Double Viola Concerto Honors Retiring Player

Cleveland Orchestra principal viola Robert Vernon and first assistant principal Lynne Ramsey were joint soloists in Richard Sortommes Concerto for Two Violas with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Concert photos: Roger Mastroianni)
Violists Robert Vernon and Lynne Ramsey were soloists in Richard Sortomme’s concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra.
(Concert photos: Roger Mastroianni)
By Mike Telin

CLEVELAND — “By writing this concerto based on Smetana’s From My Life, I have relived part of my youth, revisited my early performing history, and recalled unforgettable musical and personal experiences,” composer Richard Sortomme wrote in a letter to Cleveland Orchestra principal viola Robert Vernon.

The ensuing composition, Sortomme’s Concerto for Two Violas on Themes from Smetana’s From My Life String Quartet, received its world premiere on Nov. 19 at Severance Hall under the baton of music director laureate Christoph von Dohnányi. The soloists were Vernon, scheduled to retire at the end of the orchestra’s 2016 summer season at Blossom Music Center, and his stand partner, first assistant principal Lynne Ramsey.

Commissioned by the orchestra in honor of Vernon’s 40-year tenure, Sortomme’s congenial piece draws heavily on themes from Smetana’s first string quartet. Interestingly, another former Cleveland music director, George Szell, arranged that quartet for orchestra and included it on his first set of concerts as guest conductor in 1944.

Richard Sortomme. (Photo: David Finlayson)
Richard Sortomme. (Photo: David Finlayson)

The quartet also figured memorably in the lives of two young violinists who studied it years ago with former Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster Josef Gingold at the Meadowmount School of Music in the Adirondacks. One of those teenagers was Sortomme. The other happened to be Vernon, who began his career as a violinist before switching to viola.

Scored for large orchestra with triple winds, full brass, enough percussion to require five players, plus harp, piano, and accordion, the concerto reveals itself in two long movements, each divided into a number of thematically contrasting episodes.

Sortomme’s keen grasp of orchestral color is apparent from the beginning, when a dramatic chord leaves an E-flat clarinet note floating high in the air above low brass and piano. The violas enter on a solemn, lyrical theme until the snare drum introduces a more amiable motif for the viola duo and a reprise of the opening idea. After a horn solo and comments from the mallets, castanets make a surprise entrance. Tipsy glissandos from the trombones (a reference to Smetana’s drunken soldiers in the quartet) take the lead, as the first movement gallops its way to an abrupt conclusion.

A lyrical and heartfelt solo from Vernon opened the second movement, answered by Ramsey. More recognizable quotations from Smetana’s quartet permeate the texture until again being interrupted by the percussion section — this time with a folksy Smetana-inspired polka complete with tomtoms and mallets. Following a repeat of the opening viola duet, a lush passage for string orchestra appears. A brief but sultry English horn solo is punctuated by sharp comments from the mallets.

An amorphous episode leads to a disjunct rhythmic figure passed through the ensemble, and after another lyrical statement from the two soloists joined by solo violin, the music boils over into a lavish folk-dance motif complete with the brilliant inclusion of an accordion. Finally, the soloists play the opening theme from Smetana’s quartet intact before tossing fragments of the tune between themselves with increasing intensity to the end.

Cleveland Orchestra music director laureate Christoph von Dohnányi conducted the concert.
Cleveland Orchestra music director laureate Christoph von Dohnányi conducted.

In his lengthy composer notes in the program booklet, Sortomme states that his main difficulty was toeing the line between “doing justice to Smetana with nods to his melodies and rhythms” — while not getting too close to quoting them  — and writing a piece that was “too abstruse.” Sortomme’s inventive use of colors and rhythms makes the concerto an enchanting listening experience. At the same time, the episodic structure of the 28-minute piece and its absence of connective tissue makes it difficult to grasp in its entirety.

Dohnányi led a crisp and attentive reading of the new work. Vernon and Ramsey played their parts ardently, with beautiful tone, and the orchestra delivered its many solo passages brilliantly. The performance was warmly embraced by an enthusiastic audience and by Vernon and Ramsey’s colleagues.

Although a breathless reading of Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride opened the concert, Dohnányi led a sublime account of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 to end the evening. From the opening horn theme and Frank Rosenwein’s charming, folksy oboe solo in the second movement to the surging scherzo and resplendent finale, the orchestra played this long, taxing symphony with an energy, flair, and sonic splendor that Clevelanders sometimes take for granted. Those special qualities were much in evidence in this masterful performance, which received a resounding ovation from the near-capacity audience.

Mike Telin is executive editor of and team-teaches “Introduction to Music Criticism” at Oberlin College.