Paul Bagley

  I grew up in Duluth, MN, where I started playing violin at the age of 4 in the local Suzuki program, and was home-schooled all the way through high school. My parents listened to an eclectic mix of rock, jazz, bluegrass, and classical, so I developed a broad interest in all types of music. I completed my Bachelor’s in violin performance locally at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where I studied with Erin Aldridge. At the same time, I played in the local professional ensembles, the Duluth-Superior Symphony and the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra. In the former, I learned much of the standard orchestral repertoire, while the latter is known for “adventurous programming” of modern and neglected older works.

  On the recommendation of my teacher, I attended the main University of Wisconsin in Madison for my Master’s degree, where I studied with Tyrone Greive, then concertmaster of the Madison Symphony, in which I also played for a year. As co-concertmaster of the university orchestra, I played the solo parts for Bach’s B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and Lehar’s The Merry Widow. I also did volunteer teaching for Music Makers, a free strings program for mainly low income and minority elementary students.

  My interest in the history of violin playing began in high school, when my teacher, Diane Balko, lent me several books, among them Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian’s books on violin playing. I wrote a paper on the Leclair sonatas in undergrad, and researched 19th century reviews of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto during my Master’s. Prof. Greive was also deeply interested in the history of the violin, so many of my lessons ended up as discussions of, say, the French school of violin playing, or the Russian school, and how they developed.

  By the time I started my DMA at the University of College Park, MD, I knew that I was greatly interested in the history of the violin, particularly how the development of the instrument paralleled the development of compositional and performing styles. I gave my lecture recital on performing and teaching Handel’s violin sonatas, and my dissertation was on “Mysticism in 20th and 21st Century Violin Music.” I chose to play my dissertation recitals on all gut strings, partly because I felt they gave me a richness and wide expressive range that was ideal for the romantic and avant-garde works on my programs.

  Since graduating, I have mainly been a freelance violinist (and sometime violist) in the greater Washington D.C. area. I also co-teach a string class for the Baltimore Symphony’s OrchKids program, which is an after-school program for inner city elementary students. On the performing side, I have played in orchestras such as the Alexandria Symphony, Fairfax Symphony, Lancaster Symphony, and at the Kennedy Center as a violist in the Pan American Symphony; as well as chamber groups such as the Phillips Camerata. As soloist, I have appeared with the University of Maryland Symphony in Paul Moravec’s Brandenburg Gate, and with Montgomery College’s Metropolitan Orchestra in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Cello in D minor. I have done studio recording as part of the Washington Chamber Orchestra with cellist Amit Peled on Centaur Records, as well as for the Washington Shakespeare Company. I have appeared in two ensembles broadcast internationally—the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra on BBC Persia, and the Catholic University Orchestra on EWTN. With the LSCO, I have been fortunate to perform two concertos, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with violist Jonas Benson, and Brahms’s Double Concerto with cellist Aleks Tengesdal. Performing the Brahms was a particularly harrowing experience, as my (gut) E string snapped 15 minutes before I was to walk on stage, so I was tuning at every tutti. I have heard that the reason most violin concertos are in D major is that it’s resonant and easy to play in, but I suspect the even more practical reason is so that the soloist can retune during the tuttis easily and discreetly. The video of the performance can be found here on YouTube: Mvmt I, Mvmt II, Mvmt III.

  I first heard about Gamut strings while singing in choir in high school. We had a workshop with the Rose Ensemble from St. Paul, MN, an early music vocal group. There was a vielle player with them, and since I found the instrument fascinating, I asked her where she got strings for such a thing. She told me about Dan Larson in Duluth. I looked him up in the phone book (yes, it’s that long ago) to discover that his shop was within walking distance from my house. I didn’t run out right then to buy a set of violin strings, but the name stuck with me, so once I had time to experiment over the summer, I visited the shop and got a set of gut strings. I’d used Dominants for as long as I could remember, so the sound and feel were a revelation. That was around 2005, and since then I’ve played on gut strings almost continuously, either wound (e.g. Pirastro, Lenzner, the old Golden Spirals from d’Addario) or plain (mostly Gamuts and D strings from Pure Corde, some Aquila and Toro on occasion). Even with different instruments over the years (3 violins, the occasional borrowed viola), I’ve kept coming back to the Gamuts. I was delighted when Dan started offering wound strings without the silk underlayer—at least on my current instrument (an anonymous 19th century French violin), the wound G with no underlayer is the richest, most resonant and projecting string in existence. I’ve tended towards heavier gauges, in part because it’s more historically accurate, and in part for a bigger, slightly darker sound which I don’t have to worry as much about inadvertently crushing. My violin doesn’t seem to take heavy gauges quite as well on the upper strings, so I’ve maxed out at E 0.64, A 0.84, D 1.14-1.18 and G 170eq. These are what you can hear on the recording links.

  My choice to play on gut strings is deeply connected with my philosophy about music in general. For me, music is, above all, expressive. Since my repertoire runs the gamut of styles and periods, I want to have equipment that affords me the widest possible range of expression. I find that gut strings, in addition to a beautiful baseline sound, provide the widest range of dynamics, colors, and articulations. Additionally, playing on them feels more organic—it feels like I’m physically pulling the tone out of the string rather than just skating on top.

  The combination of richness, warmth, and wealth of articulations and colors means I can blend or come to the fore as appropriate, making it easy to play in a recording studio, live chamber group, orchestra, or as a soloist in any style or genre. Thus, on the same violin and string setup (wound G, plain D, A, E) I have played Handel with harpsichord (Sonata in A Major, HWV 361, II. Allegro; Sonata in F Major, HWV 370, III. Largo), Bach cantatas, Black Angels for electric string quartet, my dissertation recital series of 20th and 21st century works, and the solos to both Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and Brahms’s Double Concerto. Additionally, I find the thickness and texture of plain gut strings make certain extended techniques particularly effective, such as ponticello, col legno, and extremely high pizzicato. For a sample of my forays into the extreme avant-garde: John Zorn: Goetia, mvmts IV, V, and VI.

  Also on the physical side, playing on gut strings has helped me to improve the technical aspects of my playing as well. The fact that you can’t force the sound out of the strings by hitting or pressing them with the bow has encouraged me to develop a much healthier, more flexible, and more disciplined right hand technique. Furthermore, I find that gut strings give me much more feedback about what I’m actually doing—if I tense up a bit, or bow a little crooked, or my bow slides a bit towards or away from the bridge, or my bow speed is inconsistent, the strings tell me immediately. I have to be a more honest player, and the strings help me do that by fostering my self-awareness, and keeping me from becoming complacent. If I’m Inspector Clouseau, then gut strings are my Cato (though I hope I have a little more self-awareness than that).

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