Thursday, October 2, 2014


Vivian Barton Dozor

Principal Cellist of VoxAmaDeus Orchestras

In Conversation with Richard Shapp

Sometime during the 1990s, Vivian Barton Dozor became the rock-solid fixture—the principal cellist of VoxAmaDeus’ orchestras—who is so admired by Vox’s audiences and her fellow musicians. While an orchestra’s first violinist (aka, the concertmaster) generally attracts the majority of the public’s attention, the primo cellist frequently—but unfairly—sits in the shade. So, let’s begin to redress a snub to this pivotal player in the orchestra, and especially to the vastly talented, and tremendously important, Vivian Barton Dozor.
During the Sempre Vivaldi concerts of Friday, October 17 at 8:00 p.m., at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, and Sunday, October 19 at 4:00 p.m. at Thomas Great Hall on the Bryn Mawr College campus, Vivian Barton Dozor will be the featured soloist in Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in a minor, RV 422. Other featured soloists in these concerts include Paul Miller, viola d’amore, Daniel Boring, lute, and Sarah Davol, Baroque oboe.

RAS: Vivian, let’s begin your musical journey about as far back as you can remember.

VBD: That takes us back to first grade. I attended the Archdiocesan schools of Wilmington, Delaware.  As I remember it, a priest at the boys’ high school, Father John T. Spragg, wanted to start a music program in all of the Diocese’s schools. So music teachers came around to my elementary school and showed the kids all the instruments we could learn to play.  I chose the trumpet, probably because my mother had played it, and we had an instrument at home.  A few years later, when I was about 10, there was a shortage of cellos in the orchestra. The word went out that if you were willing to play the cello, the school would offer students free lessons, plus a loaner instrument. That’s when I began the cello—and I enjoyed it.

The orchestra was based in the boys’ high school, Salesianum. We performed lots of concerts, including Broadway shows. My memory is that the shows we put on were of a high quality. But most importantly, playing in the shows was where I began to learn how to read music very well. Broadway shows are written in all sorts of different keys—those with lots of flats or sharps—keys that are easy for the singers to sing in, like in 5 flats. [RAS: D-flat Major is a favored baritone key!] This was fabulous training for me.

While at Salesianum High School I studied cello with Suzanne Hamilton. But she left after a year, so I continued private lessons at the Wilmington Music School with the well-known cellist Deborah Reeder. Upon my graduation from high school Debby suggested that I study with her teacher, the renowned cellist Lorne Munroe. [Lorne Munroe was a Curtis alumnus and had studied with the fabled Gregor Piatigorsky. After Curtis, Mr. Munroe became Eugene Ormandy’s principal cellist, and later was Leonard Bernstein’s principal cellist at the New York Philharmonic. Naturally, he had much to impart to his students; and Vivian was an eager student.] So, my next stop after the Wilmington Music School was the Philadelphia Music Academy to study with this great musician and pedagogue. [The Philadelphia Music Academy was a fine school that was subsumed into the University of the Arts.]

I guess that, thanks to the legacy and traditions of these two teachers, I was propelled toward an audition for Curtis. I was accepted, and in 1976 began to study with David Soyer [David Soyer, a native Philadelphian, studied with legendary cellists Emanuel Feuermann and Pablo Casals. He was a founding member of the famed Guarneri String Quartet. All of this musical heritage, too, must be in Vivian’s musical DNA!]. He was great, and he was tough! Because of his tremendous concertizing schedule, I went up to New York a lot to study with Mr. Soyer.
David Soyer

RAS: So, when did you fall into the VoxAmaDeus sphere?

VBD: I can’t remember exactly!  I’ve been trying to figure this out.  It must have been the early 1990s.

RAS: Who else were the cellists when you joined?

VBD: Wilhelmina Smith, another Curtis grad, was playing in the Vox orchestra. I believe that she had just graduated, and I knew her a little bit. But I think it was Carol Briselli (viola) and Tom DiSarlo (concertmaster) who recommended me to Valentin. The first concert I played was at Daylesford Abbey. I believe it was the Beethoven Missa Solemnis; I do remember that whatever it was, it was big and really difficult!

RAS: Let’s chat about performing with Valentin Radu and the ensembles of VoxAmaDeus. But first, to frame this discussion, allow me to relate that many years ago I studied and performed Baroque opera seria, and also attended plenty of chamber orchestra concerts. And one of the things I immediately noticed was the intimate way in which the first cellist was “onstage” all the time, almost like a soloist, holding things together. The cello had a pivotally important, grounding, role. Is that a correct way to frame the issue I’m trying to raise?

VBD: Yes…the cello is continually playing. And as you know, the musical underpinning the cello and the harpsichord provide is called continuo playing. The cello provides the bottom, the bass, the foundation. But it also provides a sense of rhythm and subtleties in the pacing of a piece—moving forward or slowing just a little—which impacts on what the piece says musically. It is fair to say we hold things together. I find this music very gratifying to perform. It is very elastic. That’s what is so enjoyable and exciting about it—you never know what will happen. There is room to create varied sounds within a note (or even a few notes)—through articulation, the weight and bow speed of how you sound a note, and the colors of the sounds. For me it is one of my favorite things to do.

RAS: I don’t think I am alone in this, but I really enjoy watching, and hearing, the moments when you, and Bonnie Fix-Keller on harpsichord, and Dan Boring on theorbo—this team that is the three of you—

VBD: …It’s fun, because we are also listening to each other to gauge what our partners are going to do and to immediately respond to it.

