Barbara Maria Willi: staying young in her approach to music

11 April 2023, 1:00
Barbara Maria Willi: staying young in her approach to music

I talked to Barbara Maria Willi, the dean of the Faculty of Music at the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts, dramaturge, teacher, populariser of classical music, harpsichordist, organist and specialist on the hammered dulcimer, about the 20th anniversary edition of the music series Barbara Maria Willi presents..., as well as about historically informed interpretation and further plans. The fact that she was actively teaching a foreign student just before our talk is the best indication of how busy her schedule is.

The 20th anniversary edition of the Barbara Maria Willi presents... How did it all start? What gave you the idea to organize such a series of concerts of early music in Brno?

I’ve always wanted there to be a dedicated series focused on historically informed performances. I wanted people to be able to see how different and adventurous it is, and that enlightened performance practice offers a much broader and different experience of music than what happens in mainstream music. I was subsequently approached by David Dittrich, based on a collaboration we had during the Concentus Moraviae festival, for which I had begun to prepare the dramaturgy, to see if I would like to start such a subscription series. It was also the first early music subscription series in Brno. I immediately agreed enthusiastically, and then he came up with the idea that this programme should have a distinctive and personal style: that I should present it and it should also bear my name. I was a bit afraid of this at first and wondered if it was too much, but it turned out to be part of the magic of this series. Not only is it intensely personal, but when I invite a foreign performer, people trust me that it will be an excellent and interesting guest. They know that even the dramaturgy is always revelatory or special in some way. Twenty years on, I’m proud of the series and I’m very happy that there is this large group of listeners who are willing and able to take on big challenges, often regarding unusual instruments and the like.


Were there always six concerts in the cycle, or did the number of concerts vary?

Always six – three in the first half of the year and three in the second half. In addition, it was always divided by calendar year, which is a little different from the traditional cycles.

Do you have a coherent dramaturgy for the cycle? Has it changed over the years?

The unifying principle is that I also participate as a performer in two or three concerts during the year. I also try to accentuate the international overlap, so I like to invite a lot of foreign guests, but I also focus on young and talented Czech ensembles. It’s not thematically bound, but in recent years there have been some less usual areas of early music, such as medieval or renaissance, or, on the contrary, romanticism, where we hear, for example, Schumann’s works interpreted on the hammered dulcimer.

...that’s what I was just about to ask. If we look at this year’s programme, we see composers from the 17th to the early 20th century. How broadly do you view so-called “early music”? How far do you think it goes?

With the “revival” of early music in the 1980s, people were excited about discovering something new about music from, say, the period from Monteverdi to Bach. And then they also started to get interested in Renaissance music, medieval music, all the way up to Gregorian chant. And a little later we started to come back closer to the present, so people like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who I studied with, started to discover how Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were played. But we didn’t stay there either, and we went even further into Romanticism. We discovered that even at that time it was played very differently than we had originally thought. That’s also why today’s young ensembles don’t have an imaginary boundary in their heads. For example, for Pura Corda, a Greek-Spanish string quartet, early music ends roughly with Janáček. That means more or less the end of the use of gut strings for string instruments.

Do you base your dramaturgy on the proportionality of the individual periods? This year, for example, the Renaissance is not represented, but it has been at previous editions. Do you also take this into account?

The actual compilation of the dramaturgy is multilevel. I primarily base it on the possibilities of the top performers I am trying to get for the cycle. These ensembles usually have some kind of musical profile behind them, and I try to accommodate that. Of course, I also make sure that the particular edition is always varied and that the whole spectrum of early music is shown. So some editions go deeper into the past, while others concentrate more on Mozart, Beethoven, and other composers closer to our time. The third variable is the variety of instruments, or the variety of approaches – this year, for example, we have an exceptional guest from Paris, Philippe Bernold, playing the modern flute. As a typical Frenchman, he knows the Baroque tradition very well. On a modern instrument, he is able to achieve an almost traverse-like sound. So I try to introduce such interesting things in the dramaturgy to achieve a kind of natural inner story of the whole cycle.

How long does the preparation of a particular year actually take? Are you already thinking about and arranging the 21st year?

Yes, I’ve even finished it. The main skeleton is a year and a half to two years in advance. Sometimes there are small changes that need to be made, but that’s the way it goes. I’m usually most creative when I’m under deadline pressure (laughs). Then the ideas come one after another.

