lifetime. And each program will give us the opportunity to revisit a Haydn quartet that fits in between these two. We also will be playing, next January, an all-Boccherini program with our friend and colleague Elisabeth Le Guin, sponsored by the San Francisco Early Music Society. So having played all the Haydn quartets once is not the end but rather the beginning of our work together.

Is it easy for modern-trained instrumentalists to enter the world of “early music” performance and pick up new habits? What's the hardest thing for your students to get?

The most difficult idea to get over is that playing early music is a matter of learning rules. Rather, you must unlearn rules that one did not even know one was subject to — rules like the primacy of a “beautiful” tone, or the literal reading of notation.

You started learning “early music” techniques just as the “movement” became widely popular. How did you get into historically informed performance?

I was fortunate to be at Stanford when George Houle was teaching, and Herb Myers and Lyle Nordstrom were grad students, and everyone was excited about learning from historical sources, both theoretical and practical. In those days I was playing Renaissance instruments, but the biases I picked up served me well when, eventually, I strapped gut strings on my fiddle.

Later, I fell in with Albert Fuller and his Aston Magna project, where the excitement of exploring this new aural world was palpable, and Jaap Schroeder and Stan Ritchie were the flint and steel from whom sparks flew every time they picked up their instruments.

What's on your iPod?

On my iPhone I have a nearly complete set of Firesign Theatre albums, and a live performance of The Ring of the Nibelungs from Teatro Colon in 1960.

What do you do for R&R away from the violin? Do you have hobbies?

The violin has crowded out some previous obsessions, including collecting books and 78rpm records, back-packing, Frisbee, and so on. Now I try to attend my son’s volleyball games, follow the Giants, watch the occasional How I Met Your Mother on TV, keep the stack of New Yorkers from piling too high, and reply to letters. From collecting I want to move to divesting, which can be every bit as interesting.

What do you enjoy most about living in the Bay Area?

I was born in L.A., grew up in Santa Rosa, and went to college on the Peninsula. It took a 15-year eastern exile and a couple of tours in Italy and Spain for me to come to the realization that this Mediterranean topography, climate, and flora are what define home for me. I could never really get used to the sun rising over the ocean, nor to the frantic intensity of vegetable and insect life trying to get it all done in stagnant humidity before the arrival of the next merciless winter. Solitary oaks in a golden expanse of wild oats is more my style.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.