Absorbing Languages with Cellist Ari Barnes

Ari Barnes is one of the most thoughtful and generous spirits I’ve encountered among classical performers. And as someone recently called “the best Canadian cellist of his generation” by Bramwell Tovey it would be understandable if he was more guarded with his time. Ari left Vancouver for the Bavarian city of Nuremberg in Germany in March 2017 and has been firing on all cylinders pursuing all manner of ambitious musical projects.

But despite a schedule that includes frequent and diverse performing duties, catching up with colleagues, and even some skateboarding, Ari is always ready to act as an ambassador for the appreciation of classical and new music, and the idea of a broadly engaged citizenry that can participate at every level of cultural life with an appreciation of music near its core.

I met with Ari to do an interview while he was here to perform with the Turning Point Ensemble and with Heidi Krutzen as half of the harp/cello duo Couloir. On Remembrance Day, under a pressing grey sky, we alighted to Green College at UBC for an improvised portrait session and followed up with coffee for a chat.

MM: How have things changed for you since the move to Nuremburg?

AB: I’ve felt an immense inner growth in the last couple of years, absorbing and learning a new language and acclimatizing to the new cultural environment there. It’s raised my awareness of the idiosyncrasies of musical styles as they developed through the ages. I’m more attuned to the differences between baroque music, classic, romantic, post-romantic, expressionistic, impressionistic and so on right up to 21st century art music. It’s all become more clearly delineated for me somehow. For example if you go to a museum and you’re looking at a survey exhibit, you need to pay attention to really small details from era to era to understand what transpired from moment to moment in history. That obviously applies to things like sculpture and painting but music is more abstract and it’s not as easy to observe those nuances and shifts in approach. So I’m starting to understand more clearly what they are and how the approaches shifted from Haydn to Beethoven for example.

MM: I just heard the St. Lawrence String Quartet do a late Beethoven piece at a Friends of Chamber Music concert last night. I know it’s a common observation but I’m always amazed at how contemporary those late pieces can sound.

AB: Of course, but Haydn can sound modern too. If you’re listening to Boccherini, then Haydn sounds really modern. It’s all relative. But some of Beethoven’s late compositions easily sound as if they could have been sculpted in the late 20th century.

MM: Let’s talk about the contemporary work you’ve been performing. You’re involved with new music in several capacities.

AB: One of my great passions is to create new music alongside contemporary composers, to work with composers, ensembles or by myself to develop works and/or to interpret them, express them, record them. I find working through that fresh lens really invigorating.

I recently had the opportunity to play and record (Canadian-German composer) Michael Oesterle’s Cello Concerto with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. It was originally written for a larger ensemble but he rearranged the work for us, a smaller, more tightly knit group. It then works better for touring and also pairs really well with the Haydn C major cello concerto which we were also performing on that program.

One of the things I love about 21st century art music is the range of narratives people deal with now which makes the music more relevant to us. Something that Michael was dealing with was the influence of iron during the development of industrialization. How the development of iron changed humankind in many ways and how those changes are still resonating. He makes interesting references throughout the work to various figures who brought the process forward, like the Darby family. It’s brilliantly written, beautifully scored and his rearrangement is fabulous. It’s one of the best works of contemporary cello literature that I’ve heard and then had the pleasure to play.

MM: What about contemporary solo cello pieces?

AB: Yes! A work that I absolutely love is Vez, a seven-minute work by (Montreal-based composer) Ana Sokolovic which was written in 2005, the same year as the Michael Oesterle concerto.

I learned it here in Vancouver and had the pleasure of recording it with Ana present. She’s a magnificent artist and I’ve played that piece in many places since. I took it to the 24th International Johannes Brahms competition in Austria and used it as my contemporary work, using it to share Canadian music with an international panel and audience. It was received extremely well and I was successful at that competition and owe a great portion of that to Anna’s work and my connection to it. So that’s one example of contemporary solo cello work that’s worked its way into my literature and which I love.

MM: And Canadian!

AB: I’ve come across a lot of Canadian composing talent just by way of being Canadian and frequently being asked to play Canadian music and having an interest in that. A couple of pieces I play are by my father, Milton Barnes, although these are based in a more traditional language, a Sephardic Jewish folk language, very tonal, very listenable. Then we head into territory like Farshid Samandari’s Memoirs Untold or Elizabeth Knudson’s Yarilo which are either deeply personal accounts of living with political oppression or that simply revel in the cycle of the seasons based on loosely referenced mythology.

MM: What would you like to tackle in the future?

AB: There’s a wealth of literature that I haven’t yet explored. I’d love to get into some mid and late 20th Century stuff like Ligeti’s Solo Sonata, or Penderecki’s Solo Sonata. I can happily say these are works I have yet to truly discover. I’ve heard them a number of times but haven’t spent the time getting inside of them and really absorbing the language.

And while commissioning solo works is something that’s of great interest, I have a project with harpist Heidi Krutzen as Couloir, and we’ve commissioned many duo works largely due to the fact that not much is written for that combination before we started making music together. It’s a natural byproduct of enjoying each other’s musicianship, creating new literature. We’ve created a good nine works now and that’s a lot of my commissioning focus. That and cello concerti.

Ari rehearsing the Elgar Cello Concerto at The Orpheum

MM: The last time I saw you perform was with the VSO performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto. I love that this is something that’s now being formed around you, that people are writing with you in mind.

I’ve had a few cello concerti written for me and there are more in the mix. It’s exciting work for me. What I like is that one gets to reach a much larger audience. As much as I love more intimate formats, I ultimately like playing for large rooms of people and bringing the contemporary language into the traditional concert hall. But that’s always been a thing. It’s nothing new, but I find it exciting.

MM: Your Instagram feed recently featured a video clip of you playing Bach in a church. I loved that because it absolutely stopped my mindlessl scrolling and made me wish to seek out the intimacy of live performance.

AB: That was in Limburger Dom (a gothic cathedral) in Limburg near the venue I was scheduled to play that evening. But it could have been just outside on the street in an unbelievably intimate little plaza with tables and restaurants and people flowing through. I could have just sat down there and offered a similar experience to those around me.

I think the urban surroundings overseas inspire that for a couple of reasons… one, because there seem to be so many places that invite you to play whether it be a church, cathedral, open plaza etc. Europe is full of places that make you curious about the acoustic properties of public spaces. I often wonder “What would my instrument sound like here?”. And the other is that people in general have such a deep appreciation for music as an art form that improves their quality of life. They really value it and they understand where it comes from. It’s an inherent part of the culture. Public spaces there are designed to encourage people to come together.

Overall, I’m excited to be in a place where I’m meeting new colleagues and I have the opportunity to play in many different countries and in different cultural contexts. I find it validating and refreshing to feel that the music we make in North America, which is a relatively new culture generally unhindered in it’s absorbtion of ideas from elsewhere, is music that people are happy to listen to in Europe, or in Asia, or anywhere else. This brings the idea that music is an international language into reality for me, and I love actually communicating in this language directly to live audiences around the globe.




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