Interview Garth Knox

Violist and composer Garth Knox is a featured artist at the Amsterdam Viola Festival 2019. DVS president and ad-hoc reporter Karin Dolman found him available for an interview.

DVS: So, you’re Scottish?

I was born in Dublin, but we moved to Aberdeen when I was 5 years old, so I had my education in Scotland. I’m probably more Scottish than Irish, but I have family on both sides of the water.

DVS: So you’re influenced by Irish and Scottish music, folk music?

Well, I don’t always do it consciously, but it’s there, you grow up with it in your ears, and it naturally finds a way to come out. And I like it, I think folk music is the strongest kind of music there is, a lot of classical music is taken from folk music and brought into the concert hall. And that’s very interesting, once you take folk music away from the place where it happens, you change it. It doesn’t work the same way up on a stage, in a listening situation. So it’s interesting to see what part of this music still survives in the concert hall, and how you can use that, without losing that spark. It’s very hard, it’s a kind of holy grail, but when you can do it, it’s the best thing there is – I really try to get there.

DVS: And then you were the violist of the Arditti Quartet?

Yes, for seven very full years, it was a great experience, very hard work, I learned a lot!

DVS: But seven years was enough?

Yes – it was good to change people, because the Arditti quartet is not your normal classical string quartet; they focus strongly on contemporary music. Arditti is a special case, because when they originally started (1974, red.) they were pioneers in this sense, to always want to play new music. And Irvine (Irvine Arditti, the founder of the quartet, red.) never wanted to dwell on a single piece for 6 months to make it a masterpiece, he rather wanted to promote new works and maybe influence the programming of other quartets. And it worked, more and more other quartets started to include the Arditti’s pieces in their repertoire.

DVS: In The Netherlands there are more new compositions being made than there are quartets to play them… and you are composing too – when did you start composing?

I started composing seriously after I left the quartet, around 1998, then I had more time.

DVS: So you thought, what they write for us, I can do as well?

Well, there were so many interesting ideas that were not obvious from the outside, that the audience didn’t hear, because there were so many other things going on in the music. And I wanted to broaden my interests, beyond quartet music. And I wanted to move back to Paris, where I lived before I joined the quartet; so those were reasons for leaving.

What I tried to learn from the quartet, and use in my music, is a way of presenting sounds so that people could really enjoy the sounds themselves. Many pieces have almost too many ideas, they’re a whole universe in themselves, which you can get lost in. But I thought, why not present people with new sounds but in a context they know already, instead of unleashing a new revolution upon the world every day! You can present the audience with just a subtle change in the sound, to be interesting enough.

So what I try to do in my music, especially in the Viola Spaces, is to write simple pieces. A straight line, a little melody, no complex metrics, one step at a time, focusing on the sound, without difficult notations. As it progresses, I only change little things, like technique, to modify the sound it makes. So my aim would be to persuade classical musicians to listen more to the sound they’re making.

DVS: So you started composing, at first for yourself – what would you suggest as a starting tip for a would-be composer?

Go for it – but keep it simple, less is more! Don’t start too ambitiously, just write what’s on your mind.

DVS: You have a family – did you have to shut them out in order to find room for composing?

I’m not really a full-time composer, I’m also a player, and I combine the two. So I don’t have to shut out my family to compose. In fact part of the reason for composing was to be able to spend more time at home with my family.

DVS: Are there still things you want to do more of?

Composing-wise, yes! The Pocket Concerto is a good example; the piano is not my favourite companion instrument, it seems to suck all the sound away from the viola. I always thought the viola sounds better without the piano, in a quartet for example.

So I was asked to write a Concertante piece for viola for this competition, and I wanted to open a door to a new combination, by using the cello instead of a piano to play the orchestra part.

DVS: Yes you’re totally right, but at the same time, this particular combination made it difficult for many viola students to enter this competition – the cellists often backed out when they saw the score, they couldn’t muster the time and energy to practice this demanding part as a mere “accompanist”.

Really? I’m surprised to hear that. I tried to make it easy on the cello …

DVS: Yes, it’s really an attitude issue among conservatory students,
which we have to try to change…

…anyway, next topic! The Viola d’Amore, a special love of yours. Where do you start to learn this instrument?

I think you can just start to play, and teach yourself. And there’s also a method by the 18th century composer-violist Milandre, with lots of nice little pieces and tips to get started.

DVS: And the tuning – D major seems to be the standard?

Yes, but it can also be D minor, which is my favourite. And you can arrange the sympathetic strings according to the piece.

DVS: I also saw the Hardanger fiddle mentioned on your site?

Yes, I played with Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, an Irish fiddler who has a 5-string “Hardanger d’Amore“. But I don’t really play the Hardanger fiddle myself, although I did play it once in a video. And it is of course related to the Viola d’Amore.

DVS: Some last questions then – did you ever play in an orchestra?

I played in the English Chamber Orchestra for a while, after leaving college.

DVS: And with whom did you study?

I studied with Frederick Riddle at the Royal College of Music in London, a great violist. He’s also known for having made the first-ever recording of the Walton Concerto.

DVS: And where could students reach you – do you teach?

I do some summer courses, but no year-round teaching position.

DVS: Then we’ll make sure your summer courses are shown in our website’s Summer Courses guide!
Thank-you for your time!

Editor’s note:  Tomorrow (Nov 16th), Garth Knox will perform his own Pocket Concerto (for viola and cello) at the Evening concert of the DVS National Viola Gathering in Splendor Amsterdam! Reserve your tickets and come!


