Interview with violinist Rebecca Harris

Ahead of her solo performance of Biber's Mystery Sonatas this month, I got a chance to chat with this amazing artist.  

A specialist in the field of historically informed performance, Rebecca Harris is in high demand as a versatile soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player, as well as a teaching artist. She can be regularly heard playing and recording with the Philadelphia baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare, as well as many other prominent ensembles like Pennsylvania Ballet orchestra, the Philly Pops, Piffaro, Seraphic Fire, Publick Musick, New Trinity Baroque, and so many others.


If you have been to any of Choral Arts Philadelphia concerts in recent years, you also know Rebecca and her violin very well. She is a regular leader in the newly launched Bach@7 Cantata Series.


Q: Do you come from a musical family? What brought you to music, and to violin in particular?

RH: My family enjoys music but there are no other professional musicians besides myself. I learned to play the recorder in elementary school, and free violin classes at school became available when I was eight. Although it was just circumstance that brought me to the violin, I loved it immediately.


Q: You are an accomplished musician on both baroque and modern violin. What is the difference between these two instruments, and what different techniques do you have to use when playing them?

RH: The instrument has changed relatively little in its long history - other instruments, for example the flute and trumpet, have changed much more. The modifications that have been made since the seventeenth century version of the violin were for the purpose of enabling the violinist to more easily meet the technical demands of the music of the time. For example, as a more cantabile style of playing became desirable, the bow was elongated and made heavier at the tip, which makes it easier to achieve a singing line. I choose to perform music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on an instrument built in the style of the time, since it's the 'tool' that the composers of the period used, and it can inform interpretation of the works. Likewise, I perform 19th and 20th century music on a modern instrument. Performing in a historically informed style goes beyond the choice of instrument, however - it's about developing an understanding of the style and musical language of the time.


Q: You also have an active teaching career. Please share a few words about it and what it means to you?

RH: I am on the Teaching Artist faculty of The Philadelphia Orchestra, and I visit children in Philadelphia public schools each week through the orchestra's School Partnership Program. I also perform for a fantastic organization called LiveConnections, that offers innovative programming to communities that may not easily have access to live performances. I see it as my responsibility as an artist to engage with people beyond the concert stage - music is a living art that needs people, so we need to keep passing it on.


Q: What advice do you have for young men and women who want to be successful in whatever they pursue in life?

RH: Stay true to yourself, and work with intelligence. Success to me is not about collecting accolades, but about using your gifts and skills to the benefit of those around you.


Q: You will be playing two violin sonatas from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas on April 9th. A few words about this work and about Heinrich Biber.

RH: Biber was one of the first great virtuoso violinists, working in late seventeenth century Austria. The Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas are a collection of sixteen works, each one connected to one of the mysteries of the Holy Rosary, plus one that represents the Guardian Angel. The sonatas each require a different re-tuning of the violin (a technique called scordatura), which creates unique and unusual possibilities for chords and timbres.


For Bach@7, I will be performing The Carrying of the Cross and The Crucifixion, two of the sonatas that represent the Sorrowful Mysteries. I chose these particular works because they reflect Lenten themes, as do the rest of the works on the April 9th program. Both sonatas use different scordatura, so you will notice that I use a different violin for each piece.


The Carrying of the Cross takes the form of a set of dance movements, surrounded on either side by a fantastical introduction and finale. To me, familiar dance forms played on an instrument that is mis-tuned suggests the paradox of the carrying of the cross - walking and carrying a burden are not unusual physical activities, but the context is unprecedented.


The Crucifixion is full of contrasts, which I see as reflecting the many aspects of the Crucifixion in scriptural terms - the public violence, the intimacy of Jesus and Mary as she sees him on the Cross, ultimately the joy of the promise of the resurrection. The finale of the sonata is dramatic - it could be seen as a depiction of the earthquake, the tearing of the veil and the resurrection of the saints as told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew.


Biber did not state imagery explicitly in these works - these are merely my way of interpreting the music that I perform. Whatever one’s faith or philosophy, the subject matter of the Mystery Sonatas invites contemplation of universal themes – of the strange and wonderful, of questions that cannot be answered, and of reality upturned. That is where their true beauty lies.


Read Rebecca's blog post on Biber's Mystery Sonatas.



Q: The audiences will get a chance to hear you play some of the Biber’s Mystery Sonatas again at the end of April, as a Tempesta di Mare artist recital series. Will it be the same program?

RH: I will perform the Crucifixion Sonata, alongside other works by Biber: selections from the Mystery Sonatas, two pieces from another set of sonatas and the Sonata Representativa, which uses animal sounds!


Q: How would you describe your experience with the Philadelphia Bach Collegium and Choral Arts Philadelphia? What do you think about the Bach@7 Cantata Series so far?

RH: The Bach@7 series has been a great success this year. One of my favorite things about Choral Arts is their warmth towards the audience - they host receptions after the concerts, and get to know people. I also love how clear and sparkling their German is when they sing, it is beautiful. The collegium is a joyful group to play with - there are so many fantastic players of early instruments in Philadelphia, it's a great community.


Q: What kind of people inspire you?

RH: People who have courage and integrity. Artists who take risks.


Q: What is your dream venue and a dream work to perform there?

RH: I would love to perform Bach at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.


Q: When not performing, rehearsing, or teaching – what is your favorite pastime?

RH: Reading and painting - for me, a musician, quiet activities are very important!


The full interview is also published on the Choral Arts Philadelphia site.