Flutist Laura Rónai Serenades The Country Of The Future With Music Of The Past

In an age of mass culture, where listeners worldwide know who Michael Jackson is, and what his problems are, viewers follow the lives of the characters on Friends, and moviegoers go with Frodo, Sam and Gollum into Mordor, it is worth remembering that much of our culture depends on the singular commitment of artists who spread the word and change the world one person at a time, and do so for love of art, and not for financial interest. The subcultures that they nourish preserve the values of the past, and transform them for the future.

One subculture in the area of music that began as a sort of counter-culture, and in many places might now be considered part of the mainstream, is what is often called early music, an approach to the performance of the music of medieval, renaissance and early modern times which seeks to imaginatively recreate musical sounds and approaches of the past which have been lost, often using instruments from the past, or reproductions (known as “period instruments”). This international subculture began about fifty years ago in England, the Low Countries, Germany and the United States, and spread gradually to the rest of the western world, coming later to the Latin countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Brazil has been part of the western world as far as music is concerned since its beginnings, with all the institutions of modern Western musical life since the 19th century — conservatories, opera, bands, orchestras, but for various reasons its musical life still stands somewhat out of the mainstream, and Brazilian musicians in the classical sphere usually must emigrate to make a mark in the wider world (a recent example is Bruno Procópio, an award-winning young harpsichordist who has been living in Paris for the last ten years). Fundamental to maintaining the connections with Europe and North America are the musicians who are trained outside Brazil, return, and transmit the values and approaches they bring with them from abroad.

laura-ronai-1(Photo by Júlia Rónai)

A major figure in making early music a part of musical life in Rio de Janeiro is flutist Laura Rónai. A native carioca, raised in Bairro Peixoto, Copacabana, by parents who immigrated from Hungary and Italy respectively, she began her musical career with study on the recorder (known then in Brazil as the “flauta block,” showing that it made its way here from Germany, where it is the “Blockflöte”). Soon thereafter she moved to the modern transverse flute, and by her teens was working professionally in Brazilian orchestras. Personal reasons led her to the United States to study flute at SUNY Purchase, then one of the most exciting places to study music in New York, with a brilliant young faculty that included flutist Sandra Miller and harpsichordists Robert Levin and Steve Lubin. Miller was important in the early years of early music, working with harpsichordist and conductor James Richman of the ensemble Concert Royal, in Manhattan.

Miller introduced Rónai to the baroque flute, that is, the flute of Bach’s day, made of wood, with only a single key, softer in tone than the modern instrument, but with expressive possibilities more appropriate to the music written for the instrument in the eighteenth century. Rónai had already been searching for new ways to approach the interpretation of the music of this period, still an important part of the flute’s repertoire, and the darker, less brilliant, more conversational tone of the baroque instrument seemed ideal. Perhaps it had to do with her carioca origins. Rio is a city where the flute is pervasive, whether in the instrumental filigree of choro, or as an important part of the sound of bossa nova. And although cariocas in public are noisy (check the decibel level in any Rio restaurant), the musical tone of the bossa nova could not be more intimate, with the vocals almost spoken, and none of the histrionic dramaticity of the music of the rest of Latin America. The baroque flute was a way for Rónai to recapture the personal tone of a music betrayed by an attempt to make it speak louder than seemed natural. Better to persuade, to charm, to flatter, than to hector, command, shout.

