Front And Center For Once, Violas Sing Their Story

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New World Symphony fellows, NWS alumni, and South Florida student violists performed the world premiere of a work for more than 30 players by Nils Bultmann, ‘Concerto4 for Large Viola Ensemble.’ (Photo by Rui Dias-Aidos)
By Sean Erwin

MIAMI BEACH – The New World Symphony kicked off its Viola Visions Festival with a program Oct. 16 that featured viola-centric works spanning 300 years.

Leading off the first of proposed yearly NWS festivals devoted to a single instrument in the symphony orchestra, the evening leaped from one surprise to the next while integrating community outreach and educational elements. It also showcased the viola’s history as an ongoing series of negotiations between the human body and an instrument still in flux.

NWS artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas told the audience that The Violin Channel had changed its name for the week to The Viola Channel as a nod to the festival (from which the channel live-streamed performances).

Thomas was joined onstage by the evening’s first surprise – 16 violists ages 12 to early college from schools all over South Florida. With them were composer and former NWS fellow Nils Bultmann, current fellows, Florida International University violist Michael Klotz, and NWS alumni Erik Rynearson (Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra) and Madeline Sharp (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra).

The orchestra’s world premiere of Bultmann’s Concerto4 – scored for more than 30 violas – could not have been performed without the student musicians. The nine-minute work compressed conflicting themes and techniques around a gorgeous folk melody initiated by Bultmann and then passed among soloists. The piece opened with the younger musicians laying down a sure, constant floor of chords for the soloists from whom intense pizzicato rhythms flashed, dominated, and then faded to a whisper. The work’s dynamics were elastic, alternately expanding before turning inward, as the folk theme was repeated against constantly changing plucked rhythms.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6  featured Cynthia Phelps (New York Philharmonic) and Jonathan Vinocour (San Francisco Symphony) on viola, Michael Beattie on harpsichord, Caroline Nicolas and Arnie Tanimoto on viola da gamba, Alan Ohkubo on cello, and Douglas Aliano on bass.

Violist Tabea Zimmermann, left, and NWS fellow Stephanie Block performing a work by Garth Knox. (Rui Dias-Aidos)

The violas set out the fugal phrases with a crisp energy supported by soft accents in viola da gambas and bass that at times sprang forth with a personality rarely heard. In the Adagio, Phelps savored the bright, plaintive theme, but notable as well was Ohkubo’s expansive cello line, which went beyond support to reveal an unexpected dimension within the movement. During the closing Allegro, Vinocour and Phelps traded the melody like close, witty friends preferring to bubble with humor than pause for a laugh. The gigue barreled to a close, peppered by accents, controlled but danceable.

In a pair of talks, Brooklyn-based luthier Samuel Zygmuntowicz  presented short, surprising histories of the viola full of accidents and missteps that positioned the instrument from the standpoint of its dead ends. Zygmuntowicz challenged the idea of the viola as a settled fact, characterizing it as an instrument in progress. He also injected a little humor: “What’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? The coffin has the dead guy on the inside.”

NWS artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas (Rui Dias-Aidos)

The evening’s third work was Garth Knox’s 2007 (revised 2010) Marin Marais Variations on ‘Les folies d’Espagne’ for four violas. NWS fellows Stephanie Block, Jessica Pasternak, and Kip Riecken were joined by German soloist Tabea Zimmerman in an exquisite performance. Dance, laugh or cry — each figured as appropriate responses to the different games these four played through the variations that highlighted distinct bowing techniques.

Zimmermann lavished the work with nuance, presenting jaw-dropping possibilities for the viola. At times courtly and full of crushed velvet, at times like the spidery play of light off the sea floor, the 11-minute piece bounced from the third variation’s delicate phrasing, where performers whispered the bow across the strings like fingers on glass, to the out-of-tune and drunken variations where Zimmerman took it so far it was hard to know how the others kept from cracking a smile.

The evening closed with Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo for eight violas, which was composed in 2004 for violins but rearranged for violas for this festival. Norman places the genesis of the piece in a time when he found himself researching the work of futurist Giacomo Balla, watching roommates play the auto-racing video game Gran Turismo, and reflecting on Vivaldi and Baroque string virtuosity.

Norman’s creation is a compressed eight-minute work that recalls John Adams’ 1986 Short Ride in a Fast Machine, but instead of the built-in narrative of traveling in a real vehicle, the octet reflects the “zero to 200, back to zero, then float left” virtual disconnects contained in a completely digital experience. It is thought-provoking in the link it forges between 21st-century dataism and early musical structures, a connection also made by French theorist Gilles Deleuze in his Mille plateaux. Assuming that Norman was absorbing the 2001 release Gran Turismo 3, certainly his work shares its pace with the video game’s soundtrack.

But that was all he took from it, since Gran Turismo not only flies out of the gate but is also out of the box structurally. Other performances of the piece have captured the score’s kinetic energy (a tempo marking reads “floor it”), but they often jam the voices together, all complexity vanishing in the process.

The NWS performance took the tempo a hair slower. This allowed Gran Turismo’s architecture to appear while dialing down its shrillness. The eight violists hurtled through furious exchanges that suddenly collapsed around a single held note. About a third of the way in, the piece shifted into a dreamy and atmospheric section before ramping the speed back up. This was definitely a work to hear live. Soloist Nadia Sirota and the rest of the group flashed it forward – and kept Norman’s race car for violas out of the pit.

Sean Erwin is a philosophy professor at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., who writes on classical dance and classical music. His reviews, articles, and interviews have appeared in Artburst Miami, the Miami Herald, Miami New Times, and Dance View. He is senior editor of the Humanities and Technology Review.