No shrinking viol: ‘six of the best’ from the marais project – Jennifer Eriksson interview

Jennifer Eriksson


Viol (viola da gamba) consort The Marais Project’s upcoming concert Six of the Best was conceived high in the Rocky Mountains of Canada by Jennifer Eriksson, founder and music director of the ensemble. Like the setting in which it was created, it has elements that bear witness to centuries as well as the freshness and surprise of new life.

Six of the Best features music by five early French composers, Couperin, Forqueray, Dollé, Marais and D’Hervelois – celebrity musicians who lived during the rule of Louis XIV in France. Alongside their music, The Marais Project will perform a new commission by Paul Lowin Award winning Australian composer Rosalind Page, the second work she has composed especially for the ensemble.

Speaking to Jennifer Eriksson during a busy week of rehearsals, Eriksson says “It’s a kind of like a ‘taster’ concert, an introduction to the hundreds of valuable works these fabulous viola da gamba composers produced. The premiere of Rosalind’s piece, is an added bonus.”

Eriksson curated the concert during a 5 week winter residency at the Banff Arts Centre in Canada, the result of a scholarship awarded by NSW Arts, the State Government arts funding body. “Banff was amazing”, Eriksson marvelled, “It is one of the largest arts centres in the world in an inspiring setting. Artists of all genres come there and about 50 musicians were in residence when I was there. I was able to meet and talk with them and perform concerts together. We even had our own little huts for practice at any time. I benefited greatly from the opportunity to meet other international artists and practice six hours a day!”

Commenting on the decline in the popularity of the viol in the latter part of the 18th century, Eriksson observed “Much of the music I’m playing in the concert is amongst the last music that was written for the viol. It is incredibly hard to play. At the time, the violin family was coming into fashion with strings that allowed violins and cellos a louder dynamic. Pianos were being built with pedals and concert halls were getting bigger. The viol couldn’t match these changes.”.

Like most viola da gamba players, Eriksson began her career on another stringed instrument, studying the cello at the Sydney Conservatorium. After she discovered the viola da gamba she furthered her studies  at the Rotterdam Conservatorium in the late 80’s, at a time when the resurgence of Baroque and Early music was gathering momentum.

Then came the 1991 movie Tous les matins du monde about the life of viol player Marin Marais (1656 – 1728) and his mentor Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (ca. 1640–1700). Winning 8 Cesar Awards and starring Gerard Depardieu, it re-kindled an unlikely popular interest in Early music. Ultimately, contemporary exponents like Jordi Savall and Wieland Kuijken infused new life into the performance of these ancient instruments. Eriksson says “They are two amazing players who brought back this wonderful repertoire, which people hadn’t heard for centuries. To have extreme and amazing musicians like that was a huge boost. They definitely saw the viol back on the map.”

Whilst a substantial amount of the repertoire for the viol  goes back several hundred years, part of Eriksson’s mission in not letting its popularity lapse again is to commission new works for her ensemble. “The Marais Project has commissioned about eight works over the years and we will perform one of these, by Rosalind Page in our upcoming concert.  I’m very interested in playing music that is written today. It keeps the instrument alive and gives us Baroque players new challenges. Kevin Hunt and Paul Cutlan who are both jazz pianists have written for us, as well as Dan Walker.  We  seem to have a string of new and contemporary works which we can premiere every year.”

Six of the Best launches  The Marais Project’s 14th consecutive year of presenting fine music for the viola da gamba. Says Eriksson “It is music that people would not normally hear.  Some of these composers are very rarely played. This is possibly a once- in- a-lifetime opportunity to hear something really special from five of the greatest composers for the viola da gamba as well as a new work conceived especially for it.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney

Click here for concert information. Watch for insights into The Marais Project’s new CD Lady Sings the Viol.



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