As a kid growing up in Sioux City, Matthew Baker couldn’t have dreamed that he would one day move across the world and end up performing professionally on one of the rarest musical instruments in existence. But that’s exactly what happened, and it has afforded him the opportunity to return to Iowa and expose audiences to the baryton, which is described as a cross between the viola de gamba and the lirone and boasts a whopping 16 strings in all.
“I had no clue. I started off with the bass just because I was at a guitar lesson with my brother in Sioux City, and I was like ‘What’s that big instrument in the corner?’” Baker said. “Of course I had to try it. I tried it, I fell in love with it and I thought I was going to be a bass player.”
Baker, violist Estevan de Almeida Reis and cellist Alex Friedhoff comprise the Valencia Baryton Project, and thanks to a personal connection — Baker’s aunt Liz Jurgensen is the associate principal at Lenihan Intermediate School — they gave a special performance for middle and high school students complete with a question and answer session at the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center on Thursday afternoon. In addition, they performed at the Tannin Wine Bar on Thursday night, and they’ll be back for another show on Friday night from 6 to 8 p.m.
“It’s a thrill. I mean, it’s an absolute thrill for us to do this. It’s something (audiences) will never have heard before… Maybe one person in 1,000 has heard it before, and it’s fun to bring the music because the music is great music,” Baker said. “It’s music from one of the great masters of classical music that was written for this instrument that nobody plays. So the smiles on the faces of the audience are just great to see.”
The master Baker referred to is the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn, who is perhaps best known as a contemporary of Mozart and famously wrote many pieces specifically for the trio of a baryton, a viola and a cello. Although the baryton, which features six strings on the front and 10 on the back and can be bowed and plucked simultaneously, was popular among European royals and aristocrats in the 17th and 18th centuries, it has become increasingly rare in the modern era. There are currently only about 20 known players in the world including Baker.
The trio takes its name from the Spanish city of Valencia where they met as members of the opera orchestra, and Baker said he embarked on “a 12-year journey” to learn more about the baryton before he finally purchased his instrument from a retiring player who happened to live in Valencia in 2018.
“I couldn’t find one anywhere, so then all of a sudden I found it and I had to do it. I had to play it. I was just like ‘I have to do this,’” Baker said.
Friedhoff, who is the son of an American father and grew up mostly in Spain, said he and Baker bonded over their shared understanding of the cultures of both countries, and the stars aligned for them to branch out and perform together separately from the orchestra. It started over post rehearsal meals and drinks, and they slowly began to realize the potential of their combined talents.
“I think I’d like to say we blundered into it slightly. We started off (with) this was just a bit of fun. This was kind of fun, etc. We had a great time,” Baker said. “We did a few gigs at clubs that would have classical night just to warm up a little bit, and I thought that might be it. But then all of a sudden we got a really nice set of concerts.”
Before long, they were recording with one of the largest classical music labels in the world, scoring great reviews for their live performances in Spain and plotting where to take the show next. Ultimately, it led them back across the Atlantic Ocean to where it all started for a Sioux City North alumni who just wanted to be a bass player.
The third member of the trio, Reis, who is French, is visiting the country for the first time and said he felt like he was in the movies, as about 80 percent of the films he has ever seen were made in America.
In addition to shows and demonstrations across the Midwest — on Wednesday, the trio hosted a masterclass at the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium — Baker, Reis and Friedhoff plan to take their act to the West Coast and eventually return to Montana and Florida next January before hitting Canada and the U.S. again in March 2023.
While they were already excited to be on the road sharing their unique brand of classical music with audiences at venues like Tannin, they were especially excited about the enthusiastic reaction they received at the auditorium on Thursday. The music students in attendance peppered them with questions, and they didn’t even have time to answer them all because there were so many.
“It’s good when you have the feeling that you give something, and they get it. I have that sensation now,” Reis said. “Sometimes kids can be distracted, but in that case, I was personally happy to have the impression that they were open to what we showed them. It’s a good feeling.”
Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or