(No) strings attached

Richard Boothby, a founding member of the Fretwork viol consort, finds freedom in playing early music.

Richard Boothby 88 248 (photo credit: Edward Webb)
Richard Boothby 88 248
(photo credit: Edward Webb)
Answers don't get much better than this: When Fretwork founding member Richard Boothby is asked what got him hooked on early music, he replies via e-mail, "The being inside something very complex, yet very sensuous; the furry, purry satisfaction of the sound; the unusual, yet so-satisfying music." And "the great thing about music pre-Mozart is the freedom it gives the performer," and because there are rarely specific instructions on how to play, "it leads to many possibilities." Boothby and his five Fretwork colleagues, together with mezzo-soprano Claire Wilkinson, will give an all-Purcell/Bach concert during the Israel Festival on June 2 in honor of the 350th anniversary of Purcell's birth. The Bach is "to vary the program a little," while still within the consort's compass. A fret is the raised bar along the neck of the viol family (stringed instruments that predate the modern violin), hence the name Fretwork - the viol consort Boothby helped found in 1986. Its repertoire hinges mainly on music from the Renaissance period, but Fretwork also commissions contemporary music. "The contemporary music we play is vital to the group and to the viol," writes Boothby, "because playing only early music "doesn't stretch the technique of the instrument at all - it's on the whole remarkably vocal in nature. That's another reason why contemporary music is essential for us, to stretch the group both individually and as an ensemble." Boothby's favorite to date is a recent CD called Birds on Fire: Jewish Music for Viols; besides contemporary composer Orlando Gough's title piece, it contains music by the Italian-Jewish composers from the Bassano-Lupo families who came to work at the court of Henry VIII in 1540. Gough's three-part piece is itself based on Aharon Appelfeld's novel Badenheim 39, which is "technically very demanding for each player, and then particularly challenging for the whole ensemble." BOOTHBY WELCOMES a challenge. He grew up in South Wales, in a home where classical music was no more than "a mild interest." His own interest in music was fired at school and "I had no problem in my mind liking Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Beethoven - I saw no conflict between them." In those days, he played the cello. He studied music at Manchester University, was an avid Wagnerian and wrote his final thesis on the Ring cycle. This ambitious project led to tutoring by musicologist David Fallows who had bought a set of viols for the department "and handed me one, knowing I played the cello, and asked me to have a go. Very soon I was hooked, and by the end of my final year, I organized a lunchtime concert which had [Wagner's] Siegfried Idyll in the first part, and Byrd (1540-1623) consort music in the second." Boothby won a coveted scholarship to study with early music pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Salzburg, "which was life-changing," and helped determine the way forward. In 1984 he was a founding member of the Purcell Quartet, with which he still plays, and then in 1986 came Fretwork. Boothby plays the viola da gamba and the baroque cello. While the others in the consort are also involved, "I do most of the programming and research into it. We find [the music] in libraries all over the world, though the UK is particularly rich in its own indigenous music." This is how the music by the 16th century Italian-Jewish composers was found, and also "one piece we play again and again is 'In Nomine' (In the Name of) by Picforth - nothing is known of him, not even his first name." His music, written 400 years ago, has an oddly contemporary sound. Fretwork has some 30 recordings, and Boothby's performing calendar includes many solo recitals; he has even turned his hand to directing, such as a Monteverdi L'Orfeo in 2001. He also teaches, saying with passion that he has only a few students. He says they "all need to ask themselves why they play and what they want to achieve by playing - almost none of them have asked these questions, let alone answered them." For Boothby, "music is a meditation, a secular prayer; something that adds unsuspected depth to the experience of life; it's a social gathering where some make the sounds and others absorb them, but where both create the experience… It's a reminder of who you are and why you exist." Answers don't get much better than this.