”The most important thing is that you have something to say.”
He hardly needs an introduction: Lawrence Power, British violist, educated at Guildhall and Juilliard. Having won the Primrose International Viola Competition in 1999, Power enjoys a prominent carreer as a soloist and chamber musician. His CD recordings are widely acclaimed, spanning particularly the 20th century English viola repertoire in addition to the landmarks of Hindemith, Shostakovich and Bartok. He is International Professor of Viola at the Zurich Hochschule der Kunst.
This month, Lawrence is visiting Rotterdam for two performances with his pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips, and a viola masterclass sponsored by Codarts and the Dutch Viola Society. A perfect pretext for an interview, and we were fortunate to find Lawrence available for a telephone conversation on a rare quiet evening.
DVS: How did it all begin, was there music in your life from the very start?
Well, I’m not from a musical family, so I was very fortunate with my local school, where they had tests to see if children were musical. I was quite tall for my age, so I started straight on the viola when I was seven.
DVS: Did you ever want to become anything else than a viola player?
No, it was really something that I always wanted to do, it was very natural.
DVS: So, at such a young age, could you get an instrument with a decent sounding C-string?
I can’t really remember, it’s so long ago! But in a way, a viola can sound better in the beginning than a violin; some of the beginners’ violins can sound, you know, quite strange… so maybe that’s why I liked the viola. And when I was 12, I was very fortunate to get a good modern viola. So I was lucky to have a good working instrument early on, that makes a big difference.
DVS: Which teachers and performers inspired you in your development as a musician?
I had a great teacher from the age of 12 till 19, Mark Knight in London. He was a very practical teacher – a violinist actually, more than a viola player. And of course, being interested in viola, I listened to recordings of William Primrose and Lionel Tertis. And Yuri Bashmet, who was already a big superstar when I was young. And I listened to other musicians like Oistrakh, Heifetz, Milstein, all these wonderful historical recordings. So, lots of influences really.
DVS: Do you observe any rituals related to concert performances?
No, I really try to be relaxed about that. When you travel all over the planet, and you find you can’t keep to your rituals, it would be quite unnerving, if you’ve come to depend on it. When I’m at home, I can lock myself away and practice for 12 hours a day to prepare for a concert. But when I’m on the road, I might not get any decent practice for a whole week. That kind of flexibility is important for a musician, rather than routines. For me, anyway.
DVS: Not so many superstitions, then?
Not really, no <laugh>.
DVS: Given an opportunity to play just one unaccompanied viola solo piece, what would you play?
Difficult question… well, it wouldn’t be Bach; I don’t play Bach on the viola. I could play a Hindemith sonata… or the Ligety sonata, which is a great piece of music. Or the Berio Sequenza (for viola, numbered VI, ed.). Yes, I think that’s it: Ligety or Berio.
DVS: What’s wrong with playing the Bach cello suites on the viola?
Well, for one, he didn’t write them for the viola. And – I don’t know if I should be saying this here – but I actually play quite a bit of violin lately, I adore baroque music, but as a violist I don’t get in touch with that repertoire very much. In terms of playing Bach, I’d rather work on the violin sonatas and partitas. For baroque music, it’s wonderful to have the violin in my life, with access to composers like Biber, Schmelzer and Bach.
DVS: You do not find it difficult to switch between violin and viola?
No, to me the mechanics of violin and viola are much the same. Although I started out on the viola, I’m not a viola purist. It’s like a language. The viola is my mother tongue, I adore the viola, it’s what I do. But it’s possible to speak other languages, even if perhaps you have an accent. The words you say are more important than the accent.
William Primrose was one of my favourite viola players, but he was a violinist first, trained by Ysaÿe; Pinchas Zukerman was a violinist, even Lionel Tertis started out a violinist. It is important, even if you only play the viola, to have a solid technical grounding. Then you can play whatever you want. But the most important thing is that you have something to say.
DVS: In Rotterdam you will be contributing to a dance performance, based on the Shostakovich viola sonata. How did that come about?
I was asked if I would stay on in Rotterdam (after the recital of Oct. 20th, ed.) to do this ballet performance based on the Shostakovich sonata. It is a wonderful piece of music, but also a very dark piece, very challenging for the audience. It is just about the last piece he wrote before he died, he never heard it performed. The opportunity to work with dancers on such a piece can be very interesting, and I’m very curious how they have choreographed it, it might give an added dimension. After the Shostakovich we will also be playing some recital repertoire, without dancers.
DVS: You seem to have a certain affinity with the British composers surrounding Lionel Tertis; your York Bowen recordings in particular seem to carry a personal conviction. How would you introduce Bowen to an un-initiated audience?
I would introduce Bowen to the audience as a very important English composer of real skill, who wrote many great works for the viola.
I was very fortunate to be asked to record the Bowen viola concerto on Hyperion. And that went down very well with the public, so I had this idea to record all of Bowen’s viola music, which he wrote for Tertis. Bowen was a superstar in his day, he premiered works at the Proms every year. And then after the wars, his music went out of fashion. He was overshadowed by composers like Elgar, Britten, and Vaughan Williams.
For a young violist today it would be crazy to ignore Bowen’s pieces, because they show the viola in a very heroic and virtuosic light. And as a viola player you need those pieces in your repertoire, otherwise your concert programmes can become very one-dimensional, with elegiac music. In Holland of course you’ve also got some wonderful viola composers to choose from, like Röntgen.
DVS: How much of Bowen’s appeal can be attributed to the enormous viola passion of Lionel Tertis, shining through?
Oh, a lot. Tertis was one of the first viola players ever to travel around the world, as a soloist. Not only Bowen, but just about all English composers wrote for him: Walton, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Bax … so in a way, like Rostropovich was a big figure for the cello, Tertis was massively important for the viola repertoire of the early 20th century.
DVS: The contemporary viola repertoire is growing at an astonishing rate, left and right you see viola festivals, viola ensembles, viola societies popping up. Why is this, what is the particular appeal of the viola in our time?
Musically speaking, composers in the 20th century have reacted to the viola, because they see its possibilities as an expressive instrument. Of course Mozart, Schubert, Dvorak – they all played the viola, because as a composer of chamber music, you need to understand that middle voice. The viola turns the keys for a chamber ensemble. Hindemith led the way for future composers to write viola concertos. And also, for a composer considering to write a violin concerto, you feel the weight of a massive tradition on your shoulders, so a viola concerto perhaps feels liberating.
Regarding the Viola Societies, I think it’s great that people feel strongly about that, but I think the musical attraction of the viola has more to do with the versatility, the variations in size, shape and sounds that it can produce.
DVS: So then, analogous to composers’ preference for viola over violin concerto, might one explain the increase in repertoire for viola ensembles (at the expense of string quartets)?
Well, as long as it’s a good piece of music, the particular instrumentation is of secondary importance: Four flutes, violas, whatever. Of course Bowen wrote a viola quartet, and there’s a wonderful viola duo by George Benjamin: “Viola, viola”, a very powerful piece, which I’ve played many times. Hopefully, people will write lots of new interesting works for the viola.
DVS: Any prospects for the near future that you are particularly excited about?
Luckily I have lots of fun things to look forward to every month, travelling around and playing with nice people! But the main thing I’m really looking forward to now is the premiere in January of a new viola concerto by James MacMillan, in London. Working with contemporary composers is a big part of what I do and something I really enjoy.
© 2013 Dutch Viola Society / edited by Kristofer G. Skaug