In Search of a Lost Language

DVS board member Emlyn Stam received his Ph.D. last month at Leiden University. In this article, he briefly summarizes his original research topic. Red.

by Emlyn Stam

Dr. Stam explains his thesis in words and musical examples at Theater Branoul, The Hague – October 29th 2019

Why do the performances of early-recorded violists from over a century ago sound so different from own? How might we describe their performances? What can we learn from them? And most importantly, can their musical and technical approach be used to create new performances today? These are some of the questions that occupied me in my work over the last five years on my dissertation: In Search of a Lost Language: Performing in Early-Recorded Style in Viola and String Quartet Repertoires.  The project involved detailed analysis of recordings by violists Oskar Nedbal, Léon van Hout, Arthur Post, Pierre Monteux, Maurice Vieux and Lionel Tertis. I describe the way they use techniques like unnotated rhythmic and tempo flexibility, portamento, layering, ornamentation and vibrato to create highly personal performances.

I copied their performances as closely as possible and continued by extrapolating from their approach to create my own style copies. This work resulted in a recorded portfolio that accompanies the written thesis where you can listen to the original historical recordings and my own attempts at reinvigorating early-recorded style. Colleagues who wish to free themselves from the constraints of today’s neat, tidy, score-based performances may find the path I followed to be of interest. My work also sheds light on the historical record, detailing how the repertoire was heard at a time when many of today’s most revered, canonical composers were alive.

The dissertation and accompanying recordings can be downloaded here: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/79999


Nedbal Competition blog – 2nd and Final Round

The DVS once again visits new viola frontiers! This time our intrepid reporter Karin Dolman is reporting from the very First Oskar Nedbal International Viola Competition in Prague (Oct 31st – Nov 3rd, 2019).

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Sunday morning – time for the 2nd (and final) round of this competition. The twelve finalists selected yesterday will play in the same relative order as they appeared in the 1st round (which was, by the way, alphabetical by last name).

The 2nd round repertoire consists of:
– Oskar Nedbal: Romantic piece op.18
– A sonata for Viola and Piano: Choice of Martinů, Hindemith (op.11/4), Clarke, Brahms (op.120 either one), Schubert (Arpeggione), Paganini, Feld, Reger, Vieuxtemps, or Kalabis

To remind you what’s at stake here:

1st prize – 20000 Czech Crowns (= €780), a fine bow, viola case and various accessories
2nd prize – 15000 Czech Crowns (= €590), viola case and various accessories
3rd prize – 10000 Czech Crowns (= €390), viola case and various accessories
In addition there are smaller cash prizes for the best interpretation of the Oskar Nedbal piece, the Martinu and Kalabis sonatas, and various other concert and masterclass prizes.

The first candidate is Melissa Datta. She chose the Rebecca Clarke sonata, with which she presents a fiery start. The solo opening sentence of this piece really determines the character of the performance, and tells a lot about the musician. The next challenge is to keep the ensuing impressionistic part interesting, Melissa does that well. The 2nd movement is a scherzo with lots of humour (a familiar trait from Clarke’s other compositions). In the 3rd movement, we should be awash in all the love of the world. I feel that Melissa comes up a bit short in that respect, radiating above all bravura. She seems to be also a bit unfamiliar with the piano accompaniment.

She goes on to provide my first encounter with the Oskar Nedbal piece, which offers a lot of room to provide different interpretations.

The second candidate is Nicolas Garrigues, bringing his Martinu sonata to the Lion’s den, thereby shooting for the special Martinu prize. He starts off passionately on this sonata, which contains a treacherous field of syncopations. But therein lies also the musical power of this piece. However I miss the balance between piano and viola; Nicolas knows the piece well enough, playing large segments by heart, but does not capitalize on this advantage to communicate and connect musically with the pianist, turning instead toward the audience to project even more sound from his viola, which is really already loud enough. I miss also the multitude of colours and moods that are latent in the score of this piece.

The Nedbal piece, too, is performed by heart. The rhythmic figures could have been rendered more clearly, but I trust that is his conscious choice of interpretation, this is only the 2nd time I hear the piece. The recapitulation of the main theme with a muted viola (and a more elaborate piano part): would it work better if shifted one octave up? My imagination starts to work on this.

The South Korean MinGwan Kim starts with Nedbal. His vibrato and playing style is perfect for this piece, including his masterful use of portato. The scherzo segment brings the proper humouristic flair.

And then, what a beautiful Vieuxtemps sonata, romantic and yet precise. Like his predecessor, MinGwan largely stands averted from the pianist, but he manages to communicate through his back and neck. He knows exactly where the pianist is, their togetherness is stunning – although they probably have only had one rehearsal together.

In the beautiful Barcarolle movement, MinGwan tastefully makes use of the potential rubato moments. This movement is so good, and it could easily be performed as a self-standing piece. I could compare it to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who has taken on a life of her own outside of the original play Hamlet, inspiring artists in many fields. Having a distinctive title (“barcarolle”) helps a bit in this sense. The third movement comes with the indication con molto delicatezza, and transitions into the fiery finale.

On to the fourth candidate, Yizilin Liang, who starts off with a romantic rendition of Nedbal, played by heart. Her interpretation of Hindemith (11.4) however misses the flexibility and contrasts demanded by the composer’s variations – it becomes a bit monotonous. Her communication with the pianist is very good.

Why do I have to think of Woody Allen when I see Amir Liberson on stage? Maybe due to his surprisingly fast and at times funny movements. At times I find this goes at the expense of his playing, such as in the Nedbal (performed by heart). At other times, this body language enhances the character of the music, so it isn’t all bad. And he communicates well with the pianist.

