By JOE HARROP
The Christmas gig season is in full swing. Weekends promise at least one well-paid performance of Handel's Messiah and between Hallelujah choruses, you inevitably reflect on the year's diary of music. This has been one of extremes. One week I'm performing music from more than 300 years ago, the next playing pieces three months old.
Playing music that hangs on the chronological framework of the core repertoire has been an interesting exercise. For example, performing works by composers such as Robert Saxton, Simon Bainbridge and Antony Powers has given me a real sense of post-Britten British composers. At the opposite end, performing early baroque music from Italy, Germany, France and Spain, helps you to taste the international flavours present in the compositions of J.S. Bach.
This has taken place in the cosy but sometimes uncomfortably intimate world of chamber music. Musica Viva UK is a baroque chamber orchestra, headed by rising recorder star Heather Tomala. We have given several recitals in St Martins in the Fields and are in the middle of a concert series at St James in Piccadilly. Tomala is known for her daring ornamentation and astonishing velocity on the recorder, an instrument which, for all its enormous repertoire, still has little attention.
But playing on historical instruments is not restricted to baroque music. Those who attended the Quatuor Mosaique's concerts would agree that Haydn and Mozart sound fabulous on instruments from their own time. A work in progress of mine is a performance of all of Mozart's piano and violin sonatas on historical instruments. The selection of fortepianos in the Royal Academy of Music means we can fit the instrument to the composition period.
The other half of my double existence is the Montague Quartet. Established last year, the quartet is primarily interested in contemporary music. We have worked with some of Britain's top composers and performers, including Oliver Knussen, Dmitry Smirnov, Stephen Montague (after whom the quartet is named), Philip and Peter Sheppard, and the prominent young English composer Benjamin Wallfisch.
While dedication to new music is something we share with many chamber groups, working with these people is a constant source of inspiration. We keep ourselves healthy on a steady diet of student compositions, some of which we feel surpass their masters' works.
One such piece is Brian Herrington's Adoration for String Quartet, which hails back to the blues tradition of the Deep South, and calls for the use of thimbles, plectrums, and a bottleneck slide for the cellist. This went down well at a composers' workshop and we hope to premiere it soon.
Working at these extremes means you can approach the core classical repertoire with fresh eyes and hands. The frequent complexities of modern music stretch your musical and technical facility. But playing the works of Telemann, Corelli and Vivaldi, and the lesser-known Baroque masters Uccelini, Lully and Carissimi, deepens an understanding of what composers following them built on and reacted against.
Playing in Musica Viva UK and the Montague Quartet, along with my own performance projects, has given me more of an awareness of how practice-based research can build knowledge that is different from book learning.
Many of my musical colleagues are advancing their careers quicker because of specialisation, but I believe breadth is an achievable end, especially with classical music.
By JOE HARROP