Article for STRINGS magazine’s PLAY IT!
Concerto per la Viola:
Duration: 35 minutes.
Orchestra: Flute and Piccolo, Oboe, 2 Clarinets, Bassoon, Trumpet, Timpani, Strings.
My first two performances of the Viola Concerto took place last fall in Bloomington with the Indiana University School of Music Chamber Orchestra, Uriel Segal conducting, and in Brussels with the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, Ronald Zollman conducting. For a self-taught “late bloomer” composer such as myself these were far from being run of the mill events...
I know no greater pleasure than to write and play my own music. It may have taken me too long to realize that I need not be a Chopin, Paganini or Rachmaninov to do so. Instead, I needed to recognize the existence of some genuine music in my mind and find courage to put it on paper regardless of what is nowadays accepted, expected, or deemed “important” or “new”. Doing so, I was able to communicate with my inner-self and come a step closer to understanding who I am. By writing a few words about my concerto for this publication’s PLAY IT, I hope to encourage a few other performers to go through a similar experience. Write it – play it!
In composing this concerto, I was driven by a desire to bring to the fore the gloriously broad range of tone and the distinctive character of the viola. The viola is the most wistful, melancholic, inward- looking and soulful instrument. The voice of choice for elegies and laments, its repertoire is distinguished by countless sad titles such as Trauermusik, Yiskor (in memoriam), Lachrymae. It does, however, take pleasure in being gay and humoristic, brave, tough and rustic. (In his letter to Tibor Serly, Bartok, not surprisingly, speaks about the masculine sound of the viola.) Yes, the viola may be a little weighty, somewhat clumsy, but it does like to dance! And yes, it does want to show off.
Indeed, I also wanted to further explore the viola’s capabilities as a bona fide virtuoso instrument. The history of music has not been generous to violists in this respect! I wanted the viola to run as fast and jump as high as a violin. I wanted it to pirouette, to ricochet, to staccato. I wanted it to dazzle with double-stops and to sing with double harmonics. How about harmonics and normally stopped notes sounding simultaneously (kind of scary in performance, I must admit)? If only I could, I would make the viola “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”…
To prepare for the task, in 2005 I composed Six Caprices for Solo Viola, looking at some musical ideas from various technical angles. In addition to expanding my own repertoire and that of other violists as well, I wanted the Caprices to serve as sketches-etudes towards the larger scale composition. I made use of the Caprices in the first three movements of the Concerto. (The fourth movement is based on the “Alla Bulgarese” from my 1992 Solo Viola Sonata.)
The four movements of the concerto are different in scope. The outer movements use the full orchestra and are quite longer than the middle ones. The first, ALLEGRO, juxtaposes the “grave” and the “brave” faces of the viola. The writing is essentially contrapuntal and the dialogue between viola and orchestra is constant and extensive. At some key moments, the two clarinets lead a stubborn bittersweet little fanfare while the timpani provides the “Boleroesque” rhythms, enhancing some of the dramatic and exotic intentions I had for the movement.
ARIA su DUE CORDE uses the strings, oboe and timpani only. It is in A-B-A-B-(A) form. The slow and lyrical A sections are played on the G string of the viola. They are announced – and concluded - by bitonal chorals played by the strings. As the viola performs its melancholic melody, the oboe adds a series of sigh-like descending thirds. The lively B section is played on the A string of the viola. The strings echo the viola as well as collaborating with the timpani in providing rhythmical beats in odd meters. The last A section lasts two bars, allowing the viola a fraction of its theme and the oboe to gasp with a couple of last sighs.
The solo viola part of the CAPRICCIO is the exact replica of my Caprice No. 3 for viola, entitled Belà (as its ends with a wink towards Bartok’s Viola Concerto. (See excerpt.) Only here, following a slow introduction, the wild perpetual motion of the viola becomes the accompaniment for the other instruments’ scherzando-type material. This time around the strings, with the exception of the double bass, are tacit.
RAPSODIA alla BULGARA is a fantasia based on two catchy Bulgarian tunes I heard my mother sing over and over when I was a child. (My late mother would have loved to have heard Belgian musicians gleefully whistling her tunes in the corridors of Brussels Conservatory, as did I.) Rhythmically this is the most complicated of the four movements as, true to Bulgarian music, it extensively uses cross–rhythms in fast changing odd meters.
At least in my mind, my music is Israeli. I left Israel at the age of 21 but much of the original music I heard growing up in the Fifties and the Sixties is still with me, an amalgam of sounds from Central and Eastern Europe, the Near and Middle East, the Maghreb and the Balkans (I grew up in a village of immigrants from Bulgaria).
Most Israeli composers working in this period (Partos, Seter, Ben Haim, to name a few) were emigrants from Europe and Russia, and many of them fled to Israel around or during the time of the Holocaust. Although trained in the European tradition, they tried to bring to their music a local flavor and sometimes based it entirely on local elements. Thus, in the melting pot that Israel was, a composer skilled in the art of the fugue or in dodecaphonic music would emulate Bedouin arabesques in his compositions; a Russian born composer would draw from Yemenite vocalism; a German-speaking composer (Ashkenazi) would write Ladino (Sephardic) songs. (For the record, I am both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and I recognize a soft spot in my heart for Ladino music.)
They were my music teachers. They taught in Hebrew, but felt much more comfortable speaking their native languages; German, Russian, Polish, Hungarian (Hungarian reigned in the corridors of the Israeli Academy at that time). With the passing of time, the memory of their music and their struggle to create a distinctive Israeli music became more and more endearing to me. It became a main part of my longing to my childhood in Israel. My concerto reflects this. It echoes music from far away and another time in my life; music that I greatly treasure and from which I cannot escape.