The programme of the April concert also includes a composition by Jiří Antonín Benda, which is presented in the Department of the History of Music of the Moravian Museum. Do you often go hunting in music archives, or are they more of an exception?

I love the process of discovery! After all, on 21 March the programme included the premiere of the String Quartet in G major by Agnes Tyrell, a Brno Romantic composer, and this piece also comes from the Moravian Museum. And in April there will be the fantastic and distinctly progressive Benda Sonata. Unfortunately I don’t have that much time to research independently now, but I am in contact with musicologists and offer them performance collaboration.

Do you use editions prepared by students of JAMU or ASH in your interpretation?

I’m mainly trying to connect people who might be interested. It’s not always me who interprets them, but I make sure they don’t overlap. For example, we had a project where students had to create their own edition of what they were playing. And for example, as part of the Summer Music Academy Kroměříž, we went with the students to the Kroměříž Music Archive. There, one of the students transcribed a surviving piece of music that has not yet been published.


Which concert or artist have you enjoyed the most so far? Who do you consider to be the most important contribution to Brno’s musical life?

Well, that would be a hundred and twenty concerts... (laughs). For obvious reasons, though, I like all concerts. The evening I was in seventh heaven was the recent concert with Katerina Knežíková. For one thing, it is a great joy for me to play Schumann. It is beautiful music that has a very natural movement. And then, Kateřina and I understood each other perfectly interpretively and no words were needed. The funny thing is that every time we rehearsed it was different and original. It was similar with the Viennese violinist Erich Höbarth, with whom we practically didn’t speak at all during the rehearsal. Which I think is a sign of a deep musical connection, where you know and don’t know what to do at the same time. A very creative state. I am also very happy that the flute performance legend Philippe Bernold accepted my invitation! I have already played with him in Telč, and I am looking forward to our performance together, because the French way of playing is elegant and light. Most international guests have praised the acoustics of the Convent of the Brothers of Mercy, where the cycle takes place, but also always add that the audience is special, attentive and co-creates the performance.

Let’s go back in time a little bit. Did the pandemic affect you in any way in terms of audience? Do you see less or more interest in concerts? Has the audience changed in any way?

The Covid era was indeed painful. For example, we postponed the aforementioned evening with Katerina Knežíková three times. So it was also quite a test of subscriber loyalty. It was also a very challenging period for our organizing team. Here I would like to mention Klara Zemanová, who is in charge of contact with subscribers and who has done a tremendous job. She talked or wrote to every single subscriber. So I think that here, too, you can see the handiwork of personal contact that is so essential for our cycle. And perhaps that’s why we haven’t felt a loss of audience... maybe a little bit of a renewal, but that’s natural. However, one product that was created as an innovation during the times of the harshest quarantine is a recording of a concert without an audience with Josef Špáček. There we had the opportunity to show on the recording, for example, the beautifully decorated notes of the Biber sonata.

And in terms of the aforementioned change in the audience... are there more young people coming now?

The audience is alive. There are people who went there at the very beginning, while others have gone to places where they can listen to bigger forms of music. I would say, however, that we have quite a diverse audience, and the representation of young people is also quite strong. For example, students make up a substantial part of the visitors.

Do you see any shift in the audience in terms of knowledge and perspective on early music? Surely you have a lot of subscribers who come regularly and can appreciate early music more, better appreciate it, approach it differently than they did 20 years ago?

I’m sure it is – we’ve come quite a long way together, and we’ve moved from the idea that early music is exclusively baroque to both sides of history. And I think this is a shift not only of the audience, but it’s actually an evolution of the whole scene of historically informed performance. For me, it’s essential to be constantly open to these new currents and to stay young in my approach to music. It’s a never-ending journey, and I think it’s nice that we’re on that journey with that audience. I sense with them that they know that early music is not just a kind of repertoire, but an overall approach.

And on the other hand – is it easier to find new performers of old music now than it was before when you started? For example, are there more Czech performers, young performers?

Absolutely. Especially in the last ten years, the level of Czech performers has risen significantly and is now comparable to the international standard. I would even dare to say that thanks to a certain Czech honesty and a very dense network of elementary schools all over the Czech Republic, this is a breeding ground of unprecedented quality. I expect that we will further establish ourselves within Europe and co-determine the direction of musical development, and not only in the field of early music.