His Brahms sonata is unfortunately tainted by local intonation issues – this challenge is often underestimated in Brahms (not only the viola sonatas), composed in awkward keys with a risk of high intonation.

The lone Czech candidate in the final round, Daniël Macho also plays the Romantic Piece by heart. While he is visibly nervous, nothing catastrophic happens. But in the Martinu sonata, which should be a perfect fit for him, it turns out he’s not sufficiently in sync with the piano score

Polish finalist Julia Palecka plays the Schubert Arpeggione sonata. This piece is in my mind a parade of personalities from an Opera Buffa. But Julia’s personality as I sensed it in the 1st round does not return in full in this 2nd round. Perhaps a mature Schubert needs more time. The last movement leans more on technique, and that works out OK for Julia. She flies elegently through this movement, and perhaps owing to her feeling technical confidence here, I also sense more of the humour between the lines.

In the Nedbal piece, Julia creates much more freedom, playing by heart and communicating with the audience – even getting response back. Nice ending!

The Swedish Alva Rasmussen, studying with one of the jury members in Copenhagen, makes an impressive entree with a high-grade Rebecca Clarke; I’d like to think that the composer very much enjoys this performance from her cloud up there! She runs light-footed like a deer through the scherzo, and lavishes us with a wonderful warm vibrato in the opening of the 3rd movement. I get carried away in her dream. Nice use of poco vibrato in the thin high-octave melody, followed by a return to portamenti and a large warm vibrato in the lower strings. Her love for this sonata really shines through!

Alva seems to have an old soul. You seem to hear a whole lifetime’s worth of loves, joys, and sorrows in her playing. She also plays a marvellous Nedbal.

Evgeny Shchegolev also knows how to play a good and warm Nedbal. Now I can hear his powerful Russian tone. This romantic music is really his domain. In the 1st round, I didn’t mention him in my summary (he played Bach and Henze), but here he is on good terms with the music. In the Brahms sonata he knows how to stretch the bars and to knead the melodies plastically – highly enjoyable!

The 20-year-old Jungahn Shin starts with a marvellous Brahms sonata (in F). I find especially her rendition of the 2nd movement deeply touching, with a beautiful tone. The Waltz too (3rd movement) – wait, wasn’t she the Tabea Zimmermann pupil? Yes – but she still has her very own sound. Compared to this, I’m very curious to hear what our Dutch students will make of the Brahms F-sonata (mandatory piece) at the National Viola Competition next week!

Jungahn concludes her recital with the Nedbal Romantic piece. In this rendition, I miss the broad vibrato which seems to fit this piece so well.

The Japanese Otoha Tabata is a true storyteller. Like the fabled princess Sheherazade, she enchants you and does not let go. She is agile and moves about, but not in a disturbing way. It makes it difficult to draw her, though. If I may complain a little bit, I might like to suggest some fingerings in the higher positions, to allow more variation in colour. Especially in the 2nd movement of Brahms. The jury will have a hard time: Four Brahms renditions, all different and with their own characters.

Although Otoha naturally tends toward a somewhat fast vibrato, she adapts it totally in the Nedbal piece. The tempo is nice and fresh, it sounds almost like an early recording. She makes her performance a feast for ears and eyes, including that beautiful smile when she takes a bow.

The last candidate (yet again – I bet she curses the latin alphabet now and then!) is Yuri Yoon. She, too, plays a very good Nedbal. But the true spectacle comes with the Vieuxtemps sonata: Starting out with a zesty tempo, yet every note precise and pitch perfect. Even going out of her way to keep  the pianist on track, she plays a fantastic 1st movement.

The Barcarolle (2nd mvt.) also holds a relatively fast tempo, whereby the rubato passages stand more out in contrast. But I miss a different sound here, it is rather too sharp, where I’ve come to feel a more “granular” sound would be nicer.

… Well, this concludes my “live” competition coverage – I have to leave to catch my train home, so I will miss the (live) results announcement and the laureates’ concert this evening. But through the internet, I learned that the competition results were as follows:

1st prize: MinGwan Kim (South Korea)

2nd prize: Yuri Yoon (South Korea)

3rd prize: Evgeny Shchegloev (Russia)

Honorary mention:
Yizilin Liang (China), Alva Rasmussen (Sweden) and Otoha Tabata (Japan)

Nedbal Competition 2019 main Prize winners Yoon, Kim, and Shchegolev (photo credits: Zdeněk Chrapek, Oskar Nedbal competition)

Congratulations to all!

Karin

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Nedbal Competition blog – 1st Round, day 2

The DVS once again visits new viola frontiers! This time our intrepid reporter Karin Dolman is reporting from the very First Oskar Nedbal International Viola Competition in Prague (Oct 31st – Nov 3rd, 2019).

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After yesterday’s long session, today we hear the remaining 24 candidates for the 1st round of this competition. At the end of the day, 12 out of the total 65 competitors will be selected for the 2nd and final round. Same as for yesterday, I only mention those candidates that I feel are most likely to be picked for the next round.

Here’s the overall composite drawing of the 1st round (all 65 candidates):

 

 

Today’s first candidate Riina Piirilä (Finland, age 24) is a known name to me, as she visited our Viola Congress in Rotterdam last year. She played a good Bach 2nd Partita (Allemande and Gigue), very carefully prepared, no nonsense. In the fast passages, the bow seems to fly too fast, at the expense of sound production from the lower strings.

