Group focuses on playing the music rather than instrument

Alberto Grazzi.
Alberto Grazzi believes early music still speaks to people today in a language they understand. Photo: supplied
Italy’s Ensemble Zefiro has a cult following for its music played on 17th- and 18th-century woodwind instruments. Rebecca Fox talks to founder Alberto Grazzi.

Searching for an alternative to the usual orchestral and opera options led Alberto Grazzi to early music.

''Contemporary and early music was the answer for us. It was like rock music for the beat generation,'' he says.

So, 40 years ago Grazzi found his home in early music.

''Early music was the one which best suited me and the '70s was the time lots of European groups and orchestras became popular in Italy.''

Although playing early music on early instruments in the 1970s was not nearly as ''normal'' as it is now.

He believes early music still speaks to people today in a language they understand.

''The harmonic relations and the structures of early music is part of our cultural legacy, and more importantly, we are still moved by it.

''The medium of the performer is very important in making this music still alive, regardless of the time it was created.''

It was after the bassoonist met Alfredo Bernardini at an early music course and then performed with him in the European Baroque Orchestra in 1985 that Ensemble Zefiro was born.

''Basically we've played together ever since. We met some of the members playing in various groups and others have been our pupils.''

Zefiro, which will perform in Dunedin this month, was named for the Greek god of the good winds and aims to promote a wind-based repertoire which the group believes has been neglected for too long.

The group, which also includes Grazzi's brother Paolo (oboe), Dileno Baldin (horn), Francesco Meucci (horn) and Giorgio Mandolesi (bassoon), enjoys discovering a new repertoire and the way ''we approach the traditional one from a historical point of view''.

''Too often our pupils concentrate too much into 'playing the instrument' rather than playing the music.

''We try to find a balance in order to favour the musical expression.''

They find their early instruments are right for the music they play.

''It is possibly easier to see the point of view of the composer and understand a certain use of the instrument when you play a historical one.

''There are difficulties, of course, but that can be said for a modern [instrument] as well.''

Ensemble Zefiro is coming to New Zealand for the first time. Photo: Supplied
Ensemble Zefiro is coming to New Zealand for the first time. Photo: Supplied

Grazzi's music career began at the age of 10 when he took up the trumpet. It was not until he was 18 that he discovered the bassoon.

''At that time, my brother was already working as an oboist and I wanted to find a way to play together with him. The bassoon was the best choice.''

Despite not finding his passion for the bassoon until his late teens, he always knew music was going to be his ''life''. He studied at Civica Scuola di Musica in Milan, from which he graduated in 1986.

''I knew I'd get that far with it. Times were a bit easier then and positive thoughts and enthusiasm made it happen.''

And it did. He has played around the world in various groups and orchestras, performing repertoire from the 16th century with Hesperios XX (an early music ensemble formed in 1974) and Spanish conductor Jordi Savall to the romantic with Concentus Musicus (Austrian baroque music ensemble) where he was conducted by the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt who co-founded the group.

''We look up to people like [Trevor] Pinnock, Harnoncourt, [Gustav] Leonhardt, [Frans] Bruggen, Savall and [Christopher] Hogwood as models. Far from thinking one day I would have known them and played in their orchestras.''

He has been principal bassoon with Il Giardino Armonico for many years, and in 1990 became principal bassoon of The English Concert, with which he has toured internationally, both as orchestral player and soloist.

In a critique of his recording of Vivaldi's bassoon concertos in Gramophone, Grazzi's playing is described as ''dazzling virtuosity in the most fiendish rapid and wide-leaping passages and lyrical tenderness in slow movements catches the elusive paradox of refinement and humour''.

For the past seven years he has taught at the Civica Scuola di Musica in Milan, at the Conservatory of Verona and at summer courses around Europe.

He has also performed with many different types of curtal or baroque bassoons, classical bassoon and romantic ones.

''Although I do perform solo concertos, I like to think of myself as a chamber music-orchestral player.

''I love to be involved in making music and interacting with other players - to be under the spotlight all the time is not my cup of tea.''

While he cannot pinpoint a career highlight as ''every concert is important in its own way'', he says Zefiro was recently involved in an opera production for the first time.

''That was a very important step for the group. Playing at the Vienna Musikverein was another milestone for us, but I'd like to think that every concert has its own history and for one reason or another they are going to build bit by bit the way we now play and perform.''

For Zefiro, the group agree a highlight was a tour to Milan, Paris, Halle and Nantes with the fireworks music in 2016.

''With 52 between oboe, bassoon, trumpet, horn, and percussion players from all over Europe and some from the American continent as well.''

The ensemble has also won numerous awards, including the Grand Prix du Disque, Gramophone's Editor's Choice award, the Cannes Classical Award and the Diapason d'Or de l'Annee 2009.

He describes music as ''what I am'' and finds it difficult to separate himself from it.

''Which is, of course, not always positive, but this is how it is. A way to express my personality and my view on life.''

His dedication to music means he spends a lot of time travelling, but he always goes home to Mantova, a small Italian town where he was born.

''It's where all my family is and where I look forward to going back to. I need to get back to my roots when I am not flying around the world.''

To see

Ensemble Zefiro, Glenroy Auditorium, Sunday 5pm. Prelude Series lecture with Victoria University assoc prof musicology Samantha Owens, 4.15pm.

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