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Misunderstood But Also Inspiring


What do you do if a violist knocks on your door around dinner time? Take the pizza and leave a generous tip. What do you do if three violists deliver a recital highlighting the misunderstood instrument? Prepare to be amazed. This Tanglewood stream runs through August 7th.

An enigma resembling a violin, the viola lacks the acoustic perfection of its smaller and larger cousins, yet it commands substantial solo and chamber repertoire written in its honor. Due to its proportions (it should be much bigger for its range) it lacks the projection and penetrating power of the violin, but it gains both a certain dusty old-worldiness in the low end of its compass and a passionate, more human quality in the high (the double bass and cello have a similar relationship). The viola’s supposed shortcomings create its beauty, like true love. What would happen if a viola were made to the “more perfect” measurements of the violin? There was an instrument builder who did exactly that – the result sounded merely like a violin, albeit lower. This serves to highlight the value of the viola’s idiosyncratic sound quality, which in turn inspired the composers would write for it.

Arguably the most famous of the 20th-century works for the instrument is Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata from 1919. Mary Ferrillo, the first in our trio of viola-heroes, took on this tour de force with pianist Brett Hodgdon. As an internationally recognized virtuoso on the instrument, Clarke’s intimate knowledge of its character and obvious love of its capacities make the Sonata both a joy and a thrill. Ferrillo and Hodgdon adeptly navigated the first movement’s rapidly changing moods with sensitivity and keen dynamic control. A nimble piano charged the scherzo, and the viola, which plays muted throughout the movement, balanced well with the glassy bitonal arpeggiated chords and dancelike pops of sound. The ending was nonchalant to the point of aloofness, and lacked charm, but all the dreamy passages came off very well. The expansive third movement, which develops into a technical (but not actual) fourth, starts with the piano in a Debussy homage. More whimsical strains come with the string, but at the climax the first movement’s subject returns, and the conclusion becomes a combination of both worlds.

Although music for viola has been written throughout the instrument’s existence, the 20th century comprises the examples most likely to be recognized, either by title, theme, or composer. What a treat therefore to hear work from this era which had never before been performed ― Ulysses Kay’s Sonatine for Viola and Piano. Kay has a great musical pedigree. The nephew of King Oliver, and student of Still, Hanson, and Hindemith, he attended Tanglewood in 1941. Ferrillo discovered the Sonatine and teamed up with Hodgdon for its world premiere. Kay has been described as a neoclassicist, and the Sonatine is somewhat in that vein, although its classical subject gets a more romantic treatment throughout. The intriguing work contains nuggets of interest like a fugue wherein the viola starts with the first two voices, with the piano only joining afterward. Though thematically connected, it feels episodic, and ends rather abruptly. Still, it deserves wider play.

Steve Laraia and Kyle Brightwell elucidate. (webstream frame grab)

It was very refreshing to see and hear violist Steve Laraia sit down with percussionist Kyle Brightwell and actually discuss the next piece before the video launched. Kudos. Some of us have been saying this type of thing needs to happen all the time. In Berio’s Naturale for viola, percussion, and pre-recorded voice, the composer integrates a tape of a Sicilian street vendor with live music ― the viola wrapping rhythms around the voice and intersecting with its tonality, while gentle percussion provides atmosphere. Although initially very effective, it ran out of things to say after 14 minutes, yet continued saying them for another seven. Laraia’s soloist-like virtuosity was refreshing in a stream where most performances were capable without approaching captivating. Though also a BSO section violist, Laraia’s brought superlative interpretation and execution.

Daniel Getz joined Hodgson for Hindemith’s Sonata, known as “the 11/4” by violists (distinguishing it by its opus number from his other works of the same name). Perhaps more of a mainstream viola chamber work than the appealing Clarke, it comes from a composer who can be an acquired taste. Hindemith poses ample challenges and much opportunity for music making, but true to Hindemith’s idiom, it comes off a little more intellectual and stoic. Hindemith needs to be “sold” for its passion to come across. In this outing, this fervor developed only for a few odd phrases. The inclusion of 11/4 was a given, since the piece is a workhorse, and Hindemith was the first composition teacher at Tanglewood, but it would have been more effective as the opening music, with the concert concluding with the Clarke.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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