Her ensuing Hidemith op. 25 no.1 (first 2 movements) is perfect. She’s surely a candidate for the 2nd round.

Still a young girl, Yayun Qiu (China, age 17) needs some stage experience – I can only really see her sporadically. She is oriented toward the side wall, and she wears a long vest over a long dress, hiding most of her body movements from my angle. That’s a pity, because this counts too. Her Bach (6th suite Prelude and Sarabande) is perfect, and the Reger (Vivace from the 1st suite) is more than perfect! Good timing, beautiful tone, good instrument. My only want is for a bit more contrasting dynamics. She only has to adjust the clothing strategy and stage positioning, that will make a difference. But even without that, she’s definitely a 2nd round candidate.

Jungahn Shin (South Korea, age 20) plays a beautiful Bach (4th suite, Prelude and Gigue), light, but with flair, and with a very pleasing sound. I like this, and I can tell that she is a pupil of Tabea Zimmermann. Also in Vieuxtemps’ Capriccio you can hear the perfection in choice of bow speed, with accurate positioning between fingerboard and bridge. This is surely another candidate for the 2nd round!

Draped in a gorgeous yellow gala dress, Otoha Tabata (Japan, age 20) enters the stage. She plays a very decent Reger (1st suite, Molto sostenuto and Vivace), with perfect pitch. Dynamically a bit too “wavy” for my taste. A fun invention for the bowing in the 2nd movement, piano notes played in ricochet, conveying a proper Vivace feeling.

Then, a fantastic and very original Hindemith (op. 31 no.4, 1st movement), brought with lots of confidence. No doubt qualified for the 2nd round.

I have to mention as well the only Dutch candidate, Michiel Wittink (age 24). He’s currently pursuing his Master’s at Guildhall in London, but we know him from several past DVS events and masterclasses. He played a very promising Bach 2nd Partita (Sarabande and Gigue), unfortunately he lost his mental footing at one point. His Vieuxtemps Capriccio was very good as well, and he has grown tremendously since we last heard him at the Dutch National Viola Competition in 2017. But I have my doubts about reaching the next round in this highly competitive field.

With Shuo Xu (China, age 17) comes yet another great Bach (6th suite, Prelude and Sarabande), with a lot of character! He uses a dedicated bow for this piece, which produces a nice and clear sound. But his good performance is due to more than just a good bow!

Yuri Yoon (South Korea, age 25) brings Prelude and Gigue from Bach’s 4th suite. A very well-played and beautiful Bach! Again, using a dedicated (baroque) bow. This really has made a difference for a number of candidates. The Vieuxtemps Capriccio is very good too, so she might very well turn up tomorrow for the 2nd round.

That was de last candidate I chose for this review.

At 1700h, the jury announced the names of the 2nd round finalists:

Melissa Dattas, Nicolas Garrigues, MinGwan Kim, Yizilin Liang, Amir Liberson, Daniël Macho, Julia Palecka, Alva Rasmussen, Evgeny Shchegolev, Jungahn Shin, Otoha Tabata and Yuri Yoon.

So I had 8 of the 12 names right (even though I over-guessed for a total of 20 potential finalists). So it just goes to prove that competition was intense, and that views/tastes vary very much.

Check back in tomorrow for our “live” blog coverage of the 2nd round!

Karin

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Nedbal Competition blog – 1st Round, day 1

The DVS once again visits new viola frontiers! This time our intrepid reporter Karin Dolman is reporting from the very First Oskar Nedbal International Viola Competition in Prague (Oct 31st – Nov 3rd, 2019).

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Well, it’s late Friday evening Nov 1st, I’ve spent all day listening to 41 candidates in the first round, with another 20+ to be heard tomorrow. I spent more than 12 hours in the recital hall today, for much of that time I was pretty much the only long-stay audience, except for the jury. I’ve been taking notes and making sketch drawings of all the candidates. I’m struggling to summarize my notes, but it’s an easy and fun start to assemble all the drawings into a composite picture:

For the sake of avoiding reader overload, in the following I will discuss only the roughly top-third of the candidates that impressed me the most. But among the other (not-mentioned) candidates, it must be said that the large majority set down very praiseworthy performances. But just like the jury, I simply cannot pick them all. Again, these are purely my personal opinions, but I’m of course curious to know how they match up with the jury’s decisions for the 2nd round. Note: My listing is chronological by playing order, there is no internal “ranking” implied among those mentioned below.

The first candidate to make my list was Karolina Bednarz (Poland, age 22). A rise-and-shine entry at 09:15 in the morning, her programme included the Sarabande and Gigue from Bach’s 4th suite, and Piazzolla’s Etude no. 3, Tango., which she had transcribed herself for the viola (the original is for flute). Karolina starts with Bach. She has a good sound and plays very securely. The Sarabanda has a grave feel to it, the Gigue is played freely. She wisely takes extra time between Bach and Piazzolla to set a different stage and mood. Her persona seems to change with it. A real Piazzolla with a rhythmic beginning and a melodic middle segment. This transcription of hers is definitely worthwhile!

Melissa Dattas (France, age 22) knows how to make an entry! She chooses to stand in front of the stage, instead of climbing it (now that I mention it, some of the candidates before her stood way too far back on the stage!). And then she sets off with a fantastic C major Prelude from the 3rd Bach suite. This prelude and the ensuing Sarabande are meticulously played with interesting musical ideas! She follows with an equally impressive Capriccio by Vieuxtemps. I forget to take notes … I hope to see her again in the 2nd round (when she would play the Rebecca Clarke sonata).

