Our upcoming February project, The Marchesa, is a collaboration with Philadelphia-based wind band Piffaro. Like the Newberry Consort, (founded 1986), Piffaro is one of the longest running, most successful early music ensembles in North America. What began in 1980 as a passion project for five intrepid musicians at the University of Pennsylvania has blossomed into a thriving and dynamic Renaissance wind band. Piffaro hosts a wildly popular annual concert series in Philadelphia and tours frequently in the United States, Europe, Canada and South America. Its members appear as performers and instructors at major Early Music festivals the world over.
Initially, says Piffaro artistic co-director and founder Joan Kimball, creating Piffaro was a way for them to “spend more time exploring the possibilities of early double reeds – shawms and dulcians. Not many people were playing those instruments at that time, especially in the States, and the only copies readily available were those coming out of the Moeck/Steinkopf workshop in Germany. We made them work somehow, figured out their capabilities despite their limitations and how to make reeds for them.”
Over the next decade, their instrumentarium expanded as they were able to purchase more authentic copies of shawms and dulcians and an ever-increasing number of other instruments, including bagpipes, sackbuts, and dulcians. It’s this massive library of diverse period wind and brass instruments that enables Piffaro to explore such a wide range of colors and sonic effects in their concerts and collaborations.
We can’t wait to hear Piffaro’s “loud band” join with Ellen Hargis, soprano, and a violin band of Consort musicians to perform songs from Isabella d’Este’s Renaissance court! But before Piffaro travels to Chicago with at least 25(!) instruments in tow, we want you to get to know them a little better. To that end, we spoke with one of Piffaro’s artistic co-directors, Joan Kimball, about her musical life, Piffaro’s unique mission, and her love of recorders. Read on to learn more and don’t forget to buy your tickets to The Marchesa, coming up February 7-9th!
NC: Joan, can you tell us a bit about the Renaissance wind band tradition?
JK: The bands became an important instrumental ensemble in the late medieval period, and the players were some of the most highly respected professional musicians of the day. Called the Alta Capella (meaning loud or high choir), they consisted of two or three players on shawms and slide trumpets. Sackbuts replaced the slide trumpets by the early part of the 16thcentury, the dulcian (ancestor of the bassoon) was added as the bass instrument of the ensemble, and later, cornettos were also frequently included in the mix. By the end of the 16th century their numbers could reach as high as 6 or 8, depending on the wealth of the court, cathedral or city who hired them. It was written that “it was the band’s duty to provide music for feasts, dances, and public and private entertainments.” They were also a part of the musical establishment in churches and cathedrals.
NC: Many of the musicians who perform with Piffaro are multi-instrumentalists. This is perhaps relatively more common in the “early music realm” but remains a rarity in the classical music world more broadly. What does having so many multi-instrumentalists enable you to do, programming-wise?
JK: Yes, we’re all multi-instrumentalists, although all of us do tend to favor and specialize in one or the other of them. The joy of this is the great variety of sound color that we can utilize in our concert programs. I think our audiences really appreciate the different effects we achieve by playing a beautiful chanson on a consort of low recorders at one moment, a stirring brass and reeds motet at another, ending with a rousing dance on bagpipes, guitar and percussion.
NC: What initially drew you to wind instruments more generally and/or Renaissance winds more specifically? Was it a passion from a very young age?
JK: For me personally, I started with the recorder at the age of 8, teaching myself how to play and how to read music. While I played piano and sang all through my teen years, I came back to the recorder as an adult, started taking lessons and taking it more seriously. I always have loved Renaissance music, and when I had the opportunity to join the Collegium at Penn, I jumped at the chance. It was there that I branched out into the double reeds – krumhorns and then shawms.
NC: It seems that Piffaro does a lot of collaborations with other early music ensembles throughout North America. What excites you about these projects? What are the challenges?
JK: Well, if you can take all of our many wind instruments, and add to them strings and voices, then it is indeed a wondrous and joyful collaboration! It gives us the opportunity to expand the repertoire that we can program, and with singers, to give words to all the vocal music that we play so often. I guess the challenges are more about logistics – can we find a time in our busy schedules when all the members of our respective ensembles are free, and can we find the funds to pay for that many more players! Our audiences in Philadelphia, while they love hearing Piffaro by itself, are always thrilled to hear our collaborative programs.
NC: What are you looking forward to about The Marchesa collaboration specifically?
JK: We have worked with David and Ellen a number of times over the years, and always love putting our winds and strings and voices together in creative programs. This one in particular intrigues us for the connection with the Ferrarese court and the Marchese herself. We have performed music from this court in the past, using as source material a collection of music written out specifically for the court wind players, some of which will be on this program, but we are excited to hear Ellen and the strings perform some of the songs that were so important to Isabella.
NC: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself? Do you have many non-musical hobbies? Is there an instrument you don’t (currently) play that you wish you could?
JK: I think I have enough instruments to deal with, thank you very much! Seriously, I’ve always been attracted to wind instruments (I wanted very badly to learn flute as a young person instead of piano, but my mother thought that the latter would be a more “useful” instrument for me to know!), and while I admire string players, have never felt the desire to learn one.
Other pursuits? Biking, running, gardening, and helping my colleague and partner Bob on his many house renovation projects.