Back in March, during the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, I remember reading the media coverage with amusement. In the New York Times, under a headline about the “warm and generous cello,” James Oestreich wrote that cellists are “more sociable creatures than the average classical musician.” Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad, asked “are cellists more sociable than violinists?” And in the LA Times, Mark Swed called the event a “nonstop cello orgy.”
Come on, you silly music critics, I thought, enough with the hyperbole already.
But now, as I digest the first day of the 40th International Viola Congress at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, there is something admittedly warm and fuzzy about seeing so many violists in one place.
I’m currently in the company of about 400 violists (clearly sociable, undoubtedly warm and generous, and no comment on the orgies). It’s great fun to see herds of people, all with violas on their backs, traipsing through downtown Rochester. While eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant last night, one of my dinner companions overheard someone at the next table say something about “17 and three-quarters,” which was followed by a collective gasp from the entire table.
Where else can you hear that kind of conversation?
This is a five-day event, which began on Wednesday, and will continue until Sunday. There are numerous masterclasses, concerts, luthiers, vendors and a young artist competition. In one day, I’ve already heard a spirited performance of Brandenburg 6 from the Eastman and Beijing viola ensembles, seen hundreds of violas-for-sale, heard everything from Baroque viola to world premieres, ran into old friends, and entered myself into a raffle to win a bow.
The highlight of Wednesday, for me, was the evening’s concert, which included more viola concertos than I’ve ever heard on one program.
Violists Wolfram Christ, Kim Kashkashian, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Atar Arad, and Paul Neubauer each played a concerto, accompanied by a small chamber orchestra. Christ began with his own arrangement, accompanied by only the orchestra’s violists and cellists, of the two Dowland songs that are used in Britten Lachrymae. He followed the songs with the Britten itself, which he conducted enthusiastically, while playing the viola. He then put down his fiddle and conducted the rest of the concert.
Kashkashian performed a fantastic work by French composer Nicolas Bacri, Arad gave a heartfelt performance of his own Epitaph, and Ngwenyama and Neubauer both played lighter Romantic fare, arrangements of works by Hugo Wolf and Reinhold Gliere.
For anyone that still doubts the viola’s ability to be a convincing solo instrument, this concert would have been enough to quickly prove them wrong.
During the concert, which was broadcast live on the local radio station, interviews with the performers were broadcast over the sound system between pieces. The interviewer asked all the questions you would expect and told some mostly unoriginal viola jokes, which elicited some laughter and eye-rolling from the audience.
The interviewer then asked Carol Rodland, one of the Congress' co-hosts, whether violists are more friendly and collegial than violinists.
Rodland replied that violinists have congresses, too.
“They just call them competitions,” she said.
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