Jacob Dingstad (Norway, age 27) has long since graduated, and currently works as principal violist for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. His Prelude from 4th Bach suite (E flat) surprisingly starts out spiccato! It works quite well, giving a feeling of free flight, especially when the longer runs begin, later in the movement. Well done, and so free in his stage presence, it seems like he spontaneously creates it all in the moment. I feel like I ought to try playing more like that – very inspiring!

I sense some Norwegian Hardanger-fiddle music in the Sarabande. Perhaps he has some direct experience in this area? And then what a nice idea, transitioning directly from Bach’s final E-flat into the (C minor) Capriccio by Vieuxtemps! I would definitely like to see this Norwegian back in the next round.

Martina Englmaierová (Czech Republic, age 24) starts with Prelude and Allemande from the 5th Bach suite, applying scordatura (the A-string tuned down to a G) to great effect in sound, and even giving a feel of naturally reinforced intonation. Martina has clearly studied the old performance practices, I really enjoy her playing.

Her “solo piece of choice” is the 1st movement from Hindemith’s1937 sonata, one of my personal “bucket list” pieces. Very well played! I wouldn’t be surprised to see her in the next round. She’s really good, perhaps not at first sight the most impressive of today’s candidates, but her sound is so clean and pure, with very sparing use of vibrato (which also is a suitable choice for the Hindemith).

It’s time for lunch break, particularly appreciated by my “seat muscles”, the wooden chairs are not so merciful for long sits. We have heard 14 candidates (one-third of today’s programme).

In the programme booklet, Yekun Fang (China, age 21) is depicted with his viola hovering in empty air between his hands (!) … he plays Sarabande and Gigue from the (violin) partita no.2. I’m very glad that he chose to play some repeats (in spite of the strict prohibition in the competition rules), in the Sarabande this is used to add beautiful ornamentations.  And he plays the Gigue with amazing speed (so the repeat is hardly noticeable), with a super light bowing, without incurring “collateral damage” in the form of unwanted noises.

He continues with the Capriccio by Vieuxtemps, beautifully played, as if imagined there-and-then. His stage presence can bear some improvement though, propped into the rear corner of the stage, as if playing mostly for himself (and being incredibly good at it).

Then there’s Nicolas Garrigues (France, age 20), who plays the Molto sostenuto and Molto vivace from Reger’s 1st suite. Like his compatriot Mellissa Dattes, he chooses to stand in front of the stage, improving his contact with the audience, and also sounding better. With the exception of one small glitch in the fast movement, he plays a perfect Reger. His “choice” solo piece is Hindemith’s 25.1, 3rd and 4th movements. He creates great contrasts, he dares to play a real piano, in the slow 3rd movement. This beautiful recital hall allows it. His use of vibrato is carefully adapted to the local context. His rendition of the (in)famous “Tonschönheid ist Nebensache” is impeccable, going full throttle without sacrificing quality. From what I’ve heard so far, I can see this guy winning a prize. But you never know …

Next notable in my book is Clara Holdenried (Germany, age 24), playing the Prelude and Sarabande from Bach’s 4th suite, and the Vieuxtemps Capriccio. It’s a real pity that she loses her footing in the Prelude, because her playing is very beautiful and natural. For chamber music, you really want someone like Clara. I have the impression that she can produce any tone colour she wants. Her tone quality in Vieuxtemps is also very beautiful. She might try to generate more intimacy in her performance. I’m curious if she makes the 2nd round, I would certainly like to hear more of her.

 

Alexandra Ivanova (Russia, age 25) launches a spectacular Hindemith 1937 sonata (1st mvt), with great ease of playing and lots of bravura.  She has an impressive stage presence. She then re-tunes her viola for the 5th Bach suite (Prelude and both Gavottes), embarking on a very authentic and personal interpretation, with striking ornamentation. The fugue section – so good! She definitely must be a 2nd round choice. A small error towards the end of the movement, I don’t really mind, but it was unexpected. And then some technical issues in the Gavottes, that could hurt her chances.

MinGwan Kim (South Korea, age 28) brings a violin-virtuosic programme. What more can one say when someone plays a perfect and musical Bach Chaconne? All the voices are perfectly audible.Followed by Ysaÿe’s breakneck Obsession (2nd sonata, 1st movement) with the Dies Irae theme. This is a serious prize candidate. To take those tenths, on such a big viola too. What a great violist!

 

 

Yizilin Liang (China, age 19) plays from Bach’s 6th suite, as the only one so far employing a baroque bow for this purpose. In my ears she does not capitalize on this specialized hardware in the Prelude, but it works out very well in the Sarabande. The agility with string crossings is audibly and visibly improved, allowing to comfortably tackle challenges such as two chords in a single stroke.

She then switches to Vieuxtemps’ Capriccio (with a modern bow), a very good rendition. This could stand a chance for 2nd round selection. And to think she’s only 19… !

Entering the stage, Alyuan Liu (China, age 22)  gives a very unassuming and even self-conscious impression. But once she starts playing – what a sound, and what a personality! A magnificient start, with the 6th Bach suite, Prelude and Allemande  – you can hear a dialogue between different voices, different players.

And then Hindemith, the first 2 movements of op.25.1 – also so good. And so musical! She is definitely a strong candidate for the 2nd round. But then – when the music dies away, Alyuan disappears from the stage without so much as a smile. I’m inclined to think that such behaviour should count, it may be peripheral, but it’s still a part of the whole performance.

