When I asked a young violist here what she thought of the Viola Congress, she replied that it felt like a fire hydrant, with all this viola knowledge spewing out that she didn’t know how to process. So, for those of you not here in the viola hydrant—also known as the 2012 International Viola Congress, being held at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York—I’m condensing all this knowledge just for you:
There’s a ton of music out there for the viola that isn’t played nearly enough. Violists can get into this funk about how we don’t have enough repertoire, but there are really more possibilities than I imagined, and no reason to just keep playing those same three standard concerti. In a recital yesterday, titled “Premieres Plus,” I heard new works by composers Michael McLean, Matthijs van Dijk, Dimitri Murrath, Nicolas Bacri, Marvin Lamb, and Judith Shatin. Thursday night’s Rochester Philharmonic Concert, featuring violists Rebecca Young and Cynthia Phelps playing Sofia Gubaidulina’s double viola concerto Two Paths, also was phenomenal. And given the amount of new repertoire being sold by vendors here, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Your pianist (or orchestra) is probably playing too loud. In more performances than I count on all 20 digits, I heard pianists cover up the viola at some point in their performance. The worst offenses took place in thick Romantic repertoire or new music, but this was still an overall trend. And yes, I’ve also heard some very sensitive piano playing here. But overall, the viola is really easy to cover up, and pianists need to be more sensitive to both volume and pedal quantity. While I won’t name any names in the too-loud category, in the well-balanced category, the pianist Russell Miller played sensitively in the gorgeous Brahms Two Songs, Op. 91, with Kim Kashkashian and mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski. This is less of an issue with more transparent music. For example, the Gubaidulina concerto was orchestrated extremely well, in a way that didn’t cover the soloists.
Start talking. There are all these clichés out there about how music speaks for itself and is a universal language. But really, some of the most effective performances I’ve seen here, especially that involved unfamiliar repertoire, involved the violist talking about the work. While all this new viola music is wonderful, it sometimes can be hard to digest new music, and easy to start thinking about where to go for lunch. While performing Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, Kashkashian actually paused between sections to talk about the work. Speaking about personal connections to repertoire is especially effective—at a recital on Wednesday, Roger Myers spoke about how the piece he played, by composer Michael McLean, was dedicated to Myers’ mother. If you can talk about why you love a piece of music, chances are higher that the audience will love it (or at least actively listen to it instead of anticipating their impending tuna sandwich). It doesn’t hurt to smile, either.
You can have personality and still win an orchestra audition. In fact, it might even help.This afternoon I went to a master class given by New York Philharmonic principal viola Cynthia Phelps. She repeatedly told students to play with more character and personality. “You’re not just marking time,” she told one student, “but every note has to be alive.” To another she said, “Your fingerings and bowing choices are your soul.” The previous day, Phelps’ stand partner, Rebecca Young, sang along to that same tune. “You have to be telling some kind of story,” she said, in a master class. “If you’re just counting, it doesn’t put it over the edge.” Of course, notes and rhythms have to be solid. But character matters—and matters a lot, too.
There is more than one right way to play the viola. You know how yesterday I said it was feeling a bit warm and fuzzy around here? While that’s mostly true. I’ve certainly heard people criticize colleagues’ playing and setup: shoulders, bow arm, left hand, shoulder rest choice, foot placement. And much of the criticism has been without saying anything about how the person sounds, but solely on visual or technical disagreements. So while I think it’s good to critically discuss technique—and I admit to having my own ideas on the “correct” bow hold, left-hand setup, and posture—I honestly think there’s more than one possible way to achieve a beautiful sound, technical facility and a musical voice. Seeing all these violists play in sometimes drastically different ways has only reinforced the idea that there’s no technical magic solution.
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