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Confessions of a Baroque Violinist in Waiting

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Q&A With Monica Huggett

Violinist Monica Huggett has performed and recorded with myriad historically informed and modern groups in her 30-year career. Last year she inaugurated the new Historical Performance program as its first artistic director. Over tea and biscuits, she and Historical Performance student Luke Conklin discussed her background, her work at Juilliard, and the relevance of historical performance today.

Monica Huggett is the artistic director of the Historical Performance program, which opened its doors in September 2009.

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 Why did you choose historical performance as your focus?

I always felt as if I was a Baroque violinist in waiting. There is something about my sensibility and the scale on which I like to play. I never liked to play very, very loud. People were always complaining they couldn’t hear me, [but] I found when I went to gut strings, the way I played was perfectly fine. Also, I always wanted to make a lot of phrasing and do a lot of nuance. I don’t know whether that was because I liked to listen to a lot of pop music or rock music or jazz. When I came to historical performance and the Baroque violin, it was [like] coming home.

When I was a student, if you didn’t want to go with the established music making, you either played new music or old music. Those were the two kind of anti-establishment things, so I played both. Chris Hogwood started the Academy of Ancient Music in 1972, and I think I played on the [group’s] first record when I was 19. It was a little bit like an ongoing seminar in those days. We would get together to make records and everybody would swap ideas on all the latest developments. It was quite exciting. 

What are your duties as artistic director of the Historical Performance department? 

I have to design quite a lot of programs for student and faculty concerts. Also, I have to try to design a course that benefits each individual student. It’s all about identifying their strengths and weaknesses and helping them find repertoire that develops the sides of their playing that aren’t so developed. Then I have to do a bit of schmoozing, and I also have to field a lot of e-mails. I have to make the audition requirements, the jury requirements, and I direct the orchestra when I’m here.

In October, Juilliard Baroque, the resident faculty ensemble, performed a highly successful concert of early Classical music. Is this a direction you hope to continue with? 

Yes. On January 30 we will we use the students as well and we are going to do a program of sinfonia concertantes.

Will concerts combining faculty and students like this continue to be a tradition in the Juilliard Historical Performance department? 

Yes. It gives us more possibilities and it’s good for the students, too. In a way it’s an apprenticeship.

What do you feel is crucial for students in the Historical Performance program to learn at Juilliard? 

Reading figured bass. Also, having a fairly clear idea of historical trends in each of the main language groups: German-speaking, French-speaking, Italian-speaking, and English-speaking. Once you’ve got those four, you can identify the style of the piece you’re working on and it gives you a bit of a basis on which to build when you’re tackling a new piece. Also, being perfectly happy to play in quite a large ensemble without a conductor.

What are some of the best aspects of being the director of the program?

One of the best things is working with talented students. It makes a huge difference. What I didn’t realize before taking the job is the amount of creative work in arranging ensembles [and] programming the orchestra. That’s really very exciting because it’s a bigger orchestra than I usually get to work with, so it’s nice to be able to do bigger repertoire.

Why is it important for a school like Juilliard to offer historical performance?

Well, I think it’s important for Juilliard for two reasons: one, it’s becoming a very important source of work. In Europe it is part of the establishment. Certainly in my hometown, London, it’s very much part of the establishment. Baroque music is played by specialists. You’ve got to have specialists. People don’t want to hear it on modern instruments. And the other thing is that it’s like osmosis: It has a trickle effect on modern instruments and slightly dents those rigid walls of modern thinking—and it encourages the modern players to expand their horizons and experiment. An art form that doesn’t develop is moribund. Classical music is sometimes in danger of becoming moribund, and I think the whole historical-performance movement is a very good thing because it kind of threw a grenade: it messed up the status quo a bit and in a way that’s a good thing.

Last year, you helped inaugurate the Historical Performance program with a performance of Biber at the 2009 Convocation. What were some of the reactions to this repertoire that is so rarely heard at Juilliard?

I got very good feedback from actors and dancers and also from people like Romantic pianists. It seems to have inspired and surprised a lot of people. They didn’t realize it would be so lively. I think that people had decided that historical performance was kind of dry and a bunch of old fogies and they were really surprised that it was something so visceral and alive. I [told the audience that] part of the Biber sonata reminded me of “House of the Rising Sun.” Music from the 17th century is often much closer to folk music and therefore in some ways related to rock music. It’s very simple and it’s very gutsy. It’s almost rustic. I’ve often said that I would have been a good rock guitarist. I would have quite liked to have been a rock guitarist, actually.

 —Interview conducted by Luke Conklin, a second-year M.A. candidate in Historical Performance who studies Baroque oboe with Gonzalo Ruiz and Baroque flute with Sandra Miller.

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