The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an ensemble dedicated entirely to new music, has prepared a concert featuring the viola, in fact eight of them, as the solo instruments. For most of its history the viola was something of an accompanist to other string instruments which would play the melody. There are some notable exceptions, of course (J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, and Telemann’s Viola Concerto), but of all the bowed string instruments, it seems to have had the most difficult journey into the consciousness of composers. It is the instrument which, in my time playing in orchestras was the butt of virtually every musical joke, the instrument which Samuel Adler in his book, The Study of Orchestration described as “undeservedly neglected by many great masters of the past.” Musicians may disagree today as to whether or not the instrument has in fact been neglected or to what degree, but Friday night, BMOP’s founder and director Gil Rose will be giving the viola its due. While BMOP is no stranger to adventurous programming, it is the presentation of the viola as a solo and concertante instrument that gives Friday night’s concert its appeal. Concertgoers will see some of the area’s best violists display their instrument’s capacities and prove its equality with other members of its bowed family. The program will contain two world premieres including a viola concerto by Donald Crockett written for Kate Vincent, founding director of the Firebird Ensemble. The concert will be this Friday at 8:00 pm at Jordan Hall. The program is here. BMInt had a chance to talk to Kate Vincent and Gil Rose about the upcoming concert.
Nolan Eley: Prior to the 20th-century the viola seems to have been unfairly neglected as a solo instrument. Why do you think that is?
Vincent: There is a great deal of incredible music written for the viola prior to the 20th-century, but predominantly in the chamber music genre. It has only been a fairly recent development that the viola has come into its own as a solo voice. The two performers who pioneered this shift in attitude about the viola were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. Increasingly the viola has become a featured solo instrument and the repertoire grows daily I’m happy to say.
Gil Rose: I’m not so sure that is true. In the Baroque the viola was more prominent and also in the classical period. In the Romantic era, the viola becomes more of a chamber instrument because the focus for concertos was on instruments with a dynamic top range. The nature of the viola is more subtle so it is better geared towards Baroque Classical and Contemporary, rather than Romantic.
What do you think of the repertoire available to violists now? Do you feel it is still a somewhat neglected instrument?
Vincent: There is certainly more fantastic music which features the viola than I’ll have time in my lifetime to play so no I don’t feel that at all. In addition contemporary composers have showed exponential interest over the past several decades in writing music featuring the viola which has really beefed up the repertoire. If you combine this with the host of extraordinary viola soloists on the concert circuit and the numerous contemporary music ensembles performing music featuring this instrument, I think we can say once and for all that the viola is feeling truly loved by the music world!!!
What made you decide to program an entire concert featuring the viola?
Rose: We had two commissions for the viola from Donald Crockett and Chinary Ung with the same instrumentation and made the decision to make them the focal point of a concert—both of these pieces are commissioned through the Jebediah Foundation. The Chen Yi and George Perle works were also planned as part of a recording project and it made sense to do this all on one concert. The five pieces are all very different in style and approach, so it’s parade of different pieces for the instrument. I have presented similar concepts with BMOP in the past with concerts featuring five piano concertos and a concert featuring vocal music; this one features the viola.
This concert succeeds at letting the viola glow and giving it an opportunity to show its true, vibrant colors. And, we’ve rounded up the nation’s crème de la crème of violists to join BMOP for this special concert. (from press release)
In putting together the program for this concert, was it difficult to find a variety of pieces featuring the viola from the past 50 years?
Rose: No. There is plenty of repertoire, and there is a great variety among the pieces on this program. Donald Crockett’s work is modern with a post-Stravinsky approach. Susan Ung, the violist for the Chinary Ung work also sings, the Perle is an early serial work, Chen Yi’s concerto is Chinese fire and brimstone, and Gordon Jacob is like a modern day Holst who wrote a lot of music for the viola and was very enamored with the instrument. The Jacob also features the viola section as there are eight violas in a “viola suite.” Donald Crockett and Kate Vincent approached BMOP about the idea for the work and we signed onto the project. Chinary and the Jebediah Foundation had already worked out the commission details and BMOP also signed on to do the premiere. The Jebediah Foundation commissioned both of these new works for BMOP.
There seems to be an ongoing relationship between Donald Crockett and the Firebird Ensemble including his opera, The Face, which was premiered last year by the Firebird Ensemble, could you talk a little bit about how the commission for this viola concerto came about?
Vincent: Yes, Firebird Ensemble has collaborated with Donald Crockett on several projects in the last few seasons including commissions, a recording with New World Records and most recently the World Premiere of his opera The Face. The Viola Concerto (2012) was in fact commissioned by the Jebediah Foundation New Music Commissions for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with myself as soloist. This work is based closely on a smaller pocket concerto which Firebird Ensemble commissioned about 3 years ago called to airy thinness beat (2009)written for solo viola and six instruments. In the Viola Concerto (2012) Crockett has significantly expanded the dramatic scope of the work and also added an addition movement. So in a way it’s a little like the big brother of to airy thinness beat (although born later!).
What were some challenges you met in preparing Crockett’s Viola Concerto?
Vincent: The Viola Concerto is a significant work both in length (~28 minutes) and is also a very physically demanding work to play. It traverses a very wide emotional landscape and in the last two movements particularly is almost schizophrenic in the way contrasting material is connected. This means the performer has to be able to make mental switches very fast in order to capture these changes. It also has some extremely tender moments so requires a lot of control from the performer. One of the most challenging things about the piece is endurance – because of the virtuosic nature of the Viola Concerto combined with its length (and that the viola plays pretty much all the time) I’ve been working hard to build my physical stamina and work out how to pace myself during the performance.
How does the Firebird Ensemble fit in an orchestra concert?
Vincent: Firebird Ensemble and BMOP have always had an overlap of personnel which of course makes sense given both organizations specialize in performing contemporary music. Because the Crockett Viola Concerto (2012) is closely related to the earlier work to airy thinness beat (commissioned by Firebird Ensemble in 2009), one of the ways the composer chose to maintain this connection was by highlighting a concertino group of 8 players within the larger orchestral context. Consequently several Firebird Ensemble musicians are featured in those concertino roles, illuminating the connection over several years between BMOP and Firebird Ensemble.