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Viola da gamba players are a special breed — a tiny subset in the already small world of early classical music. They rarely meet their own kind, but once a year, they come together for a week in July at an annual jam session they call a conclave. Wendy Gillespie, who just finished her term as president of the Viola da Gamba Society of America, says attending the event is the highlight of her year.
"You meet your fellow Martians," Gillespie says. "It's your opportunity of the year to get together with the people that you see once a year and meet the kindred spirits, to whom this music, for some reason — and we don't even know why, it's not worth analyzing — it speaks to us. And we need to do it."
One reason could be the beautiful music they play on beautiful instruments, some of which feature delicate carvings and inlaid wood. The viola da gamba, also known as a viol, was born towards the end of the 15th century in Spain, says Sarah Mead, an associate professor of music at Brandeis University.
"We tend to be familiar with the violin family," Mead says, "but the viola da gamba was the bowed version of the guitar, which developed into the instrument of the upper classes and, eventually, of the middle classes — the instrument that people could play together socially in the evenings, but that also could be excelled upon by virtuosi."
Like modern string instruments, the viola da gamba comes in several sizes. But unlike them, most have six strings, says instrument maker John Pringle.
"They're all played, like the cello, between the knees — even the little one — and they have frets, like a guitar," Pringle says. "So they are very accessible to amateur players."
Talk to any viola da gamba player and when you ask what drew them to the instrument, for most, the answer sounds like finding true love. Alice Renken, of San Diego, was studying to be a professional singer when she first heard, and then picked up, a viol in 1967, at college.
"I maintain that all violas da gamba, of any size, have little invisible arms that are hinged the other way from ours," Renken says. "The first time you put one in your lap, it reaches around you and grabs on and it never lets go. Once you've tried it, you can't stop."
For Renken and other conclave participants, it's truly a lifetime commitment – this year's gathering featured players from age 15 to 92. Sarah Mead says one of the biggest draws is the opportunity to play 17th-and-18th-century consort music — music for two to eight players — in polyphony.
"One of the wonderful things about polyphony — that is, music where the parts are both independent and interdependent — is that it reflects the human condition of conversation, discussion, argument and all the things that a small group of people might do at a dinner party," Mead says.
At the conclave, those little musical dinner parties go on until the wee hours of the morning, fueled by wine, munchies and camaraderie.
Like any other true believers, viol players are constantly looking for new recruits. Eventually, even I got roped into playing — well, one note, anyway, a C on an open string. Phillip Serna, who teaches at Valparaiso University, put a tenor gamba in my lap and taught me how to use the bow. It's played underhand and held kind of like a chopstick.
The conclave featured lectures, demonstrations and an opportunity to play vintage instruments. In celebration of the event's 50th anniversary, all 300 participants, amateur and professional, gathered to play Sarah Mead's arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
Marie Szuts, incoming president of the Viola da Gamba Society, says there's never been a better time to play the instrument.
"There have never been 300 gamba players in the same place in the history of the world, we think," Szuts says. "The fact that we are all in one place and, you know, have our instruments with us, we wanted to have a giant consort: something where we could all play together."