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HAPPENED TODAY - On November 12, 1944, the conductor and composer Edgar Stillman Kelley died in Oxford (Ohio)

Richard Narroway


After his concerts at Sala Piatti, in Bergamo, and at Magazzino Musica, in Milan, I ask Richard Narroway if I can ask him some questions. He smiles and says “Yes”.

How and when were you first introduced to the Capricci by Alfredo Piatti?
It must have been back when I was a teenager, between 2004-2009. My cello teacher at the time used to assign me a new etude each week. These would include Popper, Duport and Grutzmacher etudes, as well as Caprices by Piatti, Franchomme, and Servais. I don’t think I played them so well back then, but I’m glad I had the chance to get acquainted with these studies at an early age. After a few years, by the time I was 18, I had worked through most of the Piatti Caprices. I learned the few remaining ones a little later during my undergraduate degree in Chicago.

You have posted some wonderful video tutorials of Piatti’s Capricci on youtube. How did you get the idea to do it? 
Thank you! I came up with the idea in 2014 during my Master’s degree at Juilliard. At that point, I already had quite a lot of experience playing the caprices, but I wanted to take it a step further and use my experience to help other cellists around the world. I thought that a tutorial series might make the caprices more accessible, showing one how to approach them in a logical and strategic way. It was also a great opportunity for me to bring my own playing and teaching to a higher level. There was no way I was going to let myself upload any videos where my playing wasn’t at a certain standard. Of course, this was a big challenge, not only because the caprices are very difficult, but even more so because I had to be able to articulate and demonstrate pedagogical concepts in front of a camera in a clear, concise way.

Did you expect them to be so successful all over the world?  
To be honest, I didn’t really have any expectations going into the project. I simply wanted to see how the series would evolve naturally over time. But now that I’m done with it all, I must say it is incredibly gratifying to see how many people around the world appreciate the videos and find them helpful. It really gives so much meaning to all the time and effort I invested in the project. I certainly hope the videos continue to resonate with cellists into the future.

Do you think that the study of all Piatti’s Capricci is really fundamental for cellists?
Yes, I think they are incredibly beneficial. The wonderful thing about the Piatti Caprices is that they function not only as useful technical etudes but also as charming and musically fulfilling concert pieces. In fact, I would say they are unique in this regard, making them perfectly suitable for performance situations. Oftentimes we encounter etudes that are not as musically imaginative, or just too difficult that they don’t end up sounding like music. With the Piatti Caprices, however, we never run into this problem – they are truly gems of the cello repertoire. That being said, I would also encourage cellists to balance their study of the Piatti Caprices with etudes by Popper and Grutzmacher and several others. Each composer has a different style of playing and composing, and as such, their etudes serve different purposes. I think it is important to expose oneself to as many different kinds of technical etudes as possible so that our playing remains flexible and our skillset varied.

If you had to choose in which order your students would study them, would you let them study from 1 to 12? Or in another numerical order?  
I don’t think the order in which one studies the Caprices is of paramount importance. I myself did not approach them in any specific order when I began studying them. I think it makes more sense to choose a caprice depending on what aspect of technique one would like to work on. So number 1, for example, would be great for comfort at the tip of the bow and flexibility in the bow fingers, 2 for double stops and string crossings, 3 for octaves, and so on. They are all, of course, fantastic for left-hand strength, with their continuously changing double stop formations.

Before playing Piatti’s Capricci in Bergamo, in the Sala dedicated to him where his portrait hangs on the wall, you asked me if you could visit the Donizetti library to study the autograph of the Capricci. What did you feel when you held these scores in your hands?
It was definitely an incredible experience, one that I will treasure for a long time. I felt a whole mix of emotions – awe, disbelief, fascination, gratitude, joy. But I think most of all I was just delighted to have such a rare and wonderful opportunity. It’s not every day that a cellist gets to visit the home country of Alfredo Piatti and study his autograph manuscripts! It was so satisfying to see all the details he had carefully put into the score and to admire the pristine quality of the final autograph. What a fantastic experience.

