Roberto Gini Ilan Assayag
Roberto Gini. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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In the early 1970s, when he was 13 years old, Roberto Gini, a boy from Milan who already was considered a cello virtuoso, heard a sound he had never heard before. It was coming from a radio in his house - the sound of a viola da gamba.

This ancient instrument, similar to a cello, was common during the Baroque period in Europe, but starting in the 18th century it was gradually abandoned. Eventually it disappeared and made way for the modern cello, which is larger and produces a more resonant sound.

Starting in the mid-20th century in Europe, musicians revisited early music. But to play it, aficionados had to reconstruct the instruments that had been used to perform it.

That day in the '70s Gini heard the Kuijken brothers on the radio. Gini heard the gamba with its delicate sound, and it changed his life. He discovered a new world, abandoned the cello and eventually became one of the great performers of early music: a member of the leading ensembles in Europe, a soloist and conductor, and among the most important teachers and scholars of early music in his generation.

Now Gini is in Israel once again, for three full weeks of concerts and master classes. He's part of a joint project of the early music department at the Israeli Music Conservatory (Stricker ), the Italian Institute of Culture and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

His schedule looks impossible: He is teaching 68 master classes - lessons open to the public beginning on January 11 at the conservatory building on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. He will be traveling throughout the country to give seven concerts. (Details by e-mail to drora.bruck@gmail.com ).

What brings this artist for such a long stay in Israel every year for more than a decade, to teach children from all over the country? "The children in Italy are interested only in soccer, television and consumer goods," says Gini. "In Israel it's different. The students' level is very high, and the people are different."

So how are they different?

"It's hard for me to put my finger on it precisely. It's a sense that the musicians here are expressing my sentiments exactly. I feel at home. And the children's intellectual level is much higher.

"For example, yesterday I was talking to a student aged 13 or 14, a violinist, about issues relating to the publication of the score of a Bach work that he plays, about its inaccuracies compared to Bach's original and the reasons for that. At first I felt embarrassed to talk to a child about those things, but the conversation with him flowed, and on a high level. That's a representative example."

Gini is a professor at the Arrigo Boito Conservatory of Music in the city of Parma. "In Italy I teach a class at the academy but I'm looking for a place where I can build something, not only play for the sake of playing, not only teach for the sake of teaching. And here in Israel it's happening: I'm part of a project. I'm fulfilling my goal, which I think is shared by everyone: to build something, to lay the bricks on top of one another," he says.

"In Italy it's impossible, and here, at the Stricker conservatory, I feel that something is happening, that a change is taking place, that the mentality and emotional fabric are developing in everyone. If teachers of modern instruments, who teach the usual repertoire by the traditional methods, can send pupils to me to master classes, that says it all."

Berlusconi's ill effect

Gini was born in 1958 to a family of amateur musicians. His father was the conductor of an amateur orchestra that included two Jewish sisters; both of them married players from the orchestra. They were his mother and her sister.

His father was a violinist, but as a soldier during World War II, after the alliance between Germany and Italy weakened, he was captured by the Nazis and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Yugoslavia. ("Fortunately, because many Italian soldiers were simply executed," says Gini. ) From there he returned home on foot after the liberation; it took him an entire year.

"My parents were very happy when at an early age I had a desire to be a musician," says Gini. "And when I began to play the cello at the age of 9, they were very supportive and never pressured or pushed. My teacher was Attilio Ranzato, a great virtuoso who was at his peak in the 1930s, and I still teach with the methods I learned from him."

After his dramatic discovery of the viola da gamba on the radio, Gini attended concerts of performers of Baroque music who used the historical approach - first the Kuijken brothers themselves, who came to Milan, and Spanish player and conductor Jordi Savall, a pioneer in reviving the viola da gamba.

"The encounter with the gamba at the concert was a total shock," he says. "I played for Jordi Savall and he offered me to come and study with him at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, the great center of early music studies."

Gini immediately left the Italian academy in Milan where he was studying, parted from the cello and started from scratch in Basel. "I'm quite proud to say that a few months after my arrival, I was already recording with Jordi," he says with a smile.

