Violatopia Reigns Supreme at The 2011 Int’l Viola Congress
Hochschule für Musik in Würzburg, Germany, hosts gathering of world-wise inner voices
If I had to describe an International Viola Congress to someone who’s never been, I would say it’s a heady mixture of music conservatory, sales convention, and concert hall. Every day offers new playing and teaching ideas in master classes, lectures, and performances. You can also try out a new viola and chat with its maker, or flip through the pages of stacks of sheet music and books on sale. You’ll hear performances by violists from all over the world and you’ll gain yet more perspective on Global Viola from your fellow attendees, also quite an international bunch.
It is, in short, a yearly Violatopia.
This year’s congress took place between October 12 and 15 in the German city of Würzburg, about an hour’s train ride from Frankfurt and beautifully set along the Rhine River. Activities centered on the Hochschule für Musik, one of Germany’s oldest conservatories.
Emile Cantor, the Dutch-born violist of the Orpheus Quartet and a graceful diplomat in any number of languages (a useful skill at this multilingual four-day event), organized the congress. At the official opening, Kenneth Martinson, president of the International Viola Society (IVS) and a Florida-based violist, urged an “international exchange of ideas.” That had already been underway since 9 am, when the Soshanguve Viola Ensemble, a group of nine young men from South Africa, played for Thomas Riebl’s master class. The ensemble members were nervous, but Riebl was sympathetic and offered useful advice for their Bach: “Long notes in the Baroque should bloom!”
Riebl’s own recital, with Schubert’s “Arpeggione” sonata, was one of the highlights of the week, and not only because he was playing a five-string tenor viola (the usual four strings plus a lower “F”). Carl Smith, an American who’s a member of the Graz (Austria) Philharmonic Orchestra, raised the size stakes further in a demonstration of his Ritter viola, a 48 cm (18.5-inch) “viola alta.” It must be said that Smith and Riebl are both tall men who looked comfortable playing these outsize bratsches.
Massed violas are almost obligatory at a viola congress and this year included IVS board members in the five-part Cassation by Anton Wranitzky, a Brandenburg Sixth with two scordatura violas, and an inspiring performance/presentation by the Soshanguve Ensemble and their teacher, Hester Wohlitz. This last event brought the audience to its feet, dancing and clapping.
The viola world has its stars, of course. It was a full house for Nobuko Imai’s recital of transcriptions (such programs are “an old viola tradition,” said my seatmate). Her interpretation of pieces from Schubert’s Winterreise left the audience holding its breath. Two solo Hindemith solo sonatas were the centerpieces of Juilliard Quartet violist Samuel Rhodes’ solo recital. In an energetic lecture the next day, Louise Lansdown of the UK’s Royal Northern College of Music reminded us that Hindemith also wrote chamber music, such as the wacky Minimax for string quartet.
The congress ended with a concert featuring New Zealand’s Donald Maurice in the moving Requiem for Viola and Orchestra by Boris Pigovat. Afterward, congress participants enjoyed a final banquet in the cellars of the Bürgerspital winery, drinking fine Franconian wine and thinking about the next Violatopia in Rochester, New York, from May 31–June 4.