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For three decades, musician Tina Chancey has tried to master the universe of early instruments.

Oddly enough, there are few signs of instruments in Tina Chancey’s homey yellow bungalow, nestled at the tip of a dead-end street in Arlington. That’s because her musical machines—more than 20 in all; the more obscure, the better—are all stashed away for safekeeping. Still, peek into the closet and you may find a bass viola da gamba squirrelled away among the coats and umbrellas. Under the table, you may discover a medieval kamenj, rebec, or lyra. Or perhaps a blues or Cajun fiddle.

“I’m an instrument jock,” confesses the 52-year-old musician, lounging in sweats in her cluttered living room, surrounded by arbitrarily arranged piles of CDs by the likes of Muddy Waters, Barbra Streisand, Seamus Egan, and various early-music groups, as well as a gallery’s worth of colorful drawings of fantastical creatures and funky flowers—the byproduct of Chancey’s being laid up for several weeks following surgery. “I just had to make something or I was going to explode,” she says.

The hiding place of honor, however, goes to Chancey’s baby: her pardessus de viole, a once-fashionable 18th-century French instrument that both looks and sounds like the bastard offspring of a violin and a treble viol. She is one of just four performers in the country who know how to play the pardessus, and has spent the past decade or so perfecting her repertoire—no small feat given that the instrument was all but extinct when she first picked it up.

“People become foreign-service nationals because they love languages; a lot of people go into early music because they love instruments,” explains the soft-spoken performer, who focuses on works created from 1100 to 1750 but dabbles in just about every other time period. Indeed, though Chancey’s home proudly bears a faded green banner for Hesperus—the “crossover fusion” group she co-founded and runs with her husband, recorder player Scott Reiss—over the past 30 years, she has also performed with the Folger Consort, the New York Renaissance Band, and the Ensemble for Early Music, among others. She’s also played scores of instruments on scores of recordings, including her most recent, Barthelemy de Caix: Six Sonatas for Two Pardessus de Viole.

“It’s just wonderful to try a new instrument—an indescribable challenge,” says Chancey. “A lot of people like crossword puzzles, other people climb mountains, and I play weird instruments. My habit costs about as much as all the others combined for equipment, of course, but at least you don’t hurt yourself so much.”

Chancey has long been used to unconventional challenges. Growing up in Cleveland, she often found herself defending her Communist parents among the playground set. “I just ran as fast as I could away from politics,” she jokes, “and kept right on moving towards music, no matter what.

“I started out on the violin, the viola, and the piano, and I wasn’t really very good at any of them,” she continues. “I was in the uncomfortable position of being very active in music—I was a composer; I was in four orchestras in high school—and I still couldn’t play very well.”

That is, until her freshman year at Oberlin College, when a friend introduced the music major to the cellolike viola da gamba, most popular in the 17th century. In a true trial by fire, Chancey agreed to take over her pal’s instrument for a group rehearsal so the gamba player could run off to meet a guy. “She said, ‘This is a viola da gamba. You hold it like this, you play this here, you hold the bow underhand, these are the frets, you put your finger here, it’s tuned in fourths, there’s a third in the middle—goodbye,’” recalls Chancey. “And ‘Oh yeah, this is a C.’” It had six strings, more than she was used to on the violin or viola, but the connection was immediate. “It was like finding a long-lost friend,” she says.

Chancey left Oberlin early to hone her skills in New York, where she spent the ’70s. She supported herself with her music, picking up new instruments and learning to play them on the fly. Along the way, she fell in love with Reiss, who lured her to D.C. in 1979 with the promise of forming Hesperus, which was created expressly to showcase baroque music. The ensemble needed a violin player, but Chancey wanted to avoid reliving her mediocre high-school-orchestra days. So she did some quick reading and experimenting and eventually found an acceptable stand-in: the pardessus de viole.

The instrument was created to address fashion concerns rather than musical ones: Aristocratic 18th-century Frenchwomen loved the violin and works by string composers such as Arcangelo Corelli and Jean-Marie Leclair. But any lady who placed an instrument on her shoulders risked not only immodesty but also spoiling the line of her dress. The solution, circa 1720, was a hybrid: Held on the lap so as not to interfere with glamorous garb, the pardessus had frets like a viol, but its five strings were tuned in fifths and fourths, like a combination viol and violin. The hard-to-play but incredibly rich-sounding instrument was immediately popular among royal women, and it quickly found a broader constituency, from small children who couldn’t reach a bass viol to cellists who wanted to play the violin but didn’t want to learn a new body position. It was also a common substitute for the violin.

