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A Conversation with Caterina Lichtenberg on Her New Release, "Solo"

ArtistWorks classical mandolin master Caterina Lichtenberg is back once again with her latest release, appropriately titled Solo. We recently spoke with Caterina to get some insight on Solo, which is out now (click here to buy in the US and here to buy within the EU), and check in on how she’s handling these challenging times. 


How are you holding up during these tough times?

I'm actually doing pretty well. I can deal with this right now because I never get bored. I'm of course, very sympathetic with all my friends and many people who don't feel so good but I'm entertaining myself and always find something to do, and I now have the time to finish so many things I couldn't in past years. Living with Mike Marshall there are so many things we share. We're homeschooling our kids, so I feel not even a minute of boredom.


I'm very occupied, but very aware that for many people it is not this way. In general I'm very optimistic thinking the good times will come back where we can perform and travel around the world. I think this is just a period. That's why I'm saying to myself. I'd best enjoy this time and do all the things I never had time for, because it will be over soon, and then we are back on our crazy schedule and running around.


How much of this album was recorded before the pandemic?

It was all recorded before but we didn't finish the mixing, editing and the cover and everything else that comes with it. Having two children, I found it difficult to find the time. I felt there's always something more important than my CD compared to the needs of my children: my teaching at the Conservatory, my students, and having to perform or needing to practice for some concert. The CD was in the waiting line.


This is the 13th CD you've released on your own, correct?

Exactly, lucky 13 (laughs)! In the past I'd recorded many CDs in a chamber music setting. I love to play with other people because music is like communicating. All my CDs are with one or two more people. I recorded my first four with a guitarist and lute player Mirko Schrader, but I've recorded three projects with Mike and a CD of early music with a singer and a harpsichordist, and then one of contemporary music and one of music from South America playing with Diego Jascalevich on charango. Now, finally, was a time to come back to my very, very early roots, playing just by myself.


Tell us about the different instrumentation used to record this album.

I recorded a mix of Baroque, Romantic and Contemporary music and tried to include many different instruments. I recorded, for example, the Bach Cello Suite on a Gibson H-4 mandola. The tuning of the American mandola is the same as the cello, just an octave higher, but the same pitches. I found this very interesting and nice to play in the same key as the original composition. We tried to find the right pick for the mandola and experimented with many. At the end I settled on a feather, a quill from a bird, which I use usually for my Baroque mandolin. This is an interesting combination playing a Gibson with a quill, like it had been done in the baroque era. Maybe that is the first time it has been tried.


There's a piece by Carl Friedrich Abel on soprano Baroque mandolin, which has six double gut strings. This particular instrument I always play with a bird feather. The tuning of this instrument is very similar to the Viola da Gamba, tuning with 4ths and 3rds. This piece was originally written for the instrument so that's why this seemed like a good choice.


The Alto Baroque mandolin, which is the same tuning like the Baroque, but a fifth lower. It was used on "Partita V" by Filippo Sauli from the 18th century.


I also played a few pieces on my contemporary German mandolin made by Alfred Woll. I recorded the "1st Violin Fantasia" by Georg Philipp Telemann and "Prelude" by the great Italian composer from the time of Puccini, Raffaele Calace. The last piece on the CD is a contemporary piece by the Japanese composer Kuwahara, also on my Woll mandolin.


Four different instruments were used. I could have used more, almost every piece on a different mandolin, but I recorded in America and on the airplane you can only bring so many instruments!


You're known for pushing the boundaries. What kind of experimentation can we expect from this album?

I experimented with different instruments and chose pieces of very different epochs — a kind of cross section of the classical mandolin world. But the main idea was I wanted to play the solo pieces which have had a very important meaning in my life. I explain this a bit in the liner notes. Telemann, for example, is a composer born in the town I grew up in, Magdeburg, Germany. Raffaele Calace, from the 19th century Romantic style is very Italian and represents my very emotional Italian part (I'm one quarter Italian).


Kuwahara is a composer who is very important for the classical mandolin scene. He finished six solo pieces at the end of his life which are technically very difficult, but very beautiful and interesting with a Japanese sensibility. I met Kuwahara in person a few times, first in Germany as a student and later he invited me several times to perform in Japan at his festival. Unfortunately, he died way too early. I'm thankful to have met him when he was still healthy and full of energy. It was such an amazing experience to meet him in person and talk about music. I tried to put this intensity into the recording by playing a piece which he wrote while fighting his illness.


There is plenty of Baroque music on the project. I love Baroque music and had to include of course Johann Sebastian Bach, my favorite composer. I made a combination in between playing really early music and then playing it on a Gibson mandola from the early 20th century, in fact combining German music with an American instrument. I found this stretch very interesting, and I don't think it has been done by any of my classical colleagues in Germany. Those Gibson instruments are more popular in Europe for non-classical music, but my Gibson mandola sounds so beautiful and warm. I got it from our friend David Grisman and especially this piece, I think, sounds especially wonderful on this instrument. So I tried to combine many things, different periods, different instruments, technically challenging pieces, but also very soulful, warm and beautiful slow pieces.


I hope people will like this combination. It's like a big pot of yummy soup with all the different ingredients I put into it.


With live performances on hold for the time being, how are you satisfying the performing itch?

What I did in the past weeks was taking (and having) time to explore and play many pieces I always wanted to study. I went back to many historical mandolin methods and books and paged through them all and sat in the garden and played for the birds and the trees. I didn't feel I needed to play a live performance because I felt that now it's time to go into my soul and into studying. I had the feeling that I was still performing, not for an actual audience but for the whole universe. It might sound a little bit Bay Area style to say this, but really, I saw so many little critters, deer, birds, trees, etc. in nature while I was practicing outside and so I had the feeling that I was performing for them.


Sometimes people passed down the hill going somewhere and they would wave to me with a smile or stand there for a while, so I had the feeling I was connecting with people, just not in a room in a performance situation. Times of not performing and not running around like crazy have been rare for me. It's important to get some quiet time for recharging. You need those times of going back to the basics and to your roots and time to reflect on life in general and music. And so I tried to see this time more as a gift. As I said at the beginning, I could see it this way because I'm very sure we will come back to those good old times of performing. These three months or six months, whatever it will take the Coronavirus to leave us alone, as a time for coming back to one's self and collecting all your energy for later when everything opens up again.


Where can we hear the album?

You can buy a physical CD in the US through my website or in Europe through the New Acoustic Gallery. Digital downloads will be available in the very near future through CDBaby.


How are you celebrating the release of the album?

Mike made a batch of his own wine 20 years ago. To celebrate we cracked open some of those bottles and had a little taste. Mike is not only an amazing mandolin player, he's a great cook. I feel I'm eating every day at the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley.


When I got the CD the first day, I was holding it and afraid to listen. It's always the same with me. When I make a CD, I'm so critical that I cannot listen to it for a few days. So it was just laying there and then later I put it on and listened secretly in my room... A week or 10 days later, I actually can listen to and enjoy it, but it took me a while.


We're happy to hear you're doing well.

That we are! Thank you.




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