RAS: This is the “jazz-like”, improvisatory aspect of interpreting the music, which I sense may never be performed the same way twice.

VBD: No, it won’t be. And often you may be reacting to singers and what the text conveys; so, we need to rely on our musical instincts.

RAS: Which can make splicing takes of a recording a real pain…

VBD: Right!  So just try and do it well the first time!

RAS: Let’s talk about the stamina needed to play all the time. It seems that you never stop playing; you never have a “down” moment. Don’t you get tired?

VBD: True, you don’t have many “down” moments; but I like that! It doesn’t really tire me to play. Except when I haven’t played for a while; then I can feel it in my fingers. If I go somewhere and can’t take my instrument, then I have to build up my endurance when I start playing again. But most of the time I play all day, all the time.  However, it is very important to “sit well.”  Posture is key. And I like the special cello chairs Vox bought for us last year. They really feel good and they work. It makes a big difference to me to have a good, flat chair. We need to “feel forward” when we are seated. Our energy to play comes up from the feet.

RAS: Let’s talk a little about the modern cello, the Baroque cello and the viola da gamba.

VBD: The Baroque cello that I perform upon when I play with VoxAmaDeus was handcrafted in 1785 by the famed London instrument maker Thomas Dodd (1764-1834). It has a beautiful, warm sound.

I also play a cello-like instrument called the viola da gamba. This is a bowed string instrument, descended from the lute, that is played while being cradled in the legs—it actually sits in between the calves. The name viola da gamba literally means “leg-viol.” This type of instrument first appeared in Europe in the late 1400s, and over time became one of the most popular Renaissance and Baroque instruments. And thanks to my long relationship with the famous American Society of Ancient Instruments, I have had the thrill of performing on beautiful old viols with famous names like Sanctus Seraphin (1699-1776, Italian violin maker) and Joachim Tielke (1641-1719, German instrument maker). With VoxAmaDeus I play the gamba in many pieces during Renaissance Noël concerts and also for solo passages in the Bach Passions.

RAS: What are the major differences between the typical Baroque cello and the standard “modern” cello?

RAS: Here we add a music history tidbit, because Vivian’s comments should be read with this in mind: Today’s standard tuning pitch of “A” is referred to as “A-440,” where “440” equals the number of cycles per second (Hertz) at which that specific tone vibrates. However, the actual pitch of “A” has changed throughout history, and in fact is still mutating upward in certain cities. In the past, “A” was typically lower pitched than it is today. So when the Vox Renaissance Consort, and in most cases the Camerata Ama Deus chamber orchestra, tune before performing, they tune to an “A” of 415 Hertz. This is about one half step lower than “A-440.” Among the several things lowered tuning does, putting less stress on the instruments and voices is one of its attributes.

VBD: There really aren’t that many huge differences, but there are some. For the Baroque cello we play on strings made of gut (i.e., animal intestine), not metal, although the lower strings have a metal winding—usually silver—over the gut. These strings produce a very warm sound and are very flexible; but they can have big reactions to temperature differences and can go out of tune quickly.
The fingerboard of the Baroque cello is a bit shorter than the fingerboard of the modern instrument. Also, the angle of the neck of the modern cello is greater, creating more tension and brilliance of sound.

Another difference between the Baroque and modern cello is found in the “bass bar”.  This is a piece of wood that runs along the mid-line inside the front piece of both the Baroque and modern cellos. It helps to strengthen and stabilize the cello so that the instrument does not crack. As the “A” got higher, the bass bar inside the instrument became more substantial.

The shape of the bows changed over the decades. The Baroque bow has a convex shape which allows it to hug the strings and give good articulation to shorter notes. It is made for speed and clarity; the Baroque bow is not only for slow playing. But the modern bow, with its concave shape—and also because its center of gravity is closer to the player’s hand—has more power.
A 17th century Italian-made cello bow

Typical modern cello bow

The Baroque cello does not have an endpin that goes down to the floor. Fixed supports were sometimes used in the 17th and 18th centuries. But the adjustable endpin we have today wasn’t introduced until the mid-1800s by the Belgian cellist Adrien-François Servias (1807-1866, whom Hector Berlioz called the “Paganini of the Cello.”). I don’t think a long peg was commonly used until the late 1800s. Like the viola da gamba, the Baroque cello is held by the legs.

RAS: This must present a balance problem—needing to support the instrument between your legs all the time.

VBD: We are lucky in that the “A” we tune to is about one half step lower than so-called modern pitch. This lowered tuning puts less tension on the instrument, and less tension makes the instrument easier to hold. Also, during bowing, the resistance on the string is not as great.

RAS: How do you get used to adjusting between the two “A’s”? Does the different pitch cause you problems?

VDB (with a chuckle in her voice): Well, it really doesn’t bother me because I don’t have perfect pitch!  You just feel more warmth of tone at the lower pitch. OK…there is a little less tension, so there is a slightly different feel. Maybe if I really think about it I can tell the difference between the two “A’s”. But I don’t think about it; I just play!

RAS: And finally, what makes VoxAmaDeus stand out from other fine organizations with which you perform?

VDB: Performing with VoxAmaDeus is fun and exciting. Nowhere else can I get dressed up in a Renaissance formal gown and play a concert! As a performing unit, most of the players have been together for so many years it feels like real family. The camaraderie is spontaneous; I know the other musicians very well, which really adds to the tightness of the performance experience. Also, the musicians have a real connection with the audience. Then, holding us all together is Valentin Radu, and his vision is all about the music.