Filipa Meneses (viola da gamba) is in Goa in advance of her concert with Hugo Vasco Reis (Portuguese guitar) on 1 October 2013 at Menezes Braganza hall, Panjim. She spoke to the Navhind Times about her love affair with her instrument in an exclusive interview.
Perhaps it was predestined that someone with a name like Filipa (derived originally from the Greek philos + hippo, meaning “lover of horses”) should be inexorably drawn to a bowed instrument (with the bow-hair derived from horses’ tails). But the story of the spell cast by the viola da gamba on Filipa Meneses is a compelling one.
She began at the early age of five to study piano, and graduated in 2008 as a concert pianist at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts of Porto (ESMAE), having studied there with Madalena Soveral.
But the 1991 French film “Tous les Matins du Monde” based on the life of 17th century composer Marin Marais (1656-1728), with Gérard Depardieu as Marais, was life-changing. The soundtrack had music played by the noted viola da gamba exponent Jordi Savall. Filipa was bowled over by the instrument she saw and heard. “I didn’t know what it was, at that time”, she reminisces. The following year, aged 14, she signed up to study cello, while still continuing her piano studies.
The next watershed moment came when Filipa met her current teacher Mieneke Van der Velden, quite by accident, or serendipity, as you prefer. She was a student at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. “I had come to the conservatory one day to do some regular practice, but the practice rooms were off-limits that day, so I was actually quite irritated by that. So I decided to pass the time by visiting the Early Music centre. And that’s where I heard Van der Velden play for the first time.” She went home and began listening to music from the repertoire of the viola da gamba, and knew that this was the instrument for her. She nevertheless completed her pianistic studies, and then took up the viola da gamba.
Does she feel the viola da gamba repertoire is limited, as the instrument went out of ‘fashion’ after a while? “Actually, no”, says Filipa firmly. “If you think about the music written expressly for the modern piano, for example, it begins in the 18th century until now, whereas the viola da gamba repertoire extends from the 16th through to the 18th centuries. It’s just that you have to do the research to find it.”
She plays in several ensembles, among them Músicos do Tejo, Flores de Música and Capela Compostelana. In 2010 she created the ensemble L’Antico Affetto and in 2011 the Ensemble Heptachordum which won the Young Musicians Prize in Portugal and performed live on national radio and television.
She has performed in lavish productions of period operas such as Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, and André Cardinal Destouches’ 1703 opera , Le Carnaval et La Folie at the Centro Cultural de Belém
“The viola da gamba is related to the guitar. In medieval times, you had the viola da braccio, and the viheula de mano (which was very much like a guitar), and then the viola da gamba. “A princess in the Italian court of Ferrara loved to play the lute, and asked her luthier to fashion an instrument that could be played seated, and bowed, in order to sustain the notes.”
Unlike the usual bowed instruments (the violin family) which are tuned in intervals of fifths, the viola da gamba has another similarity with the guitar in that it is tuned largely in fourths. “So it is like a guitar harmonically, but with the benefits of a bowed instrument”, she explains.
We talk about her concert at Menezes Braganza Hall Panjim on 1 October 2013 (entry passes available at Fundação Oriente Fontainhas), along with Hugo Vasco Reis, Portuguese guitar.
“Our concert has a solo work for viola da gamba by Marin Marais (the same composer profiled in ‘Tous les Matins’); ‘Le Badinage’, a movement from his ‘Suite d’un gout Estranger’ from his 4th Book. We also play a selection of works by Carlos Paredes (1925-2004). These are Canções from a genre of music called guitarradas. The sonatas by Carlos Seixas (1704-1742) were written for harpsichord, so we have transcribed the right-hand part for Portuguese guitar and the left-hand part for viola da gamba. We also play a composition by Pedro Caldeira Cabral (1950-), who himself plays viola da gamba.”
“After immersing myself in Romantic and contemporary music as a concert pianist, it is really interesting to explore the Early and Baroque music repertoire through viola da gamba!”
Filipa is passionate about social change through music and would like to devote some of her career to music education.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 29 September 2013)