Violist Scott Woolweaver and pianist Janice Weber brought “Across the Sapphire Sea: British Viola Music at the Turn of the 20th Century” to the Distler Performance Hall on the Tufts University Campus on Friday. Those lucky enough to be there heard a fine evening of some of the best viola literature. The viola had, up until the early 20th century, been relegated to a largely accompanimental role, with rare exceptions. Once Lionel Tertis, the great British violist (1876 – 1975) got hold of a viola, he made it his mission to change that, and commissioned and performed numerous works by his contemporaries, some of Britain’s best composers of the time including Vaughan Williams, York Bowen, Arnold Bax, Gordon Jacob, and Benjamin Dale. These British nationalist composers seem to embody the last swell of British imperialism, with a sweeping, romantic, expansive harmony that is instantly recognizable.
One of Boston’s most respected violists, with performing credentials ranging from Boston Baroque to being a founding member of the Boston Composer’s String Quartet, and everything in between, Scott Woolweaver studied Walter Trampler, whom he resembles strongly in style and sound; he is also a Lecturer at Tufts and on the faculty of the All Newton Music School. His Johan Georg Thir viola was made in Vienna in 1737.
Janice Weber has performed with numerous orchestras as a soloist, including the Boston Pops and Sarajevo Symphony as well as with numerous festivals. She is particularly noted for her recordings of Liszt as well as for being the author of lascivious mysteries starring Frost the fiddler.
The Sonata in C Minor for Viola and Piano, Op. 18 (1905) by York Bowen felt initially cautious, but the reading warmed into a full and passionate take. The balance might have benefited from putting the piano on half stick, rather than fully open, but it is difficult to complain when the piano part is rendered with such feeling and musical phrasing. The Poco lento e cantabile second movement seemed to depict a green, pastoral English countryside, with Weber excellently babbling as a brook. Woolweaver sang out in a rich alto.
Bax’s Legend for Viola and piano, written on commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, had been premiered by Tertis with Bax on piano. Short and programmatic, it opens with a menacing theme, resolving finally in serenity. Woolweaver and Weber gave it feeling and drama. Notably, Woolweaver found a glassy sound in the opening, varying the color considerably from that of the opening piece.
After intermission, viola students Julia Moss and Sam Graber-Hahn took turns playing the second in the Sonatina for Two Violas (1974) by Gordon Jacob to Woolweaver’s first. What a generous gesture and an invaluable lesson for these students! To play with their teacher, but also with a musician of his caliber was a great educational opportunity. Neither a declared music major, both did outstanding jobs. Julia played the first movement, Allegro con brio, with Sam playing the 2nd movement Adagio and 3rd, Allegro. Sam’s Adagio was particularly memorable, with outstanding bow control and emotional depth in his full sound. He dispatched third movement’s difficult canonic passages with aplomb.
Woolweaver and Weber dispatched the Suite in D Major, op.2 by Benjamin Dale, a lifelong friend of Bax from their days together as students at the Royal Academy of Music. Another childhood friend was also a student there at that time, York Bowen. Dale’s life took an unexpected turn when he was caught in Germany while on vacation at the outbreak of World War I. He became a prisoner of war and was interned in a camp with several other prominent musicians. To pass the time, he gave lectures on Beethoven Symphonies with duo piano renditions of the works. This technically challenging work was written for Tertis, who also persuaded the composer to orchestrate the last two movements.
The Maestoso: Allegretto espressivo features some extremely high registers, the Romance: Lento, quasi fantasia – nostalgic and wistful, concludes with unresolved phrases emphasizing the third note of the scale, longing to resolve but rarely doing so. The piano was suitably gentle in this movement. The fiendishly demanding Finale: Allegro moved fast, with wicked octaves.
All in all, this was a remarkable window on a time and place in musical history that enriched the repertoire of the viola, showing once and for all that it could take its place as a solo instrument in any setting. It testafies to the tenacity and persuasiveness of one of the great instrumentalists of all time, Lionel Tertis, and to a rich nationalist school of composers who were his colleagues and friends.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.