Violinist Rachell Ellen Wong Discusses Her Unique Upcoming Valley of the Moon Festival Performance

The Valley of the Moon Festival will present an historically informed program of 19th century female composers, to be streamed here LIVE on The Violin Channel on Saturday July 24 at 10.00 PM (ET)

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The Valley of the Moon Music Festival — a festival in Sonoma, California that focuses on historically informed performance of Classical and Romantic works — will present a concert subtitled "Friendship" featuring violinist Rachell Ellen Wong and festival founders cellist Tanya Tomkins and pianist Eric Zivian.

The program will include works by 19th-century female composers Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Louise Farrenc.

The Violin Channel sat down with Rachell Ellen Wong, who is a rising star on both the historical performance and modern violin stages, to learn more about her and discuss this rather unconventional upcoming concert:

 

You're coming off of winning an Avery Fisher Career Grant and Barbash Bach Competition, and you've soloed and performed with major orchestras, both modern and historically informed. Tell me a little bit about how you see yourself as an artist, and how you’ve carved out a successful career for yourself.

I’ve often been labeled as a Baroque violinist, and while I do play Baroque violin and the music associated with the period, I also play the music of other time periods — so for me, this label doesn’t make sense. I think of myself simply as a violinist, a violinist who plays many different centuries of music, and who just tries to play whatever period of music I am performing, from Biber to Schumann to Florence Price, by educating myself on the musical language that these composers used.

One thing I always felt is that we're kind of always playing different music in the same way all the time. I am extremely grateful that I had a really great education that didn’t tell me to fit into that mold. You know, Mozart was not hearing his music on the grand pianos that we're used to, right? He was using a fortepiano. It helps to be inspired by all these different people throughout history and what they were hearing and the instruments they were using. The violinists that we grew up being inspired by … they’re amazing, but something I very much know is that I am not them, I’m never going to be them, and I honestly don’t want to sound like them because they already exist. I want to sound like me, and want people to say when they hear me, ‘that’s Rachell Ellen Wong, it’s her style — it’s completely different’ because I’m coming from this background [of historically informed performance].

For me, studying historical performance was so helpful for my modern playing, and vice versa. I think if everyone could have a chance even to do some historical performance, it would be so helpful in developing and finding our own voices in our own interpretations of music. 

 

Can you tell me a little bit about your past association with the Valley of the Moon Festival and how you started working with and performing at it?

I first heard about Valley of the Moon Music Festival from my Baroque violin teacher Stanley Ritchie, who, knowing that I play modern and period instruments and wanted more experience with historically informed performance after 1750, recommended that I apply. 

I ended up attending the festival as an apprentice in 2017, and I am so glad I went because it was the most incredible time. It opened up this whole new sound world for me. I had no idea what A430 was and that was an experience getting used to this 'in between' tuning. Everyone there, from the teachers, to the players, they were so inspiring. I went back the next year, and also last year, and am now a laureate at the festival. 

There is really no other festival like this — it’s extremely hard to find festivals that are dedicated to historical performance of this “later” period repertoire.

 

How do you approach playing and performing at the festival from both a technical and historical/philosophical approach? 

Well, for example, one of the pieces we’re playing is the Clara Schumann piano trio. We're playing it on an 1841 Rausch fortepiano made in Vienna. … from a historical piano, you get to play around with so many more colors and different types of sound. I’m using my modern violin with wound gut strings for the bottom two strings, and unwound gut strings for the top two strings, and Tanya [Tomkins] is using the same setup. The sound of gut strings are more raw and woody. I would say that gut strings are much more like the human voice, while modern strings are more like an angelic, purer voice. You can get all these different types of sound really easily—it just depends on how you use the bow. The Tourte bow and similar modern bows were already around by the 19th century, so we will be using modern bows as well, since they’re accurate to the period.

What's great about the festival is that it’s also a time to experiment. We get to play around with things I never usually get to play around when playing modern violin, including even looking at actual fingerings from back in the day the piece was written. 

 

What has it been like to collaborate with Tanya Tomkins and Eric Zivian, the founders of the festival?

They are just incredible musicians and mentors, and wonderful friends, too. I’ve played with them several times before, and it is always the best time for me. They’re so imaginative, and value being creative — that always comes first. To me, that is so refreshing because, as musicians we have all had the experience playing with people who just want to slap things together and get through it and play it fast and loud, you know? They are the exact opposite of that. They are artists striving for something different, not just bowing to the same tradition that we are usually taught. 

 

The concert program consists of works by Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Louise Farrenc, all women composers from the 19th century. Can you speak a bit about the two pieces you’re playing — the Mendelssohn and the Schumann? 

The second piece on the program is a tiny violin and piano Adagio by Fanny Mendelssohn. It is really beautiful, and what is funny is that there are really no professional recordings of it out there! She was an amazing composer and amazing songwriter, and you can really hear the vocal song quality in her writing. I am surprised that more people don't play it, but it's probably because she got overlooked in history just because she was a woman during that time.

As for the Clara Schumann piece, this was her only piano trio, and it was written a year before Robert Schumann wrote the first of his piano trios. You can really hear the similarities in writing — they were always sharing and collaborating and bouncing ideas off of each other. So you can't really separate them from each other. At this point, it still seems that Clara Schumann is most well known for being Robert Schumann’s wife, but what she really should be known for is being a brilliant composer and a virtuoso pianist.

 

 

Rachell will perform LIVE this Saturday July 24 at 10.00 PM (ET) at the Valley of the Moon Music Festival, in Sonoma, California with cellist Tanya Tomkins and pianist Eric Zivian. The historically informed period performance will include signature works by 19th-century female composers, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn & Louise Farrenc — and will be streamed here LIVE on The Violin Channel

The three-week Valley of the Moon Music Festival, founded by Tanya Tomkins and Eric Zivian, brings an international roster of experts in period performance together with highly talented emerging artists to showcase familiar repertoire in a brilliant new light.