Playing the Real Oldies

The group Ciaramella making the old — the very old, that is — feel like new again. Left to right: Adam Gilbert and Rotem Gilbert on bagpipes; Malachi Komanoff Bandy on hurdy-gurdy; Aki Nishiguchi on the shawm; Jason Yoshida on the drum; and Adam Bregman on the sackbut, a Renaissance trombone. Photos by Henk Friezer

I’ve always been a fan of “oldies’’ music. The kind of music I have always thought of as “oldies” was the Beach Boys, Elvis and maybe up to the Beatles.

Now, think of a group that plays real blasts from the past. I’m talking the 15th Century.

“We think of Bach as modern music,” said Adam Gilbert, director of early music at the Thornton School of Music at USC. He was referring to Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the giants of classical music, who lived from 1685-1750.

Gilbert and his wife Rotem, also a professor at the school, have created a siren’s song so sweet that their entire group of musicians, called Ciaramella, have all moved to South Pasadena.

The professional players are also either professors, have doctorates in early music or are pursuing their Ph.D.s in musicology at USC. That’s a lot of talent and knowledge in early music located in one zip code.

Two pipers piping: Adam Gilbert and Rotem Gilbert.

The Gilberts talk about educational possibilities their children have had; the city environment; and the doctoral and teaching opportunities offered at USC.

So when the Gilberts scheduled a rehearsal at their home last Saturday, over came the group with their shawms (Renaissance oboes); Sackbut (Renaissance trombone); bagpipes; a drum and a variety of recorders. And don’t forget the hurdy-gurdy. It may look like the kind of thing that someone might play with a monkey dancing beside it, but it requires virtuosic skill and a loving touch to make it sing.

Some of the recorders are so big that when the musicians travel, the instruments have to go in rifle containers and be checked at the airport.

The music and the instruments might seem strange at first listen, but all of the players say that they get questions about their music everywhere they go.

The musicians all go to various conferences and do performances for people of all ages. Rotem just got back from performing and teaching in Brazil.

“We work with various kinds of audiences,’’ she said. “We are teaching them as well as playing for and with them.’’

Audiences respond to the look of the instruments and then to the sounds that come from them. That reaction is often: “I like it.’’

Making music the old-fashioned way.

“Even the oldest music is always new again every time it is played or sung,’’ Adam Gilbert said.

The instruments are made according to exact specifications that have been found in manuscripts, using the techniques and materials that are as close as possible to original instruments.

Renaissance composers often added voices to simple popular melodies.

“This music is often on the cusp between composition and improvisation,’’ Adam

Gilbert said. Like his historical counterparts, Gilbert and his colleagues add improvised voices to the old music, so that music of the past becomes a piece that can be played in the future for several players.

If one melody can become two in music, two Renaissance players can become one in life.

Jason Yoshida and Aki Nishiguchi, who both pursue busy careers teaching and performing Renaissance and Baroque music, laughed that they met in an early-music ensemble with Aki playing oboe and Jason playing the lute.

They remember the piece: “Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major.’’

And how can they forget the person who officiated at their wedding? It was Adam Gilbert.

At an early-music workshop, Adam Bregman discovered the sackbut and met his wife, who plays the viola de Gamba — a bowed string instrument similar to a cello. Bregman performs and teaches sackbut around the country and in Europe.

The Gilberts fell in love while living and playing early-music concerts in New York City.

Adam and Rotem love not only to teach, but also to preach the gospel of early music. The group also gives concerts throughout the year on the USC campus. Those players, along with Malachi Komanoff Bandy, form the group. Bandy also plays viola de Gamba, shawm, bagpipes and numerous other instruments.

Rotem’s enthusiasm not only is reflected in her playing, but also in her persona. She is one of those people who can bring energy into a room just by being there.

I had a wonderful time. I admit to a predisposition to classical music. I wondered how the neighbors might take to more than an hour’s worth of bagpipes, drums and recorders.

“Oh, we have a lot of garage bands in our neighborhood,’’ Adam Gilbert laughed.

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