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If It Ain't Baroqueƒ?Ý

Once again, the Chamber Music Society strings us along.

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Local music lovers fondly remember cellist Jim Wilson from his stint with the Shanghai Quartet and as a cello instructor and orchestra director at Virginia Commonwealth University. Now working in New York as a freelancer and teacher at Columbia University, Wilson still makes his yearly migratory jaunt to Richmond to shepherd the Richmond Festival of Music. 

Despite challenging economic times, the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia decided to expand rather than diminish the festival this year. Steered by passionate music connoisseurs, the society's Winter Baroque concert series — culminating in a concert of French baroque music at Wilton House on Dec. 10 — gives Richmonders the chance to hear baroque music as it was meant to be heard. The featured guest artist is Christina Day Martinson, concertmaster of Boston Baroque, one of the premier early music bands in the world. Carsten Schmidt, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, will supply the obligatory harpsichord underpinnings.

In the last few decades, baroque music has seen a shift toward more historically authentic performance practices, necessitating the use of instruments either from that time period or quality reproductions. The movement has gone well beyond merely swapping out the piano for harpsichord. Mary Boodell of the Richmond Symphony will switch to a wooden traverso flute for the concerts. Ulysses Kirksey, conductor of the Petersburg Symphony, will play on a six-stringed viola da gamba (which means, literally, leg viol).

As for Wilson, he still owns and plays on the instrument he has had since his college days at University of Michigan. As he delved further into authentic performance practice, he tried every trick in the book to make his playing sound more authentic — experimenting with his bow hold, tuning down the strings until, as he reminisces, “I finally thought, I just have to get a baroque cello.”

Tracking down these sorts of instruments can be an adventure in and of itself, like something out of “The Red Violin”— hastily packed suitcases, hurried dashes to the airport, treks to dusty violin dealer's lairs to hunt down a rare gem. When renowned early-music violinist Florian Deuter alerted Wilson to the existence of an early 18th-century English cello, Wilson scrambled for a plane ticket to Germany and brought the cello home. Classical musicians are not exactly rolling in the dough, so how could he afford to own two instruments?  Luckily for Wilson, his cello's provenance is unknown: “It doesn't have papers, so it's cheaper.” Like a dog? “It's a really strange cello,” he adds.

All baroque cellos will seem strange to modern eyes and ears. A baroque cello is set up differently than its modern counterpart — the bridge, the sound post, the strings, the tailpiece and tuning pegs. “These instruments are really onery,” Wilson notes. So many factors will make it go out of tune — bow pressure, bow speed. “It is very unforgiving,” he says.  The strings on a baroque instrument are made out of what Wilson euphemistically refers to as “natural animal material” Sorry vegans: That means unwrapped gut. The strings “feel like rubber bands.”

Local music aficionados may feel jilted at this year's Baroque series because Wilson will not be presenting a solo recital as he has in past years, but the December concerts (including a stopover in Staunton) will feature what he calls “cool” cello music, including a work by Gabrielli, one of the first pieces of music ever composed for unaccompanied cello.

Baroque music is especially enticing to the accomplished cellist. Wilson rhapsodizes about “the touch on the strings. I like the fact that you can't play very loud; I love the aesthetic of it, the ring of the notes.” 

Even with the inherent difficulties of playing on difficult instruments, Wilson says it's worth the trouble. “I want to keep playing more and more of the period music,” he says. “I find the music the sound and the feel of it is incredibly alluring.”

Baroque FranAais at Wilton, part of the 2010 Richmond Festival of Music, will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 10 at the Wilton House, 215 S. Wilton Road. Tickets are $50, which includes a dessert reception following the concert. For information, call 519-2098.

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