Hailing from Venezuela, Ruth Mogrovejo (age 25) starts off with a movement from Reger’s 3rd suite. Very well done. Good things are cooking in Venezuela, the cultural education results in many good young musicians. The “choice” piece is (once again) the Vieuxtemps Capriccio. I feel I’m getting a bit overexposed to this piece today, although that’s not Ruth’s fault (alone) of course..But her performance is certainly convincing, full of creative ideas. I wonder if the jury notices this too …

 

Julia Palecka (Poland, age 22) – at last, my prayers are heard: A free-choice piece NOT being Vieuxtemps or Hindemith! She brings the Fuga Libre by Garth Knox – such an amazing composer! Unfortunately the piece is longer than the maximum allowed 5 minutes, so although I could stay up all night listening to this, she is predictably interrupted by the jury before she can finish. She moves on to play the Prelude and Courante from the 5th Bach suite. I find Julia an intriguing young personality. Her Bach is very original. It is difficult to say whether such a strong character will make it to the next round, it depends on the taste of the jury. In my book, she’s in. I would love to hear what she would do with Schubert’s Arpeggione (her choice for round 2).

Then, last (for today) but not least, Connie Pharoah (Great Britain, age 20). She brings Bach’s 4th suite and the opening movements of Hindemith’s op.25 no.1. Her Bach is very good, even though it’s late evening by now. Like the French candidates, she positions herself in front of the stage. That sounds so much better!

She follows through with a very convincing Hindemith. She definitely has good chances for the next round.

Well, tomorrow brings another 24 interesting candidates!

Karin

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Nedbal Competition blog – day 1 (Tourist)

The DVS once again visits new viola frontiers! This time our intrepid reporter Karin Dolman is reporting from the very First Oskar Nedbal International Viola Competition in Prague (Oct 31st – Nov 3rd, 2019).

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Arrived in Prague! After having checked in at my hotel, I felt fit enough to explore the city. Same as during the IVC in Poznan last month, I found a hotel just around the corner from the central square in Prague, so I can hear the tolling of the bells in the tower. The weather is fantastic, and there are tourists everywhere. Fortunately I’m above average height (measured against the tourist population), so I can still see the sights :-). I occasionally make a dive into more quiet streets, but in general it is just like in Amsterdam, walking in a throng from one monument to the next. It is truly a magnificent city!

After having walked several kilometers like this, I return to my hotel and start browsing through the competition booklet with all the candidates, which I had picked up just before my walk. The two Dutch candidates are both familiar to me, as former Amsterdam Conservatory students: Lotus de Vries (currently studying in Berlin) and Michiel Wittink (now in London).

To my disappointment, the programme further reveals that nobody has chosen the Feld or Kalabis sonatas (for the 2nd round), so I’ll have to figure out what those sonatas are like on my own. There is a good distribution of nationalities among the participants: The extreme counts include 14 Chinese candidates, but on the other hand only one candidate from the U.S., Venezuela and Canada. But well, those countries are indeed far away!

I show up a bit early at the small, but nicely acoustic concert hall at the New York University, the main venue of the Nedbal competition.

Oskar Nedbal, who is famous in the Czech Republic for his operettas and theatrical music, was himself a violist in the famous Czech Quartet. He is also responsible for the first known sound recording of a solo viola piece. This recording tells us that excessive vibrato was not necessarily so commonplace in his time.

In total 11 (out of the originally accepted 76) candidates have cancelled, so “only” 65 people will play in the 1st round. This is probably normal at big competitions, but it’s a pity that four countries thereby are without representation here. On the upside, it allows everyone the luxury of a good night’s sleep, because the reduced number of participants means there is no need for anyone to play tonight. So we start tomorrow at 0900 am. Well, I was all geared up for tonight, but this allows me to write this report directly and get to bed early.

Tomorrow it all starts!

Karin

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Nedbal Competition blog – day 1 (prologue)

The DVS once again visits new viola frontiers! This time our intrepid reporter Karin Dolman is reporting from the very First Oskar Nedbal International Viola Competition in Prague (Oct 31st – Nov 3rd, 2019).

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By now I’m in the train from Berlin to Prague – so far no delays. After a few hours of sleep (:-)) I am sitting with my iPad connected to the onboard WiFi, browsing through the competition repertoire and the schedule.

The first round will start tonight – and Oh my, it continues throughout Friday and most of Saturday – there are 76 participants from 27 countries! The 2nd round participants (finalists) will only be announced on Saturday afternoon at 1700h! To my regret I will have to miss the prize winners’ concert on Sunday evening (I’ll be on my way back). But I suppose the most important decisions are made in the 1st round.

Now for the repertoire list – that seems not too bad in terms of playing time: Two contrasting movements from Bach’s solo sonatas/partitas or (cello) suites, or one of the Reger suites. And furthermore another 5-minute solo work of your own choice. Everything must be played by heart.

The 2nd round piece is a choice of sonata with piano: B. Martinů, P. Hindemith (op.11/4), R. Clarke, J. Brahms (op.120/1 and 2), F. Schubert, N. Paganini, J. Feld (Sonata), M. Reger, H. Vieuxtemps, V. Kalabis. The unknown ones for me are Feld en Kalabis. I sincerely hope that some of the finalists will have chosen those, and that we don’t get too many Rebecca Clarkes – clearly one of the most “fashionable” viola sonatas of recent years. To think that, back in my student days, I was the first violist in The Netherlands to play the Clarke sonata!