The cooperation with Savall continued; after completing his studies at the academy in Basel, Gini joined the Hesperion XX ensemble conducted by the Spanish artist, the world's leading ensemble in the field of early music. He played there for 10 years, but he wanted to build something, so in the mid-1980s he returned to his hometown Milan, where he started a department of early music at the Municipal Music School in Milan, along with harpsichord player and early-music scholar Laura Alvini.

The school became one of the most important centers of early music in Europe, with dozens of students from all over the world. In the past year the class had 30 students from 15 countries.

But the school's fate was sealed by Silvio Berlusconi about a decade ago. "The members of his party, Forza Italia, explained to us that from now on there was no such thing as 'students,' but only 'clients.' And within a year nothing remained of this magnificent school," says Gini. He resigned immediately and was followed by all his colleagues.

"In Italy the budget for music and culture in general ran out," says Gini, describing the destruction of culture in his country. "Twenty years of the Berlusconi government have destroyed the entire musical culture. The country has become a business, and culture and music are not a part of that. I was fortunate because I got the position in Parma, but Italy has been emptied of its artists in the field of early music. They've all gone into exile and are scattered all over the world. Now they're in Switzerland, Spain or the United States.

"There's no longer an early music season in Milan, which was the cultural capital of Italy, and that's a disaster. In the 1980s and 1990s I played at many festivals; you could send proposals to 50 concert impresarios and 10 of them would take you. Today there's nobody to send to," he says.

"And it doesn't look as though the situation will change, because there's no alternative in Italy, there's no left, there's no opposition. I'm embarrassed to hear what people think of Italy because of Berlusconi and his government, and I always try to remind them of the Italian renaissance, the music, the cinema. It relieves the embarrassment to some extent."

What Bach heard

In the mid-1990s, at the Municipal Music School, Gini met an Israeli student, Drora Bruck. "It was the center of the world," says Bruck, "everyone who is now a member of the important ensembles studied there, and Roberto's courses about the 17th century were the only ones of their kind in Europe; nobody had heard such things."

Bruck returned to Israel and became a key figure in the early music world here, especially after starting the department at the Stricker conservatory. She would invite her former teacher to play with her and her fellow teachers in concerts, and to teach the younger generation.

"My dream is to have a course in Tel Aviv about all the music that Bach knew and heard in his time," says Gini. "After all, he heard and studied the music of people such as Geminiani, Tartini, Benda and Quantz - and the students sorely lack this music. To really understand Bach, it's not enough to learn only Bach; to know how to perform the trills in his music, its fine points, context is very necessary."

Context is the lifeblood of the early music movement, which tries to get as close as possible to performing the music as it was heard in its time. To do this, aficionados study compositions and essays from the period, read books about playing and research early instruments.

"In London, chamber music was called "conversation pieces," says Gini, "and that's how it should be treated. In the modern performance, for example, one of the ideals is eye contact among the performers. I sometimes seat the children so they won't see one another while they're playing, so they'll listen."

His teaching methods are unique. For example, he plays for his students the director-poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, reading one of his poems. Then an actress reads the same text but with a very rich intonation, and he writes a partitura of her reading, with all the emphases, the rises and falls, the raising of her voice and the silences.

Among speeches he analyzes, one is by Benito Mussolini. "I never dreamed that I would ever do that," says Gini, "but his rhetoric is so sharp and rhythmic that it sounds like an operatic recitative. That's why I played his speech and accompanied it on the harpsichord, like an aria from an opera."

In addition to Drora Bruck, Gini mentions Israeli musicians and teachers such as singer Ayala Sikron, harpsichord player David Shemer and violin teacher Nava Milo as people who share his idea about building a musical culture.

"I love the parents in Israel just as much; they're happy about their children who are studying music, they encourage them," he says. "I recently praised a singer, a girl of 16, and I saw how happy her mother was. It's not like that with us in Italy, where parents go into a depression at the thought that their child will be involved in music instead of a lucrative profession. I'm sure that in the next generation they'll play Bach here with a totally different approach."