A conversation with cellist, composer, and conductor Adina Spire
In 1703, Antonio Vivaldi began teaching violin at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietá girls’ orphanage—a position he would hold for nearly forty years. Renowned for its musicians, the Pietá provided Vivaldi with numerous talented pupils, including many who went on to achieve fame.
Three hundred years later, when Romania’s Ceauşescu regime toppled in late December 1989 and chaotic aftermath ensued, eleven-year-old cellist and composer Adina Spire abruptly found herself alone in the world. An orphanage, connected to the Bezdin Monastery outside of the western Romanian city of Arad, became her home for many years and a place that would help nurture her artistic vision.
Deeply emotive and imbued with devotion, Spire’s original, avant-garde compositions and her innovative interpretations of classical and sacred works are rooted in her life experiences and identity. In addition to her Orthodox Christian upbringing, Spire’s Roma (gypsy) roots infuse so much of her music, notably the album Vivaldi Fata Tiganca (Vivaldi was a Gypsy Girl). This exquisite compilation of secular Vivaldi works plays with scurrilous historical rumors about the composer’s gender, while at the same time paying homage to his work at the Pietá.
Spire began studying cello with her mother, who was Roma, at the age of four. She later learned composition from her father and then at the music school of Arad. Her time at the Bezdin Monastery orphanage exposed her to sacred music, including liturgical chants, and the world outside its doors introduced her to the sounds of Roma street musicians.
“My approach to music is, in a first place, a devotion to music and religion,” states Spire, who believes in music’s power to communicate and effect change, both on an individual and on a collective level. For her, it is also a means of expressing her deep religious beliefs. She adds that, “[Although] it is not my primary intent, I also consider some political ideas in my work.”
“The era of the gramophone is over,” emphasizes Spire. Among her many different compositions, Spire writes film soundtrack music. She takes a cinematic, three-dimensional approach not only to composition but also to performances and recordings, which involves a “special recording technique and a non-traditional positioning of the instruments.”
Spire’s music often conveys different overlapping emotions, expressing both the human and the divine. For example, fear is layered atop faith to amplify the intensity of both emotions. During performances, she arranges the instrumentation to achieve a similar effect. “Art should…produce emotion, and when it can produce more than one at the same time that is even better,” she says. “The effect is maybe strange at first, but after getting used to it has a very deep human and spiritual sense.”
Along with other art forms, Romania’s Communist government closely censored music, including sacred works. “After the revolution, it [sacred music] has had a big renaissance,” explains Spire, who is now free to perform and conduct music of the Orthodox Church and religious pieces by Bach and Vivaldi. Secular music also fell under the scrutiny of the censors, but Spire suggests that it fared better and that the post-Communist era has not affected it as dramatically as it has sacred music.
Bezdin Ensemble and Vivaldi
Spire moves seamlessly between the sacred and secular, as exemplified by the breadth of her directorial work with the Bezdin Ensemble, a fifty-member chamber orchestra and choir based near the large Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. The ensemble performs a rich repertoire of music ranging from original compositions by Spire to the sacred works of composers such as Vivaldi and Bach. Well-established enough within only a few short years to now possess its own recording studio, the Bezdin Ensemble has a growing catalogue of recorded works.
When it was founded in 2008, the ensemble was a volunteer group with limited resources, consisting of classically trained artists—including a number of Roma musicians—and musicians from the Bezdin Monastery orphanage. “Now it is a little different since in Russia we have had enough resources to transform it into a professional ensemble,” says Spire.
Spire’s childhood interest in Roma music and her strong connection to her Roma ancestry comes through in her style of directing the Bezdin Ensemble, perhaps most evidently so in the album Vivaldi Fata Tiganca. Historical rumors exist claiming that Vivaldi, an ordained priest, was in fact really a woman. Identifying closely with his work with female musicians at the Pietá, Spire decided to invert the rumor and use it to pay homage to the composer.
Vivaldi Fata Tiganca contains secular Vivaldi works for strings, including a number of well-known pieces such as an arrangement for cello from the “Winter” movement of the Four Seasons and a masterful, fiery interpretation of “La Follia.” The album incorporates Roma string techniques, such as “hammering” with the bow, in many places. “Since the Bezdin Ensemble has quite a strong gypsy tradition,” explains Spire, “in playing the string instruments we decided to use a similar texture in the articulation to be consistent with the choice of the story.”
Through her music, Spire gives rich and creative expression to her religious beliefs and Roma heritage, as well as to her multiplicity of life experiences and influences. As committed to exploring the complex range of human emotions in her work as she is devoted to expressing the divine, Spire creates a beautiful and transcendent listening experience through both her interpretation of traditional works and through her original compositions.
All images courtesy Adina Spire.