Meet John Ma

Meet the orchestra

John Ma holding a viola d'amore and violin in his hands, and a bow in his mouth
John Ma, Early Music John Ma, CSO musician and Early Music specialist (Image: Martin Ollman) (Image: Martin Ollman)
John Ma plays the violin, viola and viola d’amore, specialising in Early Music

As well as the Canberra Symphony, John has performed with leading Australian and international ensembles, including Pinchgut Opera, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Australian Bach Akademie, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Academia Montis Regalis.

Together with his wife, pianist Marie Searles, John recently launched Canberra-based Early Music ensemble Apeiron Baroque. Outside of music, John is an avid gamer, amateur horticulturalist, comic book enthusiast and self-identified tech-nerd.


Baroque and Classical music is…full of joy, excitement, love, despair, and tragedy.


What drew you into the world of historically informed performance (HIP)?

I’m old fashioned, I still call it Early Music!

Seeds were planted early in my learning as a child. One teacher, Louise Wynter, had quite an interest in historical ideas of interpretation and the variety of composers of the period.

Later, I was entranced by the recordings of Europa Galante and Il Giardino Armonico, Italian groups that conveyed such a sense of joy and fire in their interpretations. And the wild array of instruments with such a variety of sounds: guitars, theorboes, harpsichords, and harps.

I found my first period instrument teacher in the awesome Anna McDonald.

Are there any HIP myths you’d like to bust?

The one that really gets me is the idea that there is a ‘right’ way to play Early Music. It’s practically impossible to write a rulebook about anything, let alone something as subjective as taste in music. Musicians develop an interpretation framework over the course of their training and career. Early Music invites us to revisit our assumptions, seeking out contemporary sources for guidance. To paraphrase a previous teacher: ‘Rules: learn, understand, internalise, then throw them away’.

John Ma playing the viola d'amore.
John Ma, CSO musician and Early Music specialist (Image: Martin Ollman)

You recently gave a masterclass to our Kingsland Fellows. What were you hoping to impart?

I was hoping to show that Baroque and Classical music is much more ‘heart on sleeve’ than they might have realised: full of joy, excitement, love, despair, and tragedy. This music has a deep connection to speech (rhetoric) and dance, which is a helpful starting point for interpretation, instead of focusing solely on beauty of sound. And most importantly: don’t play in a fluffy way, rip into the instruments when you need to!

Most underrated period instrument?

I love the viola d’amore. There’s no standard for construction, tuning or notation – every maker, composer and performer comes up with their own individual solutions. This lack of standardisation is a right pain at times, but it’s such a beautiful instrument with a transparent sound colour, surrounded by a halo of resonance from the sympathetic strings.

Close up of a decorative head of a viola d'amore, whittled into the shape of a human head.
Close up of John Ma's viola d'amore (Image: Martin Ollman)


Stay stupidly excited and curious about everything and everyone! Don’t grow up…


Top picks on the CSO 2023 season?

Living Green (22 / 23 November, Llewellyn Hall): this might sound strange to my CSO colleagues, but after two decades of immersion in Baroque and Classical music, I’m enjoying rediscovering ‘modern’ composers like Dvořák and Sibelius!

Any book or movie recommendations?

Marie is the cultured one in the family…my favourite movie is a toss-up between the recent Super Mario Bros. Movie and the classic Chicken Run.

I have a range of books scattered around at any one time that reflect my nerdy interests. I’m  currently making my way through Shadows of the Mind (Roger Penrose), about the nature of consciousness as approached from a computational / scientific viewpoint, and The Pathetick Musician (Bruce Haynes / Geoffrey Burgess), a deep dive into modes of expression in Early Music performance.

What’s something you love that has nothing to do with music?

I’m a hardcore gamer; I’ve always loved the deep nature of PC gaming. When I was younger, I played lots of competitive first-person shooters. These days, I lean towards grand-strategy or narrative role-playing games. I’ve tried to instil a love and appreciation in my children for games that feature high-quality art styles, storytelling, or mechanics.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Stay stupidly excited and curious about everything and everyone! Don’t grow up…

John’s listening recommendations

Here’s a selection along with the specific ensemble; with such a wild range of interpretations, the specific performance is important.

Scheidt: Paduana dolorosa, performed by Movimento
The juxtaposition between the singer’s sadness and the hope of the violin is heart-breaking. Play this at my funeral!

Muffat: Passsagaglia from Sonata V (Armonico Tributo), performed by Les Muffatti
I love the ground bass dances, especially the Chaconnes and Passacaglias. There’s a sense of venturing away from home to different experiences but knowing you will always return to a familiar and welcoming place.

Schmelzer: ‘Al Giorno delle Correggie’, performed by Berliner Barock-Compagney
An instrumental piece about beans and farts – perhaps we do take ourselves too seriously? It’s surprisingly difficult to find a bassoon player brave enough to properly ‘fart’!

Bach: ‘Mache Dich’ from Matthew Passion, performed by Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
The tradition of playing the Matthew Passion all around Europe every Easter is the musical event I miss the most. This is my favourite moment, near the end, and it always brought a tear to my eye in performance. I hope I will do it one more time before I am done.

Catch John Ma in action with Apeiron Baroque on 13 August and 12 November at Wesley Uniting Church. Old Friends (13 Aug) features viola de gamba and Baroque dance, while Apeiron x Poetry (12 Nov) blends contemporary poetry with Baroque / Classical sounds.

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