It could easily be one of the most important events of the season. Last Saturday at Kresge Auditorium the annual Terry and Rick Stone Concert of the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST) and the MIT Music and Theater Arts celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Boston recital debut of Marcus Thompson, MIT Institute Professor, one of the leading violists in the world, and an essential pillar of Boston’s musical community.
Thomson’s debut at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on April 4th of 1968 fell on the infamous date of the assassination of Martin Luther King. As one of the earliest prominent African Americans in the classical string world, it made an ominous start for a career, but Thompson has carried this burden lightly, and his legacy is a growing number of outstanding young string players of color. As a faculty member at both MIT and New England Conservatory he has shared his gift with several generations of violists who now populate symphonies and chamber ensembles around the world. For the sake of full disclosure, he was one of my teachers at NEC.
For the concert, Thompson chose rarely-played works reflective of his many interests, including the rarely heard viola d’amore. Primarily an instrument of the baroque period and a bit of an oddity, it has 6 or 7 bowed strings and up to 7 additional sympathetic strings under the bridge. “Sympathetic” does not imply congenial in this sense, but rather, strings that vibrate due to the vibrations of the bowed strings and add their overtones to the general sound of the instrument. Its warm, muted quality falls very easily on the ears.
Stravinsky is supposed to have said, uncharitably, that Vivaldi didn’t write 400 concertos, he wrote one concerto 400 times. If you like the sound of Vivaldi, you would like his Second Concerto for Viola d’Amore and Strings (c. 1724) The second movement (of three) allowed the mysterious sound of the viola d’amore to be heard most, particularly in some very lovely harmonic arpeggios. Thomson made his own (slightly Moorish, in celebration of the instrument’s origins) cadenza into a tour de force of technical challenges, and the unconducted string ensemble followed some very sinuous accelerandi admirably.
Morton Feldman (1926-1987) composed his rarely heard Rothko Chapel to reflect the spiritual space created by painted Mark Rothko in Houston in 1971, in order to to invite the listener into a contemplative space. Written for two percussionists, celesta, chorus and solo viola, the music is strangely pointillistic, rarely making use of the whole ensemble at the same time, but rather spinning out individual lines of melodic color. William Cutler prepared the wordless chorus well; soprano Caralyn Cutip and tenor Srinvasan Raghuraman made the most of their gnarly leaps of weird intervals. The force requirements alone make it unlikely in a standard chamber concert. Neither conductor Evan Zipporyn or the the excellent players could be blamed for how the meditative verged on the soporific. Might its meditations on small differences have worked better in the space which inspired it?
The Boston premiere the chamber version of Shadow Light (2016) by Elena Ruehr deserves many future performances. Commissioned by the New Orchestra of Washington for Marcus Thompson, this brilliant concerto tribute to Thompson is scored for string quintet (2 violins, viola, cello, and bass), with the solo viola in the center of the circle. It opened with some feverish string gestures reminiscent of the opening of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The viola is a commentator at times, and at times plays unison duets with individual instruments, beautifully done by the excellent members of the ensemble, with special mention to first violinist Stephanie Zyzak and cellist Jonathan Butler. Shadow Light makes one want to check out other work of this composer.
Vaughan Williams’s 1925 Flos Campi, a work for solo viola, small orchestra, and wordless chorus balanced nicely with the earlier Feldman. It has all the feverish late Romanticism balanced with the lush, green British nationalism that makes Vaughan Williams so recognizable and beloved. Based on the “Song of Songs,” it opens with the viola intoning questioning melody that is repeated. At one point a rather military march sounds a bit like Miklos Rosza in Ben Hur (or the other way around), and lots of passionate imploring by the wordless chorus, ends with a peaceful resolution and the same question by the viola. Conductor William Cutter modulated the lines nicely and brought fine shape to the work of the MIT Chamber Chorus.
Thompson’s passion, flawless timing and technique, emotion and thought balanced well throughout. After 50 years before the public, age has not seemed to diminish him, but rather to enhance his understanding and command. No one had ever asked him to play Flos Campi before, so he asked himself on this occasion. At the midpoint of an outstanding career, he continues to play at the top form and and to make opportunities where none existed.
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.