Tekla Cunningham
Photo credit: Teresa Tam Studio

Tekla Cunningham, who plays Baroque violin, viola, and viola d'amore, enjoys a varied and active musical life. She joined American Bach Soloists 20 years ago in our 2001-2002 season and has performed with ABS as concertmaster and principal violinist ever since. In her home town of Seattle, she is concertmaster of Stephen Stubbs' Pacific MusicWorks and principal second violin with Seattle Baroque Orchestra & Soloists. She directs the Whidbey Island Music Festival, a summer concert series presenting vibrant period-instrument performances of repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to Beethoven.

An avid chamber musician, Tekla enjoys exploring the string quartet repertoire of the 18th and early 19th century with the period-instrument Novello Quartet, whose abiding interest is the music of Haydn. She is also a member of La Monica, an ensemble dedicated to music of the 17th century, whose concerts have been reviewed as “sizzling”, and praised for their “irrepressible energy and pitch-perfect timing”. With Jillon Dupree (harpsichord), and Vicki Boeckman (recorders), she plays in Ensemble Electra, known for its inventive programs and energetic performances.

Tekla received her musical training at Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory (where she studied History and German Literature in addition to violin), Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, in Vienna, Austria, and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she completed a Master’s degree with Ian Swenson. She teaches Suzuki violin in both German and English and is on the Early Music faculty of Cornish College for the Arts.

Tekla shares lots of her recent experiences with us. Enjoy!
Q: How have you coped with sheltering-in-place?

It has been very challenging to have everything come to a halt, but having the kids doing their schoolwork from home has provided some welcome structure. My younger son’s kindergarten teacher sent a new video each day telling us the day of the week and the date; it made my day, every single time! I’m grateful for this time with my kids. My younger son is learning to read and it’s wonderful to watch all of the pieces click into place! My older son is entering middle school this year and has been very focused on his social circle so having this extended time together is very precious.

One of the joys of being sheltered in place has been spending more time in the garden. It’s a work in progress but very satisfying to see things blooming and growing. I have a few vegetables — tomatoes, beans, peas, greens, beets, herbs, and lots of flowers. Watching the minute changes from day to day especially in early spring was incredible — I’ve never spent this much time in the garden so early in the year. In late summer there are hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, and at a time when the world is so chaotic, seeing these little creatures busy at their work and finding nourishment is very reassuring.
Q: These days, lots of people are sharing lists of the favorite books, movies, etc. that might be enjoyed by others. Do you have any recommendations?

Normally, life is so busy I don’t have as much time for reading as I would like. It’s great to get lost in a book! 

  • Angelo Pellegrini's The Food Lover’s Garden. Angelo Pellegrini’s opinionated and extremely entertaining book is part gardening manual and part manual on how to lead the good life. Highest recommendation! 
  • Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light was one of the first books I read during lock down. This expansive and stunning conclusion to the Cromwell trilogy is devasting in the way it slowly sets up Cromwell’s eventual downfall. We all know how the story ends, but the pacing and perspective make for riveting reading. 
  • Richard Powers' Overstory was a recommendation from my old book group and combines many different threads together in a powerful and moving narrative about ecology, climate change, technology and its unintended consequences, and the interconnectedness of human relationships. 
  • Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica. Rita Dove is a former US Poet Laureate who wrote this wonderful collection of poems that brings the story of George Bridgetower to life. Bridgetower was the son of a self-described African Prince (who served as Prince Nicholas’s valet at Esterhazy) and a Polish domestic servant. Bridgetower became a virtuoso violinist and was the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s sonata for violin and piano. This sonata was later re-dedicated the Kreutzer Sonata, after Ludwig and George fell out over the affections of a pretty girl. 
  • Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours – this book of poems is very, very good company when time stands still. 

I’ve also enjoyed reading some childhood favorites to my kids like Madeline L’Engle's Wrinkle in Time series and Michael Ende’s The Never-ending Story

Movies are a great escape and I particularly enjoy Wes Anderson. I love how he creates self-contained worlds. The Life Aquatic is a perfect example of an entirely self-contained imagined society. I’ve been revisiting some of Billy Wilder’s films like The Apartment and Some Like It Hot as well as the amazing catalogue of delights from Studio Ghibli. Whisper of the Heart is a coming of age story about a young violinmaker who wants to make it to Cremona, Italy to study violinmaking. There’s a beautiful scene where the boy’s grandfather and his friend appear with viola da gamba, lute, cornetto, and various other Early Music instruments and join the young violinist/luthier and his writer friend in a session on John Denver’s “Country Roads.”
Photo credit: Teresa Tam Studio

Q: So many musical performances have been canceled recently, but have you been able to take on any new musical projects? Have you delved into repertory that you hadn’t had time to work on before? 

My biggest new project has been working on all of the Brahms violin sonatas with a pianist friend which has been an absolute joy and a bit of a departure as I spend most of my time with 17th- and 18th-century music. There’s so much to unravel in Brahms — so many fascinating layers upon layers, and of course to get to play music with a dear friend at this time has been deeply nourishing. There’s something about Brahms’ music that feels so expansive and connected, and that has been a wonderful antidote to the contraction and isolation of this lockdown phase. 

For many musicians and for me, Bach is a solace and an old friend. I’ve been playing a lot of the E Major Partita to experience and internalize the music’s pure joy and delight. I’ve also been looking at the Johann Roman Assagi for solo violin. Recently I took part in filming an outdoor music video — the most memorable scene was carrying a harpsichord out to a sand spit on the beach and playing Biber and Albertini violin sonatas to the sound of seagulls and lapping waves. The other big project has been taking the summer chamber music festival that I direct online. This has been a huge undertaking!! There are three online-only concerts that will be available beginning August 21 until the end of September, www.whidbeyislandmusicfestival.org.
Q: You have many other strong interests. Have the past months given you a chance to enjoy those other pursuits?

A friend of mine got me interested in locally grown flour so I’ve been experimenting with different kinds of freshly milled whole grain flours in my bread baking. I’ve definitely baked more bread than I ever have — at one point I had 150 pounds of various flours in the kitchen. With two growing boys at home we go through a lot of bread. Last December, Catherine Motuz (a wonderful sackbut player who teaches at the Scola Cantorum in Basel) gave me part of her Swiss sourdough starter that she brought to a project we did together in Vancouver. In addition to bread it turns out you can make delicious cinnamon rolls, babka, focaccia, crumpets, pancakes, waffles, and more. Tending to this little bubbling starter and keeping it alive and healthy has been very satisfying. I’m looking ahead to winter and have been stocking the pantry by preparing all kinds of jams and chutneys. I have blackberries soaking in brandy for crème de mûre and brandied cherries waiting for winter Manhattans. Winter is coming!
Q: Our audiences love you and your performances. And we’re so happy that you love to be with us at ABS. Are there any standout reasons why you look forward to your future projects with ABS? 

I so look forward to being back in a room with some of my favorite musicians working together to create performances of beauty and joy, and to share that with the incredible ABS audiences. This moment of pause has reminded me again and again of the power and grace of community. Getting the whole ABS community back together — musicians, staff and audience — will be a deeply meaningful and memorable event. I can’t wait! 
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Preludio from Violin Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006
Be well and stay well!
from all of us at ABS
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