Elinor Frey: Musician’s Heart, Cellist’s Soul

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

Cellist Elinor Frey lives and breathes music. So much so that this bold and industrious performer long ago stopped counting the hours she spent at fulfilling her childhood dreams. While classical musicians vie for secure postings in symphony orchestras, Frey is constantly on the move—be it on stage, in the classroom or in some academic library. Her activities on all those fronts enable her to pursue new projects all the time, some involving an element of risk. But it would be much riskier for her to just sit back, take it easy and ride on her successes.

Just Out on Analekta

In April 2022, Frey issued a new album on Analekta featuring Italian virtuoso baroque concertos played on instruments out of her private collection. One of these is a typical large-sized 17th-century cello tuned in fifths (C-G-D-A); another is a smaller German model from 1770, also in fifths but pitched like the violin (G-D-A-E). This unconventional tuning opens up a whole other facet of the repertoire and showcases her virtuosic abilities under a different guise.

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A case in point is the melismatic writing of the Concerto in C Major by Sammartini, its cello part bearing all the earmarks of a violin solo. Likewise for the two movements of sonatas by Tartini, originally composed for violin, yet easily adaptable to the smaller model by simply transposing the part downward by an octave. In keeping with period performance practices, when musicians made up their cadenzas, Frey wrote her own and challenged herself technically in each work, Tartini’s included. “The notes lay on the page in a certain way,” Frey says, “but I decided to do it my way by adding in the ornamentations (glisses and trills). Mind you, I still took my cues from the composer, but my purpose was to offer a version that was both interesting to play and appealing to my ears. I love playing baroque music, and one reason for that is how composers always allow performers to add their own things into the score.”

Studio Work

Elinor Frey is a stickler for perfection, especially in studio, where she is all ears. Proper intonation is paramount, and everything has to fall in place according to plan. Yet, she is realistic in that “things do come up where a change or an improvement is needed, and you have to reckon with that in spite of trying your darndest to be on top of it all.”

For the aforementioned record date, Frey was glad to do it in Calgary with the Rosa Barocca ensemble under the directon of Claude Lapalme, citing the participants’ willingness to adapt and work on all the minutiae. “I really appreciated the considerable investment they put into this project over the week I spent with them,” Frey notes. “This experience will stay with me, and the nice thing was, we all took it seriously, yet with faces smiling and a sense of lightheartedness.”

The flipside of that coin, however, is that Frey has become something of an insomniac with regards to her recording career, as was the case in this most recent date. Blessed with boundless energy and an unerring sense of dedication to her craft, Frey is up and at it from the moment she rises in the morning, her mind already looking ahead toward the next stepping stone.

Appetite For All Things Musical

When not hard at work practising or performing, Frey spends time combing through old history books. After having looked into the instrument’s musical practices in Paris in the mid-18th century, she is now in the midst of uncovering period repertoire. In March 2022, she was offered a research residency in Ghent, Belgium, at the Orpheus Institute. She seized the opportunity to sift through the rare books in its main library, which houses, among others, a collection of rarities once owned by the harpsichordist and organist Ton Koopman. While there, she recorded a second album of works by the Italian-Belgian composer Giuseppe Dall’Abaco (1710-1805), for issue on the Passacaille label that also released her highly lauded first album of this composer’s music—a disc that received a coveted Diapason d’Or rating last year in France’s leading classical music publication.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Frey is now poised to see the fruits of her recent research work come to bear. At this writing, she has slated a date in early October to record an album’s worth of period French music, in the idyllic setting of the Domaine Forget, north of Quebec City. She will take on a series of little-known works by Jean Baur (1719-1773), a harpist. This event will also serve as a launching pad for an organization spearheaded by Frey herself, the Accademia de’ Dissonanti. The mission behind this new initiative is to stage productions and performances of ¬chamber ensemble music concerts as an outlet for scholarly research. “I want to undertake projects of value for the area I work in,” says Frey. “In contrast, my first Analekta album (Guided by Voice, 2019) dealt with contemporary music, with more than a good share of pieces by Canadian composers.”

In that same vein, Frey is about to release a followup album of Canadian music for Analekta, this one in collaboration with fellow cellists Amanda Keesmaat and Andrea Stewart. The program includes a recorded première for three baroque cellos by Maxime McKinley, a work commissioned by Frey and made possible by a SOCAN grant, with added support from the city of Toronto. What’s more, without being too specific, Frey indicates she arranged for “a very good friend” of hers to commission another work for this album, a concerto written specifically for the smaller cello. Also in the works is a piece by British composer Christian Mason due for January 2024, the première slated in Belgium with one of its baroque ensembles (Il Gardellino). “I don’t want to disconnect myself from contemporary music,” says Frey, “because it is of our times and belongs to us.”

Passions Unleashed

Frey’s family environment was slanted toward older styles of music. While her parents were not musical, her aunt, Barbara Thornton, who was her first role model, was the principal voice of the medieval vocal ensemble Sequentia. “Through her, I realized that a career in music was possible,” Frey remembers, before recollecting another defining moment. “As a youngster, I attended a string-quartet performance: three men and one woman who played the cello. It just blew me away. Not only did I know on the spot that music would be my calling, but it was love at first sight with that instrument. In the beginning, I was just playing for the fun of it, and I’d spend my hour’s lesson in duets with my teacher. Having a twin sister, I felt the need to be more by myself, and music was the means to that end. But the funny thing is, I’m still pretty much like that now.” That said, there were still more surprises in store for the budding cellist, a number of which she would encounter after her formal training.

