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Byline: Muscia Viva

On Monday 29 March, violist Katie Yap and her Wattelseed Ensemble will join the Sutherland Trio and Water, Water, Everywhere's Luke Carbon alongside Aidan Boase for the sold out A Night At The Museum event. This unique, one-off event at Melbourne Museum will see these brilliant musicians perform works from Bach, Hildegard, Beethoven, Bernstein and many more.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Katie ahead of the concert to gain insight into the program she will take part in performing, the origins of the Wattelseed Ensemble, how she was first drawn to Baroque music, how she fell in love with the viola and much more.

Can you share with us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a Melbourne-based freelance violist, with my fingers in lots of pies (both musical and edible). I play both modern and baroque viola, and I like to keep my working life as varied as I can. I play with large orchestras like the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Australian World Orchestra, and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra; and with chamber orchestras like the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Van Diemen’s Band. My favourite kind of playing is with chamber ensembles – I am part of the Chrysalis Harp Trio, and of course, Wattleseed Ensemble, as well as joining other groups as often as I can. I teach at Monash University and privately, and I have a keen interest in baking, as you might have gathered from my comment up the top.

What’s the history of the Wattleseed Ensemble? How did you all meet and begin working together?

Wattleseed Ensemble is something I’ve been wanting to put together for a few years: a period ensemble dedicated to playing a huge range of repertoire, with an emphasis on new commissions from Australian composers. It’s a collective rather than a fixed personnel group, so it means that we can be flexible, expanding or contracting to suit different repertoire. However, the core group is a baroque string trio – violin, viola, and cello. The version of Wattleseed that’s playing for A Night At The Museum is made of up of my colleagues and dear friends, Meg Cohen on violin and Anna Pokorny on cello. They’re fantastic players, and have the diversity and flexibility to tackle anything from medieval to modern to folk music, all on gut strings!

Can you tell us a little bit about the program you’ll be performing at A Night At The Museum?

The program that we’re playing at A Night At The Museum is one that reflects what Wattleseed stands for – we’re starting out with a beautiful piece by Sydney-based composer Alice Chance, O Pastor Animarum. It’s pretty amazing that Alice wrote this piece while she was still at school, for her HSC assessment! Originally written for two violas da gamba (a baroque cousin of the cello) and arranged for viola and cello, it’s based on an antiphon by Hildegard of Bingen by the same name. We then add violin to the mix to play Processional of Embodied Souls by Hildegard herself, before visiting JS Bach in the last years of his life with the 13th Contrapunctus of his Art of Fugue. To finish, we head north to Scandinavia with two folk tunes, the Swedish Vals after Lasse i Lyby, and Da Lounge Bar by modern Norwegian hardanger player Annlaug Børsheim.

Are there any specific highlights or anything audiences should listen out for in particular?

Listen out for the way gut strings draw you in – they’re a totally different sound to modern metal strings, and they have an amazing speaking quality that gives them a wonderful texture and a more organic, intimate expression.

What was it about the viola that made you fall in love?

Ah, the viola! I’m going to quote Ed Ayres in his ode to the viola, his first love. I don’t think I can say it any better:

“With your reasonable, human-like voice you play me your inner workings of quartets and symphonies, quietly supporting the main tune, relentlessly driving the pulse, doing the behind the scenes work so that others might shine. Then you sing a short melody full of intangible emotion, somewhere between sadness and resignation, and you show me the subtle charisma that is your unique beauty. I love your weight, your stability, your clarity and your mystery. You are my true voice.”

You’ve worked extensively with Baroque repertoire throughout your career. What first drew you to Baroque music, and why have you continued to explore the repertoire?

The first time I really encountered a historically informed approach to baroque music was when I took part in the Australian Youth Orchestra’s Baroque Style Workshop in 2010, with Elizabeth Wallfisch and Neal Peres da Costa. We were playing Vivaldi violin concertos, and as a typical university viola student obsessed with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, I thought ‘oh, boring!’ How wrong I was. While Elizabeth shaped the intricate violin lines, Neal worked with us, the violists and cellists, to reveal how much incredible harmonic and rhythmic power that our seemingly boring inner parts and basslines can have, if they’re played in the right way. Since then, as I explore more of the baroque repertoire, I can’t get over how wonderful the emotions in this music are. The beguiling harmonies and the combination of emotional naiveté and complexity are incredibly engaging, and they give so much to both the player and the audience.

Both in terms of venue and how the audience will engage with your performance (moving from set to set), this is quite a departure from how chamber music is typically presented today. Why do you think it’s important to continue to creatively explore new ways to present chamber music?

I’m so excited to be part of this concert, and its fresh approach to presenting chamber music. In my own projects, I’m always looking for different ways to give performances, and I think it’s incredibly important not to get stuck in a rut. In Australia, it seems that classical music has a bit of a reputation as something a little… fuddy-duddy, or for a certain type of person (maybe, your grandma). That’s absolutely not the case, and the music itself begs to differ! It’s up to us as performers and presenters to be creative with programming, venues, presentation, and how we engage our audiences to prove that. Going to a classical concert should be a real experience, and the things that surround the music should serve to enhance it. Though COVID was in many ways a disaster for the arts, it has also given us a great impetus to reflect on how we present our artform, and to be truly creative in our concerts, and respond with new energy and imagination.

How does your artistic approach change when performing in this type of setting, compared to appearing with an orchestra or ensemble in a more ‘traditional’ performance setting?   

In this kind of setting, playing chamber music in a concert which takes an unusual format, there’s a lot more freedom. I feel that the performers can be more casual, more approachable, and more ‘real people’ in this kind of concert than in a traditional setting. When you play with an orchestra, or for a more traditional concert, there’s a level of formality and distance that is expected between the performers and the audience. That certainly serves a purpose – you can’t have a whole orchestra having a chat with the audience from the stage! But I love these kinds of concerts because suddenly both audience and performers become more real, more relatable, and the music takes on a warmer, more intimate tone. 

Katie will be performing on 29 March at Melbourne Museum for the SOLD OUT A Night At The Museum.