Interview with the 2015 Jeffrey Thomas Award recipient, Gretchen Claassen

If you attend live music events around the Bay Area, chances are you have heard Gretchen Claassen perform on either modern or baroque cello. Her musical interests and outstanding musicianship have landed her in ensembles across a broad musical spectrum from Renaissance music to contemporary idioms: classical, avant-garde, and popular. Her enterprising versatility is one of the many attributes that gained her the 2015 Jeffrey Thomas Award. Another is that she is a fine performer of remarkable promise within the field of early music performance. Ms. Claassen will be featured during ABS’s next concerts, Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo (May 1-4) as the soloist in Leonardo Leo’s Violoncello Concerto in A Major. We asked her about the Leo concerto and her many musical pursuits.

Gretchen Claassen

Gretchen Claassen

Leonardo Leo is perhaps not as familiar a composer for some ABS concertgoers. What drew you to Leo and the A Major violoncello concerto?

When I first heard this concerto I was immediately struck by the warmth and graciousness of it’s opening and thought I can’t wait to play this! It has a beautiful and dramatic slow movement and the fast movements are quite spirited, offering some delightful interplay between the solo cello and violin. It’s really a very charming piece.

You are a very active musician in the Bay Area and perform in a variety of styles. Would you recount some of the groups you have played with over the past year and what music you have most enjoyed performing?

The past year has been so much fun and filled with new experiences. Some of the highlights include concerts at the Presidio Sessions and Mission Blue with MUSA, a group I co-founded with fellow ABS Academy Alumni, and a month-long American Music Abroad tour to Russia, Hungary, and Serbia with the Cello Street Quartet and singer Matt Alber. Just last month I was involved in the revival of the 1662 Venetian opera La Cleopatra by Castrovillari with Ars Minerva. I also became involved with the conductor-less chamber orchestra One Found Sound and had a chance to play some Ravel and Shostakovich again. And of course one of the highlights of every year for me is playing Messiah with ABS, which was made even more memorable this year with the addition of the recording and video project.

Are there challenges involved with alternating between modern cello and a baroque violoncello?

Yes, and they seem to change all the time! For the first couple of years I was learning baroque cello, I felt I had no idea what might come out of the instrument when I started to play. Everything was up for grabs – intonation, articulation, even how to hold the instrument itself was a mystery. As I practiced, performed and became comfortable with it, I noticed that it was harder and harder to go back to modern cello and feel the old sense of ease. But all that uncertainty proved to be an amazing opportunity to learn and explore on both instruments and I think I’ve grown a lot as a musician because of it.

Gretchen Claassen

Gretchen Claassen

What compositions or composers are you working on now or looking forward to performing next?

I’m playing a little recital of late Beethoven and Schumann soon, so I’m spending some quality time with them right now. In mid-May, I’m really looking forward to a MUSA concert of Telemann “Paris Quartets” paired with a piece we commissioned from talented composer and violinist Andrew McIntosh (an Academy alum) for the same instrumentation. I’m also excited to further delve into the new music world and work on pieces by 7 local composers, commissioned by One Found Sound for their gala in May.

As the 2015 recipient of The Jeffrey Thomas Award, please tell us about your work with Jeffrey Thomas.

I had the good fortune to see Handel’s La resurrezione and Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the first ABS Academy and was so inspired by those performances, I had to apply for the following summer. Working with Jeffrey every morning during recit rehearsals for Handel’s Ariodante gave me a chance to see up close his deep respect and reverence for both music and text, as well as the intelligence he brings to the work. I’ve jumped at every opportunity to play for him, and with all the amazing musicians at ABS, since then.

You can hear Gretchen Claassen, Jeffrey Thomas, and all of the musicians of ABS at Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo from May 1-4 in three Bay Area venues and also in Davis. Tickets are available online or by calling the ABS Office at (415) 621-7900.