Interview with Ryaan Ahmed

Newberry Consort Young Artist Mentorship Program Participant

We sat down with Ryaan Ahmed, our first participant in Newberry Consort’s Young Artist Mentorship Program. Here’s what he had to say about playing theorbo and his upcoming experience working with our early music mentors.

  1. Have you played this rep before?No — this is my first time playing Rosenmüller. I’m looking forward to exploring this music with such a wonderful group of musicians!
  1. What’s special about the combination of organ and theorbo?The organ and theorbo have a wonderful symbiotic relationship in the continuo group. The strength of the theorbo in this pairing is that it can shape the bass line with a greater variety of dynamics and articulations than are possible on the organ. The organ, on the other hand, provides a rich, full sound and a sustain that the theorbo lacks. When the two are completely locked in together, the effect is magical. You get the best of both worlds: the theorbo provides the front end of the sound, and the organ provides the bloom. The resulting sound evades description: it’s somehow at the same time rich but transparent; capable of great weight but also agile.This is an effect that musicians in the 17th century knew well; in fact, we have documentation of these two instruments being used together from the very beginning of the Baroque period. Monteverdi, for example, explicitly calls for theorbo and organ together as the continuo group for of some of the most moving moments in Orfeo, including the lament “Tu se’ morta” and the show stopping “Possente spirto.”
  1. How many young people are going into the field of early music, and what do they need to succeed?I feel a growing wave of interest in historical performance practice, and it extends beyond the musicians who specialize in this field. In graduate school at Eastman, I met many peers in mainstream classical performance who are curious about early music and especially about learning to play the music of the the late Baroque—e.g., Bach, Vivaldi, Handel— in a historically informed way. I think it’s also clear that there are many talented young performers entering the early music scene.What does it take to succeed? I wish someone would tell me! Music is hard: both making music and building a career in this field require a tremendous amount of hard work and discipline, building two separate sets of skills, both of which are essential for success. We live in a time in which culture and the ways that people consume culture are changing rapidly, in large part thanks to the Internet. I think it’s important for young performers to be open-minded and to experiment with new ways of getting our work out into the world.
  1. In what ways has being mentored by professionals helped you?I have the great fortune to have wonderful mentors in early music, including Ellen and David who invited me to Chicago to take part in this exciting project! Experienced professionals in this field have been so generous in helping me out in the early stages of my career, both as a student and now as a young professional. The ways in which they’ve helped me are innumerable, but I’ll try and list a few.In music there’s the central student-teacher relationship, and all of my main lute teachers—Paul O’Dette, Pat O’Brien, and Doug Freundlich—have given me valuable tools of technique and craft that I use daily in my work. I’ve also had opportunities to work as an assistant for a few festivals and workshops, including at the Boston Early Music Festival and at Ellen’s Baroque Vocal Programme at Early Music Vancouver.
    In those contexts, I’ve learned so much by being around experienced musicians and watching them work. This concert presents a different kind of mentorship: actually playing with my mentors and keeping up with them in rehearsal and onstage will, I’m sure, push me to reach new levels of artistry and craft in my own work. Finally, there’s a whole host of intangible lessons about how to build a good life in this crazy field of music that I’ve learned that by being around successful artists and from personal conversations and advice. I can’t overstate how important mentorship has been to me in my development as a musician: I’ve benefitted tremendously from the guidance of many people that I’ve met along the way.
  1. What made you go into the field of early music originally?During my freshman year of college, a few things came together all at once. I was singing in the Harvard Glee Club, which performed a lot of Renaissance music, and I had the opportunity to sing in a small one-on-a-voice ensemble doing the music of Johannes Ockeghem, which completely blew my mind. At that point, I had also been playing guitar for a while, but I came from playing in rock bands, not classical guitar.At the end of that year, I saw a group of students perform two oratorios by Giacomo Carissimi: Jephte and Jonas. It was the first time I had heard 17th century concerted music live, and I was captivated by the interaction between singers, string players, and the continuo group. At the end of that show, I introduced myself to the theorbist, Doug Freundlich, who lent me my first Renaissance lute and became my first lute teacher and mentor in this field.It all happened pretty quickly after that: within six months I had played in my first opera pit and in a baroque orchestra concert, and I soon bought a theorbo and started playing around the Boston Area. By the time I graduated from college (with a degree in Computer Science, of all things!), I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to performing early music.

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