If you had to describe the acoustics of Sala Piatti to someone who has never played there, what would you tell him? 
It is resonant and beautiful, with a nice warmth to the sound – perfect for a recital. I must say it is quite a special feeling to perform there with Piatti’s portrait hanging on the wall to the side of the stage. It feels like he is there listening!

Is the place where you play important to you?
I definitely prefer certain spaces depending on the repertoire I am playing. For example, I much prefer performing solo Bach in a resonant church rather than a dry classroom. I would say the same for unaccompanied cello music in general, including the Piatti Caprices. But of course, at this point, I have played in so many different kinds of venues that I just try to adapt to whatever space I am in. Each space has a character of its own, and this allows the music to speak in a unique way depending on the environment and acoustics. Here in Italy, I was lucky to perform in two wonderful venues: the beautiful Sala Piatti, which was perfect for solo cello, and the Magazzino Musica, which was more intimate, but with a charming quality of its own. The heat and humidity of mid-July was definitely an added challenge but didn’t matter so much with the adrenaline and excitement of the concert. At the end of the day, the need to adapt is simply a necessary part of being a performer, so I try to be as flexible as possible.

What about the kind of audience? 
As musicians, I think we all love it when an audience is quiet and attentive, simply there to enjoy your performance. But of course, there are also times one will play for less attentive crowds. Again, I think it is important to be able to adapt to the situation. I always try to remind myself what a gift it is to be able to share my music with people, whoever they happen to be. So for me, whether they are musicians, general music lovers, students, young kids, or even hospital patients, my goal always remains the same: to share my music in a genuine way and to move people and inspire them through the sounds of my cello.

Arrigo Boito, an Italian composer, a friend of Alfredo Piatti, one day saw a photo of Piatti with the score of the Bach’s Suites in his hands.  Boito said: “The volume of the divine Bach he was holding in his hands, can boast of having squeezed it properly as a distiller of very pure art spirits, of musical quintessences”. Do you also think that Piatti has really distilled Bach Suites to compose his Capricci? Do you find any relations between the Suites and the Capricci?
I like Boito’s notion of pure “spirits” being “distilled” through the Bach Suites. These Suites are undoubtedly some of the purest pieces of music in existence and it is their spiritual quality that I find most compelling when performing or listening to them. For any composer writing solo cello music, I imagine it would be rather difficult, almost impossible, to escape the shadow of Bach. Certainly, in most of the solo cello music that I have played, whether it be Piatti, Britten, Cassado, Kodaly, Ysaye, or whoever else, I always find there to be a subtle nod to Bach’s influence.
In the Caprices, one can detect Baroque characteristics in the fourth caprice in particular, with its polyphony and chordal writing. The second caprice, too, seems to harken back to Bach with its religious, prayer-like quality. But we are speaking here only of a few moments. Overall I would say that these caprices are steeped in Piatti’s own charming and unique compositional style, which one can hear in the humor, lyricism, virtuosity, and contagious uplifting spirit.

During his whole life, Piatti never used the cello spike: he played with the cello stuck between his knees. Do you think you could play his Capricci in such a way too? And would it make sense to do it?
It would definitely be challenging. I feel like I would have less control and stability going up and down the fingerboard. The endpin makes things easier, thankfully! It grounds the cello and provides a feeling of security. But of course Piatti is the one who wrote them, so if he was able to play them without an endpin, I’m sure it’s possible. It would just be more difficult.
Perhaps next time I practice I will try to play them without an endpin!

Alfredo Piatti composed a cello quartet entitled “On holiday“, and dedicated to the cello students of Bergamo. After your concerts in Italy, you are finally “On holiday.” And after the holidays, now that you have concluded the video tutorials on Capricci, what do you think to dedicate yourself to?
Yes, I am delighted to have the opportunity to explore the rest of Italy! What an amazing and beautiful country. In regard to future projects, there are many possibilities. Now that I know the Caprices quite well, I would love to make an official recording that I can share with the world. That would be very exciting. As for my online Youtube videos, I will need to brainstorm some new project ideas. Oftentimes it is these “transitional” periods that I find to be most exciting because there are infinite possibilities that lie ahead.

Thank you very much, Richard. Have a nice trip to discover Italy and best wishes for the realization of all your projects… when you have defined them!