After six years studying in the United States Rónai returned to Brazil in the eighties at a time when the country was making the transition back to democracy, but when there was still plenty of support from national, state and local governments for culture. She began performing as a duo with harpsichordist Marcelo Fagerlande, and was able to travel throughout the country performing music of the Baroque — such well-known figures as Bach, Handel, Telemann, but also the less well-known music of the French Baroque by composers like Hotteterre, Blavet, La Barre, Leclair. Her work was well received by critics in Rio (and mentioned in verse by the great Carlos Drummond de Andrade, whose statue sits on the sidewalk in Copacabana at Posto 6), and she was able to make several recordings, not an easy trick in Brazil, where the multinational recording companies record popular music, but not classical. Financial and governmental crises eventually led to a serious reduction in funding for the arts, and it became increasing difficult for Rónai to tour. By the nineties she had become part of the faculty in the school of music at the University of Rio (UniRio), based in Urca, one of two flutists at an institution which awards the doctorate in music (the only institution to do so in Rio), but which was typical of universities in Brazil in preserving a pedagogy which took no notice of the innovations in the area of performance brought by the increasing success of early music in Europe and the U.S. Thus, although Rónai had been active for two decades as a performer on a period instrument, she had no professional venue in which to pass her experience on to students.

Working in the area of early music in Brazil presents other challenges as well. Musicians in the northern hemisphere often take for granted research resources that do not exist in Brazil, where funding for libraries is usually woefully inadequate. A musician in the United States can easily find scores for early music in the libraries of universities or the major municipal public libraries, can listen to recordings, and if he or she wants to purchase a recording or score, can do so without having to pay crippling import duties simply to get the material through customs. Similarly, the musician who wants to acquire a good quality copy of a baroque instrument has a variety of choices, whether going to a shop, or contacting a maker directly. The Brazilian market is too small to support specialized makers of instruments, and so the Brazilian musician must import the tools of his trade, particularly difficult in the case of harpsichords, fragile and bulky. At least a flute can fit in a carry-on bag. And again, there are duties to be paid. The Internet has brought some positive changes. Anyone who can get on the web can consult the catalogs of dozens of important music libraries for free, and even if the local library does not have the latest musical encyclopedia, it can be accessed over the web for an annual subscription fee.

In spite of the obstacles that she has had to face (among them acquiring her own music library of baroque works for the flute), Rónai has had increasing success in her teaching of late. The generation of Brazilian musicians now in their twenties has benefited from the groundwork laid in the eighties and nineties, and even though early music is still not an official part of the curriculum at UniRio, several of her students there have purchased flutes from abroad and have begun concert careers of their own in early music. Notable among these is Alexandre Bittencourt, in his mid-twenties, who has years of experience as a professional flutist in choro with the ensemble Abraçando Jacaré (which released its first disc in 2002), and who is now devoted to the baroque, performing with harpsichordist João Rival, a student of Rónai´s former colleague Marcelo Fagerlande, who teaches at the other school in town, UFRJ, in the center. Along with flutist Claudio Frydman and cellists Luciano Rocha and Caio Benévolo, Rónai, Bittencourt, and Rival form the Camerata Quantz (as of 2002, the official early music ensemble of UniRio), which performs frequently in Rio, and was even able to draw on two more cariocas to perform the concertos for five flutes by Boismortier at the Mansão Figner in July 20031.

Rónai has also been instrumental in bringing important figures in the world of early music (among them Sandra Miller, Andrew Appel, James Richman, Lisa Terry, Les Sonneurs, Laura Heimes, Loretta O´Sullivan, Ryan Brown, Emanuelle Guigues, Suzie Leblanc and Kenneth Gilbert) to teach and perform in Rio, and her skills in English make it possible for the non-Portuguese-enabled to bring their ideas to Cariocas who are eager to get exposure to what is happening outside of the Cidade Maravilhosa. Future projects include a possible Baroque orchestra, although as yet there is no string teacher in Rio who is doing the sort of work that Rónai has with her flute studio.

Although the raven-haired Rónai is only in her forties, it is safe to say that early music and classical flute in Rio would not be what they are today without her nurturing influence. She is a presence committed to sharing her wealth of knowledge, helping develop the careers of her younger colleagues, and bringing the music she loves to Rio audiences.

Originally published in 2003 at www.BrazilMax.com


1. The Camerata Quantz has evolved to become the Baroque Orchestra of UniRio, a full orchestra including baroque strings, oboes, bassoons, flutes, recorders and vocalists. Photo by Júlia Rónai