Does older music receive sufficient attention from a pedagogical point of view?

(laughs) Brno is perhaps a city of luxury because we have both the Academy of Early Music at Masaryk University and the Department of Early Music at the JAMU, which is called the Department of Organ and Historical Performance and, besides the organ, also includes the hammered dulcimer, harpsichord, lute and string instruments, traverso, historical singing and now also the historical oboe. So we have seven disciplines and I would say we are doing quite well. We also have a number of international agreements with various other music universities, so students can take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad. We should pay more attention to general music education. I just met a primary school headmistress with the attitude that music is all about knowing the notes, and that it's absolutely fine to use the same method of crushing children for thirty years. No wonder, then, that young people think they have no talent for music and that it is something annoying.

Where will the interpretation of early music go? Are there – at the level of performers and scholars – any changing trends, different interpretations?

This is a very dynamic scene these days. For one thing, we have finally accepted that the range of works that fall under the so-called “early music” is much wider, and that it goes back, say, from the 4th to the 20th century. That rather than the compositions themselves, it is an approach that looks at what it was like at one time or another, what instruments were used, what techniques were favoured, and what philosophies guided the creators and musicians. But besides that, I see that it’s very fashionable to arrange music and improvise... Musicians improvise the whole concert, as it used to be done. So we take into account this mindset and social aspect in addition to repertoire, instruments, and performance technique. The performer should also be a composer to a certain extent, which is still a relatively big innovation that often leads to amazing results. Sometimes it leads perhaps too far.

Another trend that I like to observe is a kind of convergence of players of modern instruments with early musicians. Just by understanding that learned interpretation is more of a philosophy, so many of the principles can be applied to modern instruments. There is a generation coming up that doesn’t have that limitation set in its head. They know that practically anything can be achieved. We also have students for whom one study is simply not enough, and they voluntarily explore music from the point of view of traditional approaches and from the point of view of historically informed interpretation. After all, today’s top performer wants to know as many stylistic languages as possible and understand the changing face of music.

How challenging is it for you to combine concert, organizational and pedagogical activities? Do you ever say to yourself “I mustn’t accept the next concert anymore, otherwise I won’t be able to rehearse it all”?

Sometimes it’s very challenging, but I do all these things because I love them and I’m excited about them (laughs). Of course, it takes a significant amount of time, but often one thing helps the other – dramaturgy is useful in teaching and vice versa, I really enjoy organizing and so on.

Is there anything that bothers you about cultural life in Brno?

Brno has been investing heavily in culture so far, and I hope it will continue to do so. I also hope for the construction of a concert hall. What bothers me is this outdated thinking: regional culture versus the culture of the capital. Nowadays, these boxes should no longer matter; the quality and inventiveness of what is happening should be much more important.

And finally, what are your plans for the next twenty years? Are you thinking about any expansion or formal transformation of the cycle?

My dream would be to do such a “franchise” in other cities and expand the cycle elsewhere in the same form. It would also make more sense in terms of artists traveling. I think that sustainability will be one of the major issues of the future.

Photo Jiří Sláma



No comment added yet..

For the twenty-eighth year running, the Concentus Moraviae International Music Festival presents dramaturgically varied and interpretively refined evenings set not only in concert halls, but also in courtyards and chateau salons, castle halls, basilicas, churches and synagogues. The theme of this year’s 28th edition is Between Kroměříž and Vienna. Vienna, the cultural centre of Europe, served as the seat of the Habsburg emperors, while Kroměříž was the home of the archbishops of Olomouc. The dramaturgy of this year’s edition was prepared by a trio of respected experts: the Dean of the JAMU Faculty of Music, harpsichordist, organist and musicologist Barbara Maria Willi; historian, musicologist and choirmaster Vladimír Maňas; and Otto Biba, Austrian musicologist and long-time director of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde archive.  more

The celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Brno’s Besední dům, which take place within its premises and elsewhere, have an interesting and distinguished dramaturgy that manages to transport the audience to the early days of this concert venue. Two concerts took place on 4 and 5 May and were entitled “Janáček” and “Horňácká muzika”. I took part in the first one; it was a truly momentous experience prepared by the Brno Philharmonic and Petr Mička’s Horňácká muzika. Friday’s repeat of the concert was broadcast by Czech Television. Both nights were sold out and standing tickets were even added to the sale.  more

