MUSIC@MENLO: The recorder virtuoso is a rare breed. How did your career take shape? As a young musician, did you also study flute (and/or any other instruments), or did you focus exclusively on the recorder?
MICHALA PETRI: The recorder virtuoso is not such a rare breed in Europe as in the United States—although it is more rare than piano or violin virtuosos, of course. One of the reasons is the gap in the repertoire. The recorder was a popular instrument in the Baroque time, but with the invention of the transverse flute, and the fact that the transverse flute had a place in the symphony orchestra, the recorder was forgotten. Also, it was not naturally suited for Romantic music, where more coloration of the tone and dynamic changes are required. In the early 1900s, the recorder was rediscovered, but it was not taken seriously as an instrument, and it only gradually reached the status of other instruments. Primarily it was used in performing Baroque music, but today it has almost as much repertoire as other instruments, by modern composers.
I did play the flute from when I was twelve until I was sixteen, but I preferred the recorder, which I knew much better since childhood and which I found more challenging. Besides, I liked the close contact to the instrument—getting a response back immediately from the instrument—rather than the flute, where the tone was shaped by the embouchure.
MUSIC@MENLO: Tell us about your instrument. What distinguishes the mechanics of the recorder from other woodwind instruments?
PETRI: The recorder is the simplest of instruments—only eight finger holes, no mechanics—and the tone is shaped through blowing through a channel. There are very limited possibilities for dynamic changes.
MUSIC@MENLO: When was your recorder made?
PETRI: I play modern copies of old instruments and a modern “improved” version of the Baroque recorder, which has a slightly different bore, and therefore a different tone: more volume and more power, especially important when performing with modern symphony orchestras.
MUSIC@MENLO: You will be playing transcriptions of music by Tartini, Corelli, and Beethoven for violin. How does this music adapt to your instrument? What makes a piece idiomatic (or not) for the recorder?
PETRI: Yes, I do play many transcriptions. This, however, was a common practice in the Baroque era, and actually the transcription of Corelli’s La Folia is an old one, published in 1702. Transcribing from one wind instrument to another was not uncommon [during the Baroque period], as they more or less had the same range. However, transposing from violin to recorder, one sometimes had to alter some notes. The issue was when the violin played double-stops, playing more strings at the same time. From other transcriptions at that time, we know which techniques were used to make an effect of double-stops—playing very fast. For example, with one high note, five low, one high, five low, one high, etc., one could achieve the effect of two instruments playing, since the ear hears all high notes as one melody and all the low notes as another, simply because they are so far apart and everything is happening very fast.
MUSIC@MENLO: Is it a challenge to perform modern repertoire on your instrument?
PETRI: Any piece is a challenge, as each composer has his language that you need to understand. Often, different playing techniques are used—multiphonics (chords), singing and playing at the same time, glissandi (sliding from one note to another). It is also very rewarding doing modern music, realizing that things actually are possible on the recorder that one would not think possible.
MUSIC@MENLO: Speaking of modern repertoire, congratulations on the Grammy nomination of your Nightingale record with the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, which features new works for recorder and choir. How did these works and this recording come about?
PETRI: They all came about thanks to my ex-husband, and still musical partner of twenty-two years, Lars Hannibal. He manages to bring a constant source of ideas to reality, which has led to many things: Chinese Recorder Concertos being composed and recorded (Grammy nominated, Best Soloist), dreaming up and commissioning Spanish composer Joan Albert Amargós’s Northern Concerto (Grammy nominated, Best Classical Contemporary Composition), and his latest idea of commissioning Latvian composer Uģis Prauliņš’s The Nightingale—a wonderful work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale—for choir and recorder. This recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Choral Performance as well as Best Classical Contemporary Composition. This is just a fraction of Hannibal’s ideas, which I—having my focus on performing—benefit from very much!
MUSIC@MENLO: Are composers today actively writing for the recorder?
PETRI: Many composers are seeing the charm of the instrument, which I think is due to the fact that it is so “original” and “natural” in sound.
MUSIC@MENLO: Beyond the Baroque period, how extensive is the instrument’s repertoire?
PETRI: There is a gap between the Baroque and modern periods, but still quite a few works were composed in the meantime, especially from Mozart’s time in Vienna. Many discoveries are still being made from that time.
MUSIC@MENLO: Tell us what listeners can look forward to on your program this February.
PETRI: I am always hesitant to label people’s experiences, especially beforehand, but we intend to make an entertaining (in the best sense of the word) evening of mostly Baroque pieces and to showcase how varied music can be, even within a single time period. Many of the pieces will be quite virtuosic, and personally, I very much look forward to working alongside some great musicians.
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