Contemporary viola da gamba players are a passionate bunch of time-travelers, even though the musical instrument they play fell out of favor just after the French Revolution. Last month, members of the Viola da Gamba Society of America - bet you never knew there was one - met for their 50th annual jam session - they call it a conclave. Reporter Jeff Lunden traveled to the University of Delaware to spend a few days with them.

JEFF LUDDEN, BYLINE: Viola da gamba players are a special breed, a tiny subset in the already small world of early classical music. They rarely meet their own kind, so coming together for a week at conclave is the highlight of the year. Wendy Gillespie just finished her term as president of the Viola da Gamba Society.

WENDY GILLESPIE: You meet your fellow Martians and it's your opportunity of the year to get together with the people that you see once a year and meet the kindred spirits, to whom this music, for some reason - and we don't even know why, it's not worth analyzing - it speaks to us. And we need to do it.


LUDDEN: Well, one reason could be it's beautiful music played on beautiful instruments, some of which feature delicate carvings and inlaid wood. The viola da gamba was born towards the end of the 15th century in Spain, says Sarah Mead, an associate professor of music at Brandeis University.

SARAH MEAD: We tend to be familiar with the violin family, but the viola da gamba was the bowed version of the guitar, which developed into the instrument of the upper classes and, eventually, of the middle classes; the instrument that people could play together socially in the evenings, but that also could be excelled upon by virtuosi.


LUDDEN: Like modern string instruments, the viola da gamba comes in several sizes. But unlike them, most have six strings, says instrument maker John Pringle. And...

JOHN PRINGLE: They're all played, like the cello, between the knees - even the little one - and they have frets, like a guitar. So, they are very accessible to amateur players.


LUDDEN: Talk to any viola da gamba player and when you ask what drew them to the instrument, for most, the answer sounds like finding true love. Alice Renken of San Diego was studying to be a professional singer, when she first heard, and then picked up, a viol in 1967 at college.

ALICE RENKEN: I maintain that all violas da gamba, of any size, have little invisible arms that are hinged the other way from ours. And the first time you put one in your lap, it reaches around you and grabs on and it never lets go. Once you've tried it, you can't stop.


LUDDEN: For Renken and other conclave participants, it's truly a lifetime commitment. This year's gathering featured players from age 15 to 92. One of the biggest draws is the opportunity to play 17th and 18th century consort music - music for two to eight players - in polyphony. Sarah Mead explains.

: One of the wonderful things about polyphony - that is music where the parts are both independent and interdependent - is that it reflects the human condition of conversation, discussion, argument and all the things that a small group of people might do at a dinner party, they also do in consort music.


STAMBERG: And at the conclave, those little musical dinner parties go on till the wee hours of the morning, fueled by wine, munchies and camaraderie.


LUDDEN: Like other true believers, viol players are constantly looking for new recruits. Eventually, even I got roped into playing - well, one note, anyway - a C on an open string. Phillip Serna, who teaches at Valparaiso University, put a tenor gamba in my lap and taught me how to use the bow. It's played underhand and held kind of like a chopstick.


LUDDEN: And while I sawed away on my one note, Phillip and a consort from Toronto, played a fantasia by Henry Purcell.


LUDDEN: The conclave featured lectures, demonstrations and an opportunity to play vintage instruments. In celebration of the 50th anniversary, all 300 participants - amateur and professional - gathered to play Sarah Mead's arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis."


LUDDEN: Marie Szuts is incoming president of the Viola da Gamba Society.

MARIE SZUTS: There have never been 300 gamba players in the same place in the history of the world, we think. And so, the fact that we are all in one place and, you know, have our instruments with us, we wanted to have giant consort, have something where we could all play together.

STAMBERG: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.


STAMBERG: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

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