The Brno Philharmonic’s headquarters and one of Brno’s most important historical and cultural landmarks – the Besední dům – celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Exactly on 3 April 1873, when the auditorium (great hall) of the building designed by architect Theophil von Hansen, author of the famous Musikverein in Vienna, was ceremonially opened, this magnificent building became the centre of Brno’s culture and its distinctive artistic life. A century and a half later – on Monday 1 May 2023 – an afternoon gathering and a subsequent concert entitled When Smetana First Played in Brno. . . will launch a series of concerts that pay tribute to unique milestones in the city’s cultural history.  more

Singer-songwriter Martina Trchová, winner of the Anděl award for her album Holobyt, recently disbanded her band and now performs mainly as a soloist. She is slowly working on a new album and is also focusing on visual arts. Her new book Babi, will soon be published, and she’ll also be holding another festival in the Obřany district of Brno.  more

I talked to Barbara Maria Willi, the dean of the Faculty of Music at the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts, dramaturge, teacher, populariser of classical music, harpsichordist, organist and specialist on the hammered dulcimer, about the 20th anniversary edition of the music series Barbara Maria Willi presents..., as well as about historically informed interpretation and further plans. The fact that she was actively teaching a foreign student just before our talk is the best indication of how busy her schedule is.  more

The end of the Lenten season culminates in the Passover week with the commemoration of Christ’s Passion, whose motif was also the main dramaturgical idea of the Ensemble Opera Diversa concert entitled Lamento. The Wednesday evening of 29 March was devoted to works on lamentations by Czech and British composers. Conveniently, the ensemble chose for this concert the Baroque Hall of the Convent of the Merciful Brothers, which enhanced the Lenten atmosphere.  more

Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan has long been dedicated to either his own work or to the inspiration of Armenian folklore. It wasn't until his tenth album, StandArt, that he decided to work with jazz standards, compositions that work for most jazz musicians as basic preparation and as material that players from all over the world agree on when jamming together. The pianist will present his current album on Friday 24 March 2023 at the Sono Centre in Brno as part of the JazzFestBrno festival.  more

After the American tour, the Brno Philharmonic, led by chief conductor Dennis Russell Davies, has prepared a mini-festival of three interconnected evenings called Dialogues. Each of these evenings offered a unique dramaturgy with extraordinary repertoire. It was partly linked to the aforementioned tour (e.g. the concert From America to the Czech Republic). The final concert of the trilogy, which took place on Friday 10 March at the Janáček Theatre, offered the home audience monumental orchestral works from the pens of composers Alfred Schnittke and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The entire concert was broadcast live on Czech Radio's Vltava station.  more

La Cantiga de la Serena is a trio from southern Italy, focusing on the music of the Mediterranean, seen as a bridge between the West and the East. The ensemble's repertoire consists of medieval dances and songs, sacred songs including pilgrim songs, medieval secular songs, and songs of the Sephardic Jews who had to leave what is now Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. In 2021, the group released its third and most recent album to date, La Mar, and in the summer of 2022 performed in Brno at the Maraton Hudby festival. You can even recall the concert thanks to this interview. Our questions are answered by Fabrizio Piepoli, who sings and plays the Italian battente chitarra, as well as Giorgia Santoro, who plays a variety of flutes and whistles, including the Indian bansuri and Irish tin whistle, and the Celtic harp. Finally, the third member is Adolfo La Volpe, who plays the Arabic lute, classical guitar and Irish bouzouki.  more

The concert with subtitle “Comradeship, Cooperation, Subversion and a Big Battle at the End”, directed by the Brno Contemporary Orchestra (BCO), offered a remarkable programme of contemporary music. It consisted of three Czech and one world premiere, performed at the Besední dům on 27 February under the baton of the tribal conductor Pavel Šnajdr. The choice of the concert hall was anything but random. The Besední dům is celebrating 150 years since its opening this year, and the ensemble held an annual community concert to mark the important anniversary.  more

Last year’s album Morytáty a romance by Brno singer-songwriter and TV dramaturge Ivo Cicvárek scores points in annual polls beyond the pure folk genre. Ivo recorded his big project with his renamed band, which he now calls Živo, and a number of guests. In the interview he explains what is behind the songs of the album and talks about his future plans.  more

