”HIP gives every piece of music a chance to speak for itself”

Violinist Raymond Cox ended up in Finland by ”a fantastic combination of luck, convenience and opportunity”, found the violin teacher of his life and now works as the concertmaster of the Kymi Sinfonietta bringing early music repertoire into the orchestra as much as he can. ”With a little extra work, it’s impressive how well ’modern’ musicians can sound like a baroque band.” In this blog post he tells how and why he got hooked to historically informed performance practice.

Hello, my name is Raymond, and I’m only here for the music.

I understand that my presence in Kotka, where I live and work as a classical musician might need some explanation, so here goes.

I was born in the United States (Idaho, to be exact) and was raised in Washington (not that one, the other one on the Pacific). My home for most of my childhood was Spokane, a town I was all too happy to leave the first opportunity I found. During high school I enrolled in an exchange program and spent a year in, you guessed it, Finland.

(Now, there are a lot of things to like about Finland at first glance. For one, trees. You have a lot of them. And while this has nothing to do with music, it is very enjoyable.)

I arrived in Finland about 20 years ago, and I liked it enough to stay here and keep studying. I should probably stress that I had no grand strategy in mind, and my decision to remain in Finland was a fantastic combination of luck, convenience and opportunity.

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It didn’t take long before I changed my perspective. I soon found a violin teacher in Turku who thought enough of me to take me into his class. This teacher is Alexander Vinnitzki, and he remains to this day, the best thing that ever happened to my violin playing, and my career as a whole. His honesty, dedication, and intelligence brought out the very best in my work, and I cannot thank him enough for the time he devoted to my education.

Soon enough, I was studying in the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and having to consider my future career more seriously than before. Frustrated by the limitations I felt within the school system, and unsure of the job opportunities that awaited out in the real world, I began to audition for orchestras in Finland. And to my great fortune, I was able to find a home with Kymi Sinfonietta.

Once I finally understood that I had secure employment with an orchestra, my perspective changed again, and for the better. As a concertmaster, I have a voice to some degree in what the orchestra plays (not to mention how the orchestra plays), and as you can imagine, that leaves some room for creativity. Even when the job itself becomes exhausting, I can always look forward to projects that I had a hand in shaping, and for that, I am truly grateful.

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Perhaps it would be good to take a step back and explain why any of this relates to old music.

As of this moment, I’m most at home studying and playing pieces that are a fair 300 years old or even much more, but that wasn’t always the case. Like any violinist, I cut my teeth on Bach from an early age, but the larger period of art from which he came was virtually unknown to me. And like many violinists, I fell into the habit of idolising many of the great 20th century virtuosos and desperately tried to model my own playing off of their recordings.

By the time I had reached adulthood, I was only vaguely aware of the “historically informed” movement and even heard of a baroque orchestra or two. But I am ashamed to say that I was downright dismissive of the entire idea, and thought little of it. This attitude was not only wrong, it was unsustainable; and before I knew it, I found myself drifting in the “historical” direction.

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Early encounters with old music specialists were not pleasant. I still remember being confused and defensive when a distinguished conductor of old music berated a student orchestra I was playing in for excessive use of vibrato. I’m afraid that what really began to change my attitude was something quite simple: the recordings.

My curiosity would lead me into music libraries to see what “period ensembles” had been doing with the standard repertoire of late baroque and classical periods. I couldn’t begin to count the number of hours I spent listening to CDs. And to be honest, there was no going back from that point. Whether it was Franz Brüggen conducting Schubert or Haydn, John Eliot Gardiner conducting Händel, or my favourite of all, Jordi Savall conducting, really, anything at all, I was hooked.

I think that those of you reading this do not need any explanation about why old music is exceptionally good, or why historical performance practices are important and make so much difference. But perhaps it would help to say that from an outsider’s standing, it was the honest, direct, organic quality of the historical movement that appealed to me the most.

Of course, the more I applied these ideas to my own playing, the more I began to butt heads with a number of professors and teachers in school. It may not surprise anyone to say that, even now, HIP is not welcome in every classroom. Rather than focus on the negative side, though, I should point out that those teachers who embraced the ideas (whether they were specialists themselves or not) also exposed to me their greatest qualities. As educators, they encouraged critical thinking, creativity, and experimentation.

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The most critical moment that changed my course was the invaluable opportunity to take masterclasses in chamber music with the pianist Malcolm Bilson. A few simple questions and comments from him over the course of a week broke down the last of my resistance to performance practice. To be honest, the music never sounded so clear in my head. As complicated as historical performance could get, I still finally accepted why it should be done, and why the “modern” school of violin playing was not able to raise every kind of music up to the level it deserved.

And here’s where I repeat the same, tired old arguments that have been used for decades, and you all know by heart, but they bare repeating anyways: there is no reason why Bach should sound like Brahms; there is no reason why Corelli should sound like Tchaikovsky; we do ourselves a great injustice when we forget context, and rather than trade one dogma for another HIP gives every piece of music a chance to speak for itself.

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So, going back to my current situation, I am working to include as much old music in our orchestra’s seasonal programs as they’ll let me get away with. The audience here should not be underestimated – with an imaginative program, they really do appreciate old music, no matter how obscure. We have been fortunate enough to have a small number of singers and instrumentalists from other parts of Finland (and abroad) join us in baroque and classical projects that have a historical approach.

We do not have the resources to match a true period ensemble. Compromises have to be made, but while that can be frustrating along the way, the orchestra works very hard to maintain the same spirit as anyone else equipped with authentic instruments. With a little extra work, it’s impressive how well “modern” musicians can sound like a baroque band. And it gives me great pride to see an old music project successfully performed by our players for a warm and engaged audience. Even more so when I know the program is full of the craziness one could only call “baroque”.

I still enjoy being a versatile musician. I don’t mind the metal strings. (I could care less for the 442 tuning, though). It’s fun trying out a new piece from a living composer. I am happy playing Ravel or Shostakovich. But I’m happier when I know that I can return to Rameau or Purcell afterwards.

Raymond Cox