Each concert I’ve attended has found me by turns beaming, meditating, chuckling, and (once) crying. Trust me: they’re terrific. Now House of Time is gearing up for its third season here in New York, and preparing to venture into 20th-century repertoire. With the first concert looming on September 18, I sat down with Tatiana and Gonzalo to look at the time ahead — and the time gone by.
House of Time got started, Tatiana and Gonzalo recall, when they were invited to play for a private party. Their hosts “didn’t want random musicians,” Tatiana says; “they thought it would be much better to have a name.” Casting about for inspiration, they landed on “Cronologgia,” a play on words (“cronologia,” or “chronology,” “chronos,” or “time,” and “loggia,” or “dwelling”).
This appealed to them at first, because it would permit the group to perform music of several different periods. “Why have a name like ‘So-and-So Baroque’ when you’re doing 19th-century repertoire?” Tatiana says. But ultimately the group decided that “Cronologgia” “sounds like a disease,” and they settled on the English translation. “We liked having a name that lent itself to any repertoire, any style of music that we want to play.”
“I don’t like to put limits on what we do, in terms of dates,” Gonzalo says. “The main focus in the rest of our musical life is the 18th century. But we have been branching out, into the 17th century, a lot into the 19th century. At our first concert this season, we have our first 20th-century piece, and we’re planning a substantial late-20th-century piece for next season. It really is about paying attention to the music in its chronological context, rather than just mixing and matching. Not that we don’t combine periods, but if we do it’s probably for a reason.”
In his research, Gonzalo comes up with little-known material, some of which he isn’t sure had ever been performed before House of Time got to it. This season, the group will also perform new arrangements of Handel’s Il Pastor Fido and Rameau’s Zaïs, custom-made for the ensemble’s players.
“It’s a very Baroque approach to use the instruments you have around,” Gonzalo says. “We in the post-Romantics tend to think of orchestration as an intrinsic part of the piece. That’s certainly true for a lot of 18th-century repertoire, but by and large what we call orchestration was part of the performance, rather than intrinsic to the music. I like to take a piece of music and make it work for the instruments that we have.”
Those instruments are of the period in which the music was written. Over the centuries, instruments have changed as music has changed, Gonzalo explains, recalling that, while a 21st-century pianist can figure out how to play an 18th-century harpsichord, he didn’t know what to do with a Baroque oboe the first time he got his hands on one: the instrument had evolved so much.
“Really, when you start focusing on older music, you want to play the older instrument,” Gonzalo says. “It’s like the way Blue Grass fans prefer acoustic to electric guitar. There’s a relationship between the art and the tools. Using the right tools doesn’t guarantee you anything, but it is a good start. …Music vanishes as soon as you make it, so the process is the product, in a sense. We feel more comfortable using those tools.”
Like Tatiana, Argentine-born Gonzalo has music in his genes. His father is a conductor, and while the family lived in Paris, he asked his own teacher, Nadia Boulanger, how to get little Gonzalo started in music. She declared that “C’est trop tard!” (It’s too late) for the boy, who hadn’t yet turned four. Smitten five years later with the sound of the oboe — confounding his father, who had hoped for the violin — little Gonzalo was taken to the conservatory, where he was told, “No, you’re too young, you’re too small, and the oboe class is full.”
Tears ensued, but alone the next day he rode his bicycle back to the conservatory to ask again, and his parents had to bring him home. When the oboe teacher heard this story, he contacted the Ruiz family and gave Gonzalo lessons on the sly, until the family moved to the U.S., and he pursued a more conventional education.
And then came the Baroque oboe. The more he learned, the more he realized that “I had a sound in my head that I wasn’t hearing in real life,” and that he found himself enjoying the sound of Baroque oboe-playing less than he enjoyed the sound of playing on other period instruments. “I’ve become more flexible in my tastes since then, but I started Baroque oboe-playing with a sense of mission: ‘There’s something to be done, and I may as well be the one to do it.’”
Today, he says, “There’s been a lot of progress and improvement in the Baroque oboe world, and I like to think that I’ve made my contribution to it.” His CV attests to that: he’s won accolades for performances with leading ensembles; he’s taught at Oberlin, the Longy School, and Juilliard, as well as many master classes; and his students now play with the best groups in the country. He’s got a Grammy nomination, and examples of his work are in the music collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sound in Gonzalo’s head is now in the heads of a lot of other people.
Tatiana started violin at the age of seven, “but I really found my calling and my teacher in high school.” She followed that teacher, Julia Bushkova, from the Interlochen Arts Academy to the University of North Texas, where she studied for another five years. Still, she says, “From the age of seven to fourteen, I also led a pretty normal kid life.” By the time she got to Interlochen, “I knew that music was very important to me, and I didn’t want to live without it in my life.”
Bushkova recommended that Tatiana study Baroque violin (“and that’s quite rare, coming from a Moscow Conservatory, traditional teacher,” Tatiana observes). The Baroque violin teacher at UNT was Cynthia Roberts, another important influence on her career. “Once I started playing some of the more obscure stuff, composers I hadn’t heard of and composers I had never played before, I thought, ‘Wow, this stuff is really good!’”
She obtained a graduate degree in “regular” violin from Boston University while continuing to study Baroque on the side, then got into Juilliard’s Baroque program, then just taking off. Her teacher there was Monica Huggett, the head of the new program, with whom Gonzalo has worked for 20 years. “She is a force of nature,” Tatiana says. “I feel like music radiates from her all the time. She just plays and doesn’t care what anyone thinks.”
Today House of Time also includes members Paul Dwyer (cello), Leon Schelhase (harpsichord), Avi Stein (harpsichord), and Beiliang Zhu (cello and viola da gamba), as well as “guest stars” for individual concerts. “The Venn diagram of our best friends and the best musicians we know has a huge overlap,” Gonzalo says. “So far, everybody that’s played in House of Time is somebody that we really like.”
He contrasts the group’s concerts with those in which instrumentalists are hired by a contractor, or orchestras “where your colleagues hopefully are friendly, but you didn’t have anything to do with it. We’re very picky about whom we invite to play with us.”
Working with people they know well makes performances more dynamic, it seems, as the players respond to one another. “I like the unpredictability, no matter how much you rehearse,” Gonzalo says. “As it’s going, you’re like following a thread, not an exact road map. There’s just too many things to react to.”
“And every person that’s onstage obviously will create a different road map each time,” Tatiana agrees.
Also unlike other chamber groups, which tour and play in other group’s concert series, Gonzalo says, “We are focused on building our own audience and putting on our own concerts here in New York.”
“We’re bumping up the level every year,” Tatiana says. “Every season we’re that much better prepared, we have that much more visibility, and our audience is still growing.” They’ve just released a (gorgeous) CD of works by François Couperin and Marin Marais, and they’re pleased, too, with the success of a recent Kickstarter campaign, which means that the upcoming season is nearly in the black already.
“In some ways, we still are kind of doing everything ourselves,” Tatiana says, and Gonzalo has learned that, “when I try to wear too many hats, I do something terribly wrong.” Tatiana’s lesson has been, “Don’t wait ‘til the last minute. …Things always take more time than you expect. But that’s sort of true everywhere.” Even in the House of Time.
To purchase tickets and more information on House of Time’s upcoming season, visit the ensemble’s website, here.
Tatiana appears in Joyce DiDonato’s music video for NPR, recorded at the historic Stonewall Inn — and I appear, too, seated just behind Tatiana. This photo was taken just after the wrap.