Naloučany is a small village on the Oslava River in the Vysočina region. The village has its own photographer, and his portraits of the village locals have found their way to the American Library of Congress and have become part of the largest collection of this medium since its beginnings. This is naturally a source of pride for nearly two hundred of the village’s inhabitants. That’s why they all joined forces to give their native photographer an event that would be remembered not only by them and by the photographer himself, but also by all the other visitors who took the trip through the snowy rolling landscape to the village’s community centre.  more

Folklore enthusiasts from all over Moravia met in the reconstructed hall of the largest Czech Sokol Hall on Kounicova Street in Brno. The traditional seventy-first ball was organised by the Slovácký krúžek Brno Club on Saturday 21 January. Two associations with a deep First Republic tradition were thus connected, and it seemed that they had shared a natural common bond all that time.  more

The Brno City Theatre has launched the Czech premiere of the musical “Matilda” based on the famous book of the same name by Roald Dahl, one of the world’s best-selling authors. Directed by Petr Gazdík, the family show aspires to be a spectacle for the auditorium for all ages. On stage, however, it is the children who win in this demanding production, led by the lead actress Maruška Juráčková. Her performance inspires respect beyond the quantity of text, the quality of her singing, and her command of movement. To be fair, however, the children’s roles are alternated three times, and these performers have undergone the same training.  more

Noam Vazana, performing under the name Nani, is an Israeli singer who performs songs in the Jewish language Ladino. For her 2017 album “Andalusian Brew”, she collected folk songs, some of which she heard as a child from her grandmother. In 2021, she recorded her first original album of songs in Ladino, entitled “Ke Haber”. In autumn 2022, she performed in Brno at the Music Lab club in a duo with Brno percussionist Jakub Škrha. The following interview was conducted before the concert.  more


The 28th edition of the Concentus Moraviae Festival will remind us of the musical life between Kroměříž and Vienna in the 17th and 18th centuries. Concerts are traditionally held in the courtyards and salons of chateaux, in castle halls, and in the pews of basilicas, churches and synagogues. The legendary Viennese ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien has accepted the position of ensemble in residence. Today’s opening concert will feature this ensemble under the direction of Czech conductor Tomáš Netopil.  more

Tomorrow, that is Thursday, 1 June 2023, an International Children’s Day celebration will take place on the piazzetta in front of the Janáček Theatre. The event is for children ages 4 and up.  more

The Czech Ensemble Baroque will present a Czech program today at the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, the last concert of the 11th season of the Bach to Mozart series! The main guest of the evening will be the world-renowned countertenor Andreas Scholl. The motets by the Czech conductor František Ignác Tůma, whose work will be performed by Scholl for the first time in his career, will be showcased in a modern world premiere.  more

A new project titled the European Dance Competition Brno 2023 is being developed at the Brno National Theatre - an international dance competition for students of dance conservatories and professional ballet schools from all over Europe from ages 12 years to graduation. The aim of the competition is to become a platform for discovering, supporting and promoting new promising dance talents.  more

The celebration of International Dance Day will take place on the piazzetta in front of the Janáček Theatre. The evening programme will end with a gala evening of the NdB Ballet with international participation.   more

The National Theatre in Brno (NdB) commemorates the 115th anniversary of the birth of dancer, choreographer, and leading personality of the Brno Ballet Ivo Váňa Psota with an e-exhibition mapping his life and work.   more

The Year of Czech Music will present unjustly neglected composers, monumental symphonies, and commemorations of important anniversaries during the season. The Brno Philharmonic presents its 68th season, which continues its long-standing concepts and brings news for subscribers. The orchestra will enter the new season on September 14 with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”, conducted by Principal Conductor Dennis Russell Davies.   more

This year’s European Music Day in Brno will be dedicated to the broad theme of local amateur choirs. The event, to be held on 21 June at the Zelný trh Square in Brno, is the largest planned event of a year-long project called the Year of Choirs under the auspices of the Office for Brno – UNESCO City of Music. More than thirty choirs will perform there.   more

Today, 7 May 2023, the opera singer and actress Soňa Červená died. Her operatic beginnings are associated with the Brno Opera, where she also returned in recent years.   more

The Pop Messe festival is expanding its line-up for 2023. Artists such as Spiritualized, Gilla Band, Tommy Cash, Kokoko!, Clark, Mareux, Kode9, Tim Reaper, Fvck Kvlt, Berlin Manson, Kalle, and many more will be visiting the third edition of the festival in Brno.   more