February is Viola Month! By Stephanie Griffin

For those of you who may not have noticed, there is something strange in the air these days. Not only has a meteor just recently hit Siberia….but there has also been an unprecedented number of viola-centric events closer to home throughout this month.

Tonight at 7:30pm EST and this Friday, February 19th  at 7pm, you can enjoy the experience of seven violists with five dancers in choreographer Stephanie Sleeper’s White (with some color), live at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City (4402 23rd St., Long Island City, NY 11101) or streamed on-line at: http://virtualarts.tv/wiredartsfest/calendar-and-tickets, as part of the Wired Arts Festival.

I will be joined by fellow violists Jessica Meyer, Adam Mathes, David Wallace, David Gold, Eva Gerard and William Hakim in my own 7-viola arrangement of Indonesian composer Tony Prabowo’s choral work Doa Persembunyian (A Prayer for Refuge, 2002).

Stephanie Sleeper (www.sleepdance.org) is no stranger to the Momenta Quartet. In fact, she joined us at Gretna Music in Pennsylvania last August for her historical dance debut with music by Beethoven and Schubert and Momenta’s modern dance debut in the world premiere of her Quadrille, with music by Gordon Beeferman. For those of you that would like to see Momenta venture where probably no other quartet has tread before, you can see us perform Quadrille with Stephanie and Gordon as part of our NYU Composers concert on Saturday, March 30th at 6pm.

Speaking of Gordon Beeferman, I had the pleasure of staying in his ancestral home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Friday, February 15th after the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) event: Voilà! Viola! at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. The concert opened with one of the “standards” of the multiple viola repertoire:  Suite for Eight Violas (1975) by the British composer Gordon Jacob, and proceeded to feature viola soloists Wenting Kang, Susan Ung, Kate Vincent and Lizhou Liu in four viola concertos by George Perle, Chinary Ung, Donald Crockett and Chen Yi.

Each of these concerti celebrated a different aspect of the viola’s complex and multifaceted personality. In the tradition of Hindemith’s Schwanendreher, Perle pitted the viola against a chamber band: no strings except the double bass, which along with saxophone and percussion evoked a jazz combo at times, in five terse contrasting movements.  The highlight of the concert was the world premiere of Chinary Ung’s Singing Inside Aura (2013) with the composer’s wife Susan as the fearless soloist. Ung’s powerful and dramatic work set a unique solo part against kaleidoscopic orchestral colors and textures. Throughout the entire piece, Susan sang complex heterophony against her own viola part, which she played with great assurance and expression. The demanding vocal part explored a wide range in pitch and intensity, and had Susan communicating to her audience in Cambodian-inflected phonemes, with smatterings of Sanskrit, here and there. Her performance was a tour de force – John Gurrin’s assessment: “That was Jimmy Hendrix.” (Note also that the piece was completed in 2013 – and this performance was in mid-February. If Chinary Ung had signed off on it on New Year’s Day, Susan would still only have had 6 weeks to pull this off. In fact, when we had dinner with Chinary after Momenta’s February 3rd concert at Flushing Town Hall, he joked about writing these challenging pieces for his wife to keep her busy. She was indeed at home practicing at the time!) Beyond the sheer virtuosity of her performance was a gripping and visceral emotional quality, well matched with the spiritual power of Ung’s composition.

The other world premiere on the concert was Donald Crockett’s Viola Concerto (2012), notable for its gorgeous orchestration which lent Kate Vincent’s already sweet tone an otherworldly sheen. Crockett underlined many of the viola’s utterances with single attacks in percussion, winds and brass at times and –  most strikingly – with a shadow solo line played by the concertmaster and principal cellist. Crockett used the solo violin and cello lines to amplify the viola, in a creative and wonderfully organic solution to the classic challenge of balancing a solo viola against an orchestra.  The program concluded with Chen Yi’s youthful Xian Shi (1983), written while the composer was still at the Beijing Central Conservatory and known as “the first Chinese viola concerto.” This concerto asserted my belief that of the four Western bowed string instruments, the viola has the most in common with the non-Western instruments (such as Chinese erhu, for example) and is best suited for expression in a non-Western vein.

I would like to express my appreciation to BMOP’s artistic director and conductor Gil Rose for having the audacity to produce this program  – and my hope that someone here in New York City will follow suit! Nadia Sirota came close, with her diverse and extremely well attended viola event at The Kitchen on February 5th. She opened her recital with the world premiere of Judd Greenstein’s piece for 7 violas – yes – 7 violas – not 6, not 8. Does this seem familiar? Like my aforementioned Prabowo arrangement, Judd’s piece had its origins as a made-for-CD piece prerecorded on multiple tracks. This was the world premiere of its live version. (We premiered my Prabowo on Argento’s series at the Austrian Cultural Forum last December:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-4gXt4dn9o.) In the spirit of multi-tracking, Nadia closed her unique violistic journey with a concerto accompanied by 10 of her own prerecorded viola tracks, and prerecorded bass and percussion by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. Let’s do this live some day!

Next Tuesday, February 26th marks yet another important viola event – Samuel Rhodes’ Farewell Concert with the Juilliard Quartet at 8pm at Alice Tully Hall! After 44 years with the quartet, Samuel Rhodes is passing the baton to Roger Tapping in a program featuring Sam in Beethoven’s Opus 135 and both violists in Mozart’s Quintet in D, K. 593 and Samuel Rhodes’ own Viola Quintet. This promises to be a profoundly emotional event – not to be missed! (But I don’t have a ticket yet, so please don’t ALL show up!)

Drawing this commentary to a close: have any of us been regaled with such violistic riches outside the confines of a Viola Congress? Have the stars just achieved a special alignment this month, or do these recent viola activities reflect the dawning of a new age that celebrates the mellow and pacific qualities of our great Unsung (yet always singing) instrument. I sign off with the hopes that this is true and I urge you all to demand more viola from your local presenters and musical institutions! In the mean time, enjoy what is on offer, and I hope to see you at a viola event some time somewhere soon.

-Photo: Still image from John Gurrin’s video art to Tony Prabowo’s Music for Multiple Violas B-A-C-H