Profile of British Violist Lawrence Power
Power might be just plain lucky, but then how to explain all that talent?
William Primrose would have been disappointed. The great Scottish violist spent his life promoting the instrument, yet 25 years after his death, just a handful of violists are enjoying the kind of high-profile, international career that a talented violinist can almost take for granted. Undoubtedly Primrose would be pleased to learn that the playing standards have soared ever upwards and the repertory for the instrument has expanded, but he'd be less thrilled to find out that the stars of the alto clef are still a small, exclusive club.
Now the club must make room for another member-the 30-year-old British violist Lawrence Power. He has performed as a soloist in many of the world's major halls. Maxim Vengerov recently called upon him to record the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with the UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra (in early August he'll play the Sinfonia Concertante with Boston Symphony Orchestra with Stefan Jackiw at Tanglewood). He records regularly for the well-respected Hyperion label; recent solo releases include the two Brahms sonatas, as well as concertos by York Bowen and Edmund Rubbra (the Bowen disc was a Gramophone Critics' Choice). He's also a member of the Leopold String Trio and the Nash Ensemble. In the spirit of Primrose, he has commissioned new works for the instrument by today's best composers.
When I meet up with Power one afternoon at a restaurant not far from London's Southbank Centre and ask about all these accomplishments, he attributes it all to luck. But there's obviously more than just pure luck at work, or it's unlikely the critics and audiences would be swooning over his playing.
Perhaps he's done so well because he started out as a violist. The Damascene conversion story common to many violists—beginning studies on the violin and switching to viola once they see the light—did not happen to Power. He started on the viola at his primary school at age eight and never played the violin. Asked why he chose the viola, he says, "I was tall for my age! It was a chance thing, but I grew to love it, and it's nice that I started on the viola."
It could be that his success is due to finding the right teacher early on. At 11, Power started going to the junior department of London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he studied with Mark Knight, "a wonderful teacher." Power recalls "working my way through the Kreutzer etudes, analyzing them, practicing in certain ways, talking about bow control. Mark gave me such a strong grounding."
Knight also has an interest in applying the Alexander Technique to playing, a philosophy that Power credits with keeping him free of the injuries that plague many viola players. "I think it's a question of being exposed to certain principles at an early age," he says, "just the basics of how to play without tension and really analyzing how you hold your bow and how you're holding yourself when you play."
Power later spent a year at the Juilliard School with Karen Tuttle, another teacher who stresses the importance of the underlying physicality of playing.
Returning to London after his year in New York, the then-19-year-old Power stepped immediately onto the competition treadmill. He won prizes in several, notably taking first place in the William Primrose International Viola Competition in 1999. "I had some luck," he says modestly. He also had some talent and nerve, evidently. "You have to play some virtuosic repertory, some of the Primrose transcriptions, which until that point didn't really figure in my repertory. So it forced me to play that stuff, which I adore."
He also won an audition for a two-year place (2001-03) as a BBC New Generation Artist. New Generation Artists receive performing opportunities with major BBC orchestras, as well as management and advice to guide their careers. "It gives you a public face," says Power, who speaks gratefully of his time there.
Between winning competitions, joining the New Generation Artist lineup, and becoming a regular player on the London concert scene as part of the Nash Ensemble, Power had the makings of a career. Then it was a matter of finding the right record company. Winning a prize at the Maurice Vieux International Viola Competition in Paris led to his debut recording, for the French label Harmonia Mundi, of music by Ligeti, Takemitsu, and Prokofiev. This recording, and his connection with the Nash Ensemble, eventually brought him to Hyperion, where he started by making the premiere recording of the York Bowen Concerto. "It's a piece Lionel Tertis traveled the world playing, and he had rave notices for it, but for whatever reason it fell out of the repertoire," says Power, who had just performed the work in Mainz, Germany, shortly before we spoke. "I'm passionate about it. It's such a beautifully crafted piece and places the viola in a heroic light."
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