The most interesting aspect of this programme is the free choice of a solo work. What would I have chosen? Well, first I would want to know if it has to be an original viola composition. Then I would consider to have a solo piece commissioned for myself. Nowadays I’m studying the (transcription of the) 1st Britten cello suite, which is very challenging. This music assumes extensive use of the cello thumb position, for which I am trying to develop technical solutions on the viola. So if I were a Nedbal competition participant, I would have chosen Britten.

What am I hoping to hear? Of course Hindemith, but not the “Tonschönheid ist Nebensache” – I’d rather hear one of his other three solo sonatas. Or Stravinsky’s Elegy, or some (hopefully surprising) national repertoire from the participants’ home countries.

So in short – I’m tremendously looking forward to the 1st round. Almost 3 days long!

For now I decide to make another attempt at a power nap in the train. More thoughts tonight!

Karin

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Nedbal Competition blog – day 0

The DVS once again visits new viola frontiers! This time our intrepid reporter Karin Dolman is reporting from the very First Oskar Nedbal International Viola Competition in Prague (Oct 31st – Nov 3rd, 2019).

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It is 3.30pm, and I have just set off on my monster train ride to Prague. All this just because – whenever possible – I’d like to avoid flying. At least I have 1st class seats all the way, so I should be reasonably comfortable. But why am I going to Prague? Because of the first Oskar Nedbal International Viola Competition which takes place there, in the coming days.

It is always interesting to see how they organize a new international competition. I haven’t studied the programme closely yet, but given the name “Oskar Nedbal”, I should think that at least his well-known Romance will be played at some point. But OK, I’ve got time enough to read in this train.

The first leg of 2 hours and 6 minutes goes by “sprinter” (local train) from Dordrecht to Arnhem, where I will have to change trains. I will visit an old friend there, before continuing my trip at 21:45 with the international train.

More news after I arrive in Prague tomorrow!

Karin

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Concertverslag – de hedendaagse altviool 17 sep. 2019

for English: please scroll down

Gehoord en gezien: de hedendaagse altviool op 17 september 2019 in Den Haag – Geschreven door Roald van Os namens de DVS.

De Chileens altviolist Pablo Salinas verliet zijn thuisland Chili en verruilde zijn vaste plek bij het Chilean National Symphony Orchestra om deze maand een tournee door de Benelux ter promotie van hedendaagse Chileense muziek te maken. Deze terugkerende concertserie van Chileense muziek wordt georganiseerd door de in Wenen gevestigde International Society for Chilean Music (SIMUC) en stond dit jaar in het teken van de altviool en vond zijn aftrap in Nederland, bij mij om de hoek in Den Haag! Deze bijzondere tour is tot stand gekomen door een samenwerking van de Chileense ambassade in Nederland, SIMUC en het ministerie van Cultuur, Kunst en Erfgoed van Chili. Leuk om vast te stellen dat een organisatie als SIMUC in haar missie en opzet veel weg heeft van onze eigen DVS en wereldwijde Viola Societies!

In het voorprogramma van het 50 minuten durende recital van Salinas stonden 2 altvioolstudenten van het Koninklijk Conservatorium; Gema Molina Jiménez en Oksana Mukosii. Zij speelden de eerste duo-sonate voor 2 altviolen van Bruni (1757-1821).

Na een korte inleiding van componist en tevens voorzitter van de SIMUC, Javier Party, was het de beurt aan Salinas. Op zijn programma stonden maarliefst 5(!) wereldpremières van Chileense componisten geboren in de jaren 70, 80 en 90 van de vorige eeuw.

Salinas opende zijn avond met een op zijn leven en lijf geschreven werk van Mario Feito (1971). Het werk met de naam Sal y Mar draagt de naam van de opdrachtgever; Salinas, en verwijst naar de herkomst van zijn familienaam: Sal (zout) en dan kom je vanzelf uit op ‘Mar’ (zee). In het werk met Chileens folkloristische invloeden was duidelijk optimaal gebruik gemaakt van de laagte van ons instrument, een genot om naar te luisteren.

Jean Daniel Barahona (1986) tekende met succes in op een door de SIMUC speciaal uitgeschreven wedstrijd met zijn Capricio nro 1 para Viola Sola. Een werk dat veel gelijkenissen vertoond met het welbekende deel met de veelzeggende aanduiding: Tonschönheit ist Nebensache uit de solosonate op. 25 van Paul Hindemith. Heel gek is dat ook weer niet daar de componist zelf ook actief altist is!

Na dit heerlijke stuk was het tijd voor een totaal andere klankbeleving met Polimerización van Robert Aravena (1993). De veelzijdigheid van Salinas als altviolist met zijn schat aan ervaring van barok tot modern komt ook in dit stuk weer goed van pas. Ook dit werk met een enorm scala aan flageoletten vroeg weer een enorme technische beheersing en controle van het instrument, Salinas kreeg dat ogenschijnlijk allemaal moeiteloos voor elkaar en wist de sfeer goed vatten. Ook opvallend: het publiek leek gedurende alle stukken geboeid te luisteren. Een verdienste van Salinas en als je het mij vraagt gewoon heel knap gedaan.

Na een 1 minuut durende razendsnelle compositie (Sinapsis) geschreven door Javier Party (1980) kregen wij het bijzondere slotstuk van Christián Mezzano (1978) voorgeschoteld. Salinas heeft hiervoor zijn altviool in zgn. scordatura stemming gebracht, ook dit vroeg weer de nodige aanpassing en behendigheid van onze Chileense toonkunstenaar. Concluderend kan ik zeggen dat het heel bijzonder was om Chileense moderne composities speciaal voor de altviool te horen in Nederland en wie weet wat er nog een Chileense muziek opduikt de komende tijd in de Lage Landen…

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IVC2019 Poznan blog – Day 5

The 46th International Viola Congress takes place in Poznan (Poland) from Sept. 24th – 28th, 2019. Your intrepid bloggers Karin Dolman and Kristofer Skaug bring fresh reports daily from this temporary hotspot of the viola universe.

