Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Self-taught, going for baroque

Visiting Italian Violinst Stefano Montanari.

Man in black: Stefano Montanari. Photo: Ben Rushton

When Stefano Montanari was young he hated baroque music. It was always Bach, Handel and endless bad performances of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. He played the piano and dreamed of playing the trumpet. Two things changed his mind: the gift of a violin from his uncle and hearing the Accademia Bizantina, an early music ensemble based in Ravenna, Italy.

''It was so strange, so interesting, very different. And I discovered it was my music. It was the beginning of my life,'' he said.

Twenty-five years later, Montanari is Italy's leading baroque violinist. He is the principal first violin of the band that first inspired him, Accademia Bizantina, and directs his own ensemble, L'Estravagante. He is in demand as a guest conductor and soloist and his recording last year, O Solitude (with countertenor Andreas Scholl), was nominated for a Grammy. He also conducts opera, most recently Mozart's The Magic Flute with Lyon Opera. And he is in Sydney.

He is dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans and biker boots, wears several chunky rings and a leather wristband, with spikes. You half expect to see a packet of smokes tucked into his T-shirt sleeve. It is hard to imagine him as a world expert in 17th- and 18th-century violin music. But Montanari is charmingly blase about his work.


''It's my job,'' he said. ''It's not so strange. It's just a different language and with it we can speak about you and me. Whether you play Mozart or 19th-century music - Brahms, Schubert - it's the same. It's just a different language. La musica internationale.''

Montanari does not play a Stradivarius. ''Come on! Too expensive.'' His violin is a Hendrik Jacobsz made in Amsterdam in 1680 that used to belong to the French poet Alfred de Musset.

In an area of classical music that is almost cluttered with scholarship, he describes himself as an autodidact, teaching himself baroque violin technique while working as an orchestral player in Milan.

''I didn't have any money to study overseas. And I love to do everything myself,'' he said.

His approach has obviously been successful because he is now in demand as a teacher and has been commissioned to write a book on baroque violin technique.

Montanari makes his Australian debut as guest director of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, leading the orchestra and performing concertos by Veracini, Geminiani and others in Sydney and Melbourne.

He has only been in the country for two days but he has begun rehearsals and Bianca Porcheddu, violinist and Brandenburg regular, is already a big fan. ''His bowing is so divine,'' she said. ''There's so much for us to learn.''

Montanari grimaces at the compliment and threatens to pour coffee over Porcheddu's head. And with that it is time to go and play music.

Stefano Montanari and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra perform ''Celebrazione!'' at City Recital Hall, July 17, 19, 20, 24 and 26.

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