During its approximately 60-year heyday, more than 400 works were composed for the pardessus or for chamber groups that included it. Still, almost as quickly as the new instrument had appeared, it disappeared, yet another aristocratic casualty of the French Revolution. In a stroke of good luck for Chancey and other early-music devotees, however, the pardessus proved too small to burn for firewood and too wide to turn into a violin. Today, there are some 200 originals in existence.

After the death of her father, in 1980, Chancey took some money she had inherited and commissioned an instrument that, like most, came topped with an intricately carved crown—in this case, a wooden likeness of her dad wearing a tricorn. A few years later, with the help of an anonymous donor, she traded this pardessus for the $15,000 one she currently uses: a 1750 model made by Parisian Louis Guersan and decorated with a curly-haired cherub.

Now all she had to do was figure out how to play the thing—and almost no one in the world knew where to begin. For example, even today, despite years of study, it’s still not clear to Chancey which bow is meant for the pardessus or how it should be held.

“How do you invent a technique for an instrument that is supposed to be a hybrid?” says Chancey. “You can play it on your knees with an underhand bow-grip like a larger viol, but what about all those violinlike long slurs and high jumps and fancy figuration? And acoustically, a viol has a flat back and reflects sound like a mirror. A violin has a round back and reflects sound like a lens. These differences in structure mean they produce sounds differently. So a viol will never sound exactly like a violin, and that’s fine. I like to play around with that.”

Hesperus, fortunately, is the kind of group that allows Chancey to indulge her penchant for improvisation. It fuses early European and traditional American music, melds Renaissance ballads with blues riffs, and has no problem with the pardessus playing alongside an Appalachian fiddle or a steel guitar. Although the group’s members have taken their witches’ brew of styles around the world, they often play closer to home—their neighborhood firehouse, local parks, the Ballston Common Mall. “I really don’t care where we perform,” says Chancey. “We think of ourselves as ambassadors for the type of music we play, and we’re always trying to tell people about it—that it’s great stuff, very immediate, a lot of fun. We’re just doing everything we can to become approachable.”

One recent rainy Sunday afternoon finds Chancey setting up shop at the Rosslyn Spectrum, a performance hall that smacks of middle-school auditorium—complete with pull-up writing desks—located in a nondescript office building just past a dry cleaner, a copy shop, and a money machine. Roughly three dozen, mostly graying people are sprinkled throughout the 387-seat space, and it’s clear that this is a crowd of hard-core early-music freaks, many of whom self-identify and introduce others by instrument: “This is my friend Carol. She plays the recorder.”

Today’s concert is titled “A Slave to Fashion”; appropriately, the music is positively elegant. Chancey, fingers working deftly at the pardessus, is alternately accompanied by Reiss on the recorder and Richard Stone on the theorbo, a 16th-century Italian lute/classical-guitar combo that’s nearly 6 feet long and has two sets of strings.

Chancey pauses between each piece to comment on the pardessus or some bit of related history—explaining, for example, that testing the limits of instrument combinations is really what baroque music was all about. She also repeatedly stops to tune her instrument, whose yellowish sheep-gut strings are incredibly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. “My pardessus doesn’t like it when it’s dry or wet or cold or hot, and today it’s been all of the above,” laments the apologetic musician. The audience members chuckle sympathetically.

Among them are John and Nancy Gardener, a couple who have come all the way from Dover, Del., for this performance. “If my husband and I had lived in the 18th century, the chance of our ever hearing this music live would have been very small,” says Nancy, citing economic status as the main reason. “So when we go to these concerts, we can sit here and experience something—I won’t say we can pretend to be royalty, exactly—but you know that the people who were hearing this music were part of a very elite environment, and now it feels like we are, too.”

After the show, Chancey holds court on a metallic folding chair, chatting with the many fans who linger, letting people handle her instrument and answering any and all questions, no matter how trite, no matter how many times she’s heard them before.

“Some classical players like to be set off from other people, because it makes them more important,” she says. “But, in a way, that isolates them, and I don’t do that. To my mind, if you can’t explain it, if you don’t talk to people, nobody’s going to care.

“We are working musicians,” Chancey continues. “On the one hand, we’ll never get rich and we’re not particularly famous, but on the other hand, we’re doing exactly the music we want to do….It’s a nice way to live.” CP