Italian Grand Tour

For many an artist yearning to build a career and fall under the spell of Renaissance masterpieces, trekking to Italy had long been a kind of passage obligé. Elinor Frey was one such person to enjoy that privilege when she first set sail to that country in 2009, an experience that proved to be a game-changer. “I was lucky enough to spend several months over there thanks to a grant from a Fulbright Foundation program,” she says. “I learned Italian and adapted to the daily beat, gradually holding my own in conversations. Fond as I was of architecture, I visited churches, and in my walks I would come across cellists playing in the street and engage with them. What with all the beauty around you, you cannot help but be inspired. I mean, how could one ever play a Sicilienne written in Venice without ever have seen a gondola?”

Frey’s twin love affairs with the cello and baroque music always went hand in hand with her elective affinities for history, yet the interconnections between them really dawned on her during that stay. To this day, that deep emotional bond she has with Italy remains, and each new visit brings her back to ground zero. “Bologna is a personal favourite of mine,” she notes. “To walk through the city core, then enter the San Petronio basilica and listen to it resonate; to look at its organ and imagine it played by Domenico Gabrielli, the first composer to have ever written a cello sonata—now that inspires me. I can just see myself there among the musicians of that era. I’m an avid reader, too; someone who likes to delve into the past, and who wonders about the sounds and techniques used back then. I then try to incorporate all those things into my playing and become part of that history. To be able to perform a piece appropriately, I have to have a grasp of the place it came from, and its overall historical context. Playing a piece just for the sake of nailing down all the right notes is of no interest to me.”

One decisive encounter Frey had during that first visit was with Marc Vanscheeuwijck, a baroque cellist and musicologist whom she considers to be her mentor. “Meeting him changed my life,” she says emphatically. “I always try to keep company with the best people and Marc is right there, at the head of the line. I paid him a first visit, asking him to teach me everything about the cello. I took notes, read books he recommended, and returned six months later. And now, 13 years later, the conversation continues unabated. After a while under his tutelage, he asked me to do things with him. I recently gave a master class in Brussels, where he teaches. He is a musicologist first and foremost, and not so much a performer as I am. I learned so much from him, for sure, but it’s important for me to follow a path of my choice, which is what led me to widen my own vision.

Work Ethic

“I really need others (in order) to do what I want,” says Frey. “I may have the talent, the will and the energy to go at it alone, but I also need to be part of a community. When I start something new, I spread the word, and let Marc know about it, too. There are colleagues of mine who are doers like me, who unearth things and ask questions about the instrument and its history, all for the purpose of moving forward and evolving. Let’s face it: you just can’t play the cello as it was played 50 years ago!”

Concert-goers can surely appreciate the fruits of her labours in performance and on record, but also in her work as a score editor and annotator, like those she prepared for new editions of works for cello by Giuseppe Dall’Abaco and Antonio Vivaldi. “That’s my offering to the world, and who I am,” Frey says.

The long view

Without forgoing any of her uncompromising work ethic, Frey plans to turn her sights on German music in the years to come. To further this upcoming pursuit of hers, Frey is now learning the language, allowing herself a slow but gradual immersion in that country’s culture and history. Somewhere down the road, in two or three years, she would like to record the Bach Cello Suites, her favourite composer next to Boccherini. “It’s a long and winding road,” she says. “I have to understand the language, spend time over there, play just about all of Bach’s music I can get my hands on and create a whole world around these suites—one that goes far beyond the notes. I want to reach a deeper level of understanding of the music’s rhythm and really internalize that.”

Next up?

Though Frey has no idea of what or where she will be in five years, she’ll simply follow her nose to wherever it takes her. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” she says. “No categories or labels, please, like being a specialist of a certain type of music presentation with recordings and scores attached to them. I don’t like identities cast in stone. You have to build one, obviously, but there comes a point where it just doesn’t wash anymore. To me, it’s a necessity to change and transform into something else in order to keep that sacred fire burning in you for music and art. Teaching has been a boon to me in this regard, be it online, private tutoring or in the classroom at McGill.”

Translation by Marc Chénard

Elinor Frey will be at the Festival Classica, in Saint-Lambert (June 12), at the Montreal Baroque Festival (June 24), at the Academy of Music Performance in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (June 27-July 3), at Concerts Lachine (July 16), at the Baroque Festival in Lamèque, New Brunswick (July 24-29) and at the Classical Spree organized by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (August 13).

www.elinorfrey.com, www.festivalclassica.com, www.analekta.com

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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About Author

Justin Bernard est détenteur d’un doctorat en musique de l’Université de Montréal. Ses recherches portent sur la médiation musicale, notamment par le biais des nouveaux outils numériques, ainsi que sur la relation entre opéra et cinéma. Membre de l’Observatoire interdisciplinaire de création et de recherche en musique (OICRM), il a réalisé une série de capsules vidéo éducatives pour l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Justin Bernard est également l’auteur de notes de programme pour le compte de la salle Bourgie du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal et chargé de cours à l’Université de Sherbrooke. Par ailleurs, il anime une émission d’opéra et une chronique musicale à Radio VM (91,3 FM).

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