Classical IPR in conversation with cellist Juliana Soltis

Sep 12, 2019

Baroque cellist Juliana Soltis has just released her interpretation of J. S. Bach's six suites for solo cello. Classical IPR recently spoke with her about the album, called "Going Off Script: The Ornamented Suites for Cello."

Soltis explained that too many performers approach Bach as an untouchable "museum work." She prefers to treat his music as a "living work of art." The practice of ornamentation, she says, allows the performer to help complete the work that the composer started.

Listen to the entire conversation with Soltis, including excerpts from the new album, below.

An edited transcript of the interview also appears below.

IPR thanks Bob Powell at West Virginia Public Broadcasting for engineering support.

 On her time as a camper at Interlochen

Oh my gosh, there's so many things that that come to mind — just floods of images. I think about being there in [Kresge] Auditorium with the gorgeous lake behind you, even if it’s one of those horrible early morning rehearsals where it's freezing cold in the summer and all we had were the knickers [to keep warm].

It was just such a beautiful, beautiful place and such an inspiring environment to be making music. [It was] so incredible to be making music at that incredibly high level with other kids my own age. It's something that has stuck with me, even 20 years later.

On the perspective she’s bringing to the Bach cello suites

The cello suites that we love have been performed for decades, [and they’ve] been recorded by everybody from Pablo Casals to Jacqueline du Pré to Yo-Yo Ma, but they're just the beginning. The notes that are on the page are just a starting point. In Bach’s time, there was a performance practice — and performance practice is just a very fancy way of saying how we approach the playing of any piece of music — we call ornamentation. Ornamentation is adding little extra notes to the music spontaneously at the moment of performance. This [practice of ornamentation] completes the composer's compositional process. Essentially, these pieces are not completed — they're not done. They're not fully composed, and they're not fully realized until that moment of performance. It's a really wonderful collaboration between composer and performer.

When I'm looking at a piece, [I think about] where can I add ornamentation? Where can I improvise? Where am I supposed to finish this compositional process? We're often looking for spaces in between notes. If you have a jump from a high note to a low note, that’s a place to add something. You can add a little turn, add a little trill, add a tiny scale — something that draws attention to this particular moment, that emphasizes it or makes it a little more playful.

On the cello suites as “Living Works of Art”

I think one of the problems — or one of the challenges — in approaching historical music is that we look back on historical music with a sort of reverence that prevents us from connecting with its humanity. We revere Bach and his works to such a degree that we put his little marble bust on the shelf, and his works are untouchable. They’re behind bulletproof glass, behind the wires and the sensors they put up at art museums: “Do not cross this line!” or else suddenly ten docents are going to converge on you in their blazers and tell you to step back from the painting please!

Credit Artist Jei Wang

And this is what we're doing with Bach. It becomes this sort of stale museum work, and we're not engaging with the material in the way that Bach most likely intended, [which would be] by operating in a world where improvisation is part of the tradition or part of the practice. Things are supposed to be composed in the moment.

I love this practice because it really roots us in the moment, which in the modern digital age, where you have the fear of missing out and the 24-hour news cycle, we are very much not in the moment. We’re always [wondering] what's next, what's next, what's next? And so when I say “living works of art,” I mean that these [pieces] are not supposed to be the same all the time. They're not supposed to be behind the bulletproof glass. You are supposed to take these works out and play them, mess around with them — sometimes make colossal mistakes. It’s supposed to be new and vital every time that you play it

[The cello suites] aren't supposed to be behind the bulletproof glass. You are supposed to take these works out and play them, mess around with them — sometimes make colossal mistakes.

[Ornamentation] is so accepted as a practice in baroque music and even really up into the classical era. Even modern performers will [ornament] Vivaldi or Telemann or Haydn, but Bach for some reason is held apart by everybody. My own teachers often said that we don't ornament Bach, and there were always varying reasons, but when I really started to think about it though this doesn't really make any sense. We ornament Bach's contemporaries. We ornament music by his sons, who by all accounts thought their dad was pretty old fashioned.

But we aren't ornamenting Bach, and I think this is a really wonderful time to start asking ourselves why and maybe re-examine our relationship with Bach’s works and how we interact with them.

On her audible breathing in the album

This actually was a conscious decision not just on my part but on the part of my producer and my mixing and mastering engineer. We talked quite a bit about how we wanted this to sound and how we wanted [to break] free of a previous pattern of doing things and what the the common thread throughout the entire album [would be]. When we all started talking about the sound that we wanted to create, I myself was drawn to a lot of the old mono recordings, like by Pablo Casals. It sounds like he's in the room with you, which is just incredible.

