By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
The Hutchins Consort is an unusual assemblage of local musicians, all of whom play violins. The instruments are actually a family of eight violins, each one pitched a half-octave from the next, ranging from an 11-inch treble to a 7-foot contrabass, all created by a single violinmaker, the late Carleen Hutchins.
Hutchins, who died two years ago at age 98, revolutionized the making of violins in the 1960s, and was rewarded with a Guggenheim Fellowship and legions of fans and disciples. In her long lifetime, she built only six full sets of instruments, one of which is in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Two of them belong to the Hutchins Consort, founded in 1999 by Joe McNalley, who first fell in love with one of Hutchins’ contrabass violins when he was a music student at UCSD and Hutchins was keynote speaker at the 1983 convention of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego.
McNalley, who has had a long and varied career in jazz and orchestral music, said he immediately “got hooked on the instrument.”
“I tried to design one myself, but I couldn’t figure out the physics,” he said.
“Dr. Hutchins gave me lessons over the phone, and we talked about getting a group together.”
It wasn’t until 1998 that McNalley’s group coalesced, and bought a set of violins from Hutchins. The following year, they gave their first public concert, and they’ve been going strong ever since. An added blessing: the violinmaker left them another set when she died.
McNalley, the Consort’s artistic director, does most of the octet’s arrangements, about 200 of the 250 pieces in their repertoire. It takes a pool of 18 musicians to make an octet, and ultimately the plan is to have a whole string orchestra.
“It would be the first orchestra since the French kings with all instruments by the same maker,” said McNalley. That would put Hutchins on a par with the great 17
century luthier, Nicolo Amati.
In performance, besides their high level of musical talent, the Consort also displays a wacky sense of humor.
“I always thought classical music should be more fun,” McNalley said. “After all, we have fun doing it. We take the music seriously, but not ourselves.”
If you’ve never seen them at play, their upcoming concert at the Neurosciences Institute would be a great time to start.
They’re featuring Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” not exactly an unusual choice. But the piece will include “Spontaneous Fantasia,” a live video show by multimedia artist J-Walt who will be creating real-time computer animation to accompany the music. The Consort will add some of their own improvisations, in true baroque tradition, and a few non-traditional instruments, like accordion and guitar.
Also on the program is Bach’s “Concerto in E Major.” And for something completely different, there’s a world premiere: Jeff Harrington’s “Song of R’lyeh,” which mixes microtonal music with rock-and-roll rhythms in a work inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, grandmaster of cosmic horror stories. R’lyeh is a lost underwater city where an evil deity is imprisoned in one of Lovecraft’s weird tales.
McNalley said he met the Mississippi-born composer, who now lives in France, on Facebook. “I asked him if he’d be interested in writing something for the Consort, and three weeks later, the piece arrived! He uses an extended scale to evoke a weird, alien world. And he actually lived in a Brooklyn building that Lovecraft once lived in!”
This month, after a successful East Coast tour, the Consort performed at the Acoustical Society of America convention, where McNalley first met Hutchins and her instruments. “A great privilege!” said McNalley. “We’ve come full circle!”
If you go
If you go
What: Hutchins Consort: ‘The Four Seasons Meet the Old Gods’
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19
Where: Neurosciences Institute, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive
Contact: (760) 632-0554