Day 5: Saturday, September 28th, 2019
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Time flies, we have arrived at the last day of the 46th International Viola Congress. Days have been filled to the brim with viola music, and as much as I love the instrument, the music and the many great people who participate at the congress, everyone has his/her physical limits. So I had to concede this morning’s presentations to some self-healing sleep. This meant, unfortunately, missing Xi Liu‘s lecture-recital on Boris Pigovat’s viola works, including the live premiere performance of his viola quartet version of “Nigun” (a string quartet originally written in 2010 – sheet music presumably soon to become available on the composer’s website). I also missed Jesse Maximo Pereira‘s recital of Brazilian Music.

Premiere of “NIGUN” (photo credit: Marcin Murawski)

But let’s move on to what I didn’t miss: Kenneth Martinson‘s very interesting lecture-recital about the viola music of Marco Anzoletti (1866-1929). He started off with a very  well-prepared performance of Anzoletti’s Viola Sonata (1900), with Krzysztof Sowinski at the piano.

Martinson opened the lecture part of his presentation by postulating that Anzoletti’s bundle of twelve studies (caprices) for viola are a cornerstone of his music, and are some of the most difficult etudes ever written for our instrument. In support of this claim, he screened the Youtube performance of Anzoletti’s Caprice no.2 by Marco Misciagna – a real tour de force of virtuosity indeed. (Footnote: this caprice is written in the oddball key of D# minor – Anzoletti liked to use ALL key signatures from the circle of fiths – and he would ask his students to study each etude in each possible key, transposing on-the-fly!).

Anzoletti wrote a number of works for viola, here’s a brief overview:

  • Viola sonata
  • Sonata for viola and organ
  • 2 Viola concertos (without orchestration, optionally for piano)
  • Trio for viola-cello-piano
  • 2 sonatas for viola-cello
  • The “infamous” 12 studies (Caprices)
  • Numerous shorter pieces, scherzo’s etc.

He wrote four of those works for viola in only a 3-week span of April 1900 – a strange and unexplained peak of viola productivity!

Martinson played the opening from Anzoletti’s Viola concerto no.1 in F minor (1900 – “The Brahms concerto we never had”) – based on MIDI playback from his own  Finale score playback. Anzoletti’s complete cataogue contains more than 2000 works. A number of these are now available from Martinson’s Gems Music Publications.

It remains a mystery why Anzoletti’s music has not been played more. Martinson briefly summarized the composer’s life and career, first as violin soloist and later as a revered professor and composer at the Milan Conservatory. In spite of promising acclaim (contest prizes, peer recommendations e.g. from Brahms), his oeuvre somehow never “took off” with the greater public. Nevertheless, as this lecture-recital demonstrates, there are good reasons to give this composer a second chance!

The next lecture-recital was delivered by Greg Williams (adjunct viola professor at the City University of New York), presenting the three solo viola sonatas by the German-Jewish composer Günter Raphael (1903-1960). Raphael was extremely fortunate to survive the hell of WW2 Germany, in spite of extreme persecution, thanks to help from connections and his Danish in-law family. His health was chronically threatened by tuberculosis, so he spent a good deal of time in sanatoriums, where doctors helped to hide him from the authorities.

Raphael was a multi-talented composer and musician (pianist, organist, violist and violinist). In his prolific oeuvre there are several works for or with viola:

  • 3 solo viola sonatas (1924, 1940, 1946)
  • 2 romances (1923)
  • 2 sonatas for viola and piano (op.13/1926, op.80/1957)
  • Concertino for viola and chamber orchestra (1941)
  • Duos for violin and viola and viola/cello, op 47 (1941)

The viola solo sonatas have influences from the Reger suites, Hindemith’s solo sonatas and the Ysaÿe solo violin sonatas. Williams presented each of these sonatas in turn:

The first sonata op.7 no.1 (1924) was clearly inspired by Reger. It is in C minor and has 6 movements. Some details:
1. Praeludium: syncopated, chromatic, shifts across barlines
2. Fuga: similarities to Ysaÿe’s solo sonata no.1 mvt 2

The 2nd sonata, op.46 no.3 (1940) is written in 3 movements, and dedicated to Ernst Krenek. Some attention was given to the 1st movement, with layering of 3 voices, octatonic scaling and unannounced bar-length changes and other metrical dissonances.

The 3rd sonata op.46 no.4 (1946) is characterized by the total absence of barlines, the music bordering on atonal.

Greg Williams played one or two movements from each sonata, very beautifully done. He has also recorded all 3 solo sonatas (complete) last month as part of his Ph.D. work, the album hopefully to be released next year. Looking forward to that!

The 3 o’clock lecture by David Swanson and Jordan Wright had been spontaneously moved up to the 10am slot this morning (where master classes had been cancelled), so unfortunately we missed also this presentation, with the curiosity-evoking title “MyViola – New Technologies for Achieving Accessible String Instruments for those with Disabilities“.

So we had to wait a bit for the next recital, by Christine Rutledge: “Bach and the Poets: Slow Dancing” – an evolution of a presentation she gave last year in Rotterdam (and I missed it