I'm not going to name names, because I love all of these people dearly, and they're such wonderful cellists, but a lot of recordings that have come out recently, I have felt that they sound a little too artificial. It sounds like the cellist is at the other end of the room. There's so much so much reverberation.

I want this music to feel immediate. I want it to feel like somebody was sitting there on the stage with me at the concert hall at Drew University where we recorded the album. I want this music to feel personal — I want it to feel intimate.

Juliana's greyhound Rain snoozes while she practices
Credit Juliana Soltis

So in the way that we mixed it and mastered it, the question came up about how much of my breathing do we leave in and how much do we take out. And we all really did tend towards leaving it in — acknowledging that I am a living, breathing person playing the instrument. Hopefully it's not distracting for people, and I hope that it does instead create a more personal experience for people.

On her interpretation of the Prelude from the Suite no. 1 

People are so familiar with this piece. Complete strangers come up to me in airports and on subways and at bus stops when I have the cello on my back, and they sing this piece. “Do you play this pretty piece?” to you. They’ve been doing it since I was really small.

One of the things that I'm doing in this piece is actually adding some ornaments. In the Prelude, there were moments where there was repeated material, and ornamentation — this spontaneous compositional process — happens on repeated material more often than not and where I do add a little bit of something extra.

On her interpretation of the Sarabande from the Cello Suite no. 3

It’s a slow movement, but I play [it] a bit faster than people might be accustomed to hearing it. One of the big differences between historical interpreters and modern interpreters of baroque works is tempo discrepancies: historical players tend to play fast movements slower and slow movements faster.

In this movement, you'll hear me play something through and then you'll hear that material come back, and it's when this material comes back that the ornaments start to happen. In a slower movement like a sarabande, there's especially a lot of space to improvise.

Essentially, these pieces are not completed — they're not done. They're not fully composed, and they're not fully realized until that moment of performance.

On using a different cello for the Suite no. 6

The sixth suite is indicated for a cello with five strings. There is a lot of scholarly debate about exactly what this five-string cello is like. There are few options. Some people say that it's a regular sized cello that has five strings. Some people say it's the violoncello piccolo, which is a small cello — piccolo meaning small — with five strings. And the other choice is — which I think is a little more out there personally — the violoncello da spalla, which means “of the shoulder.” So this is actually a small cello that has a strap on the back and you put the strap sort of around your shoulders and neck, and you hold the cello on your shoulder and you play it like a violin. I have never played one myself but I've seen it done, and I keep thinking one of these days I'm going to have to try that.

What I used for this recording was actually a five-string violoncello piccolo. So you'll hear not only that addition of a top E string like you would hear on a violin (which has a top E string), but you'll also notice a real timbral difference — meaning “sound color.” Because it's smaller, this instrument is going to make a very different range of sounds than my antique baroque cello.

On her interpretation of the Gigue from the Cello Suite no. 6

Again, the big difference is going to be the ornamentation that happens on the repeats. Because I felt really inspired by the different kinds of sounds that the five-string cello would make, I really did push the boundaries in the sixth suite with the kind of sounds that I create. There are a couple of times when I really will let my bow crawl down towards the bridge of the cello — not a true sul ponticello, meaning playing on the bridge, which is an indication you often see works from the romantic period onward. But there are a lot of baroque sources that talk about playing more towards the bridge. The sound is clearer. Honestly, I was fooling around when I was practicing, and I started pushing down towards the bridge, and it makes this wonderfully thin and icy sound. And I thought, “Oh, this is great. I want to use this.”

Juliana's greyhound Rain hides his head as she practices
Credit Juliana Soltis

On Rain, her rescue greyhound

He's doing better now than he was this time last year. Poor Rain had to have a toe amputated.  It looks a little like he's constantly giving everybody a bit of an obscene gesture. But he's very happy he's doing well. He's walking very well.

He offers incredibly funny commentary on my practicing, which I like to document on Instagram. He's particularly fond of hiding his head under blankets and under chairs. It keeps you humble, what can I say?

On her planned giveaways for the new album

For my last album, on Rain’s Gotcha Day, which is September 19th, I invited everybody to post a picture of their own rescue pet on my Facebook page. Everybody who shared a photo of their rescue cat or dog or bunny or ferret, I sent a copy of the new album. I am planning to do that again, so if people want to follow me on Facebook and stay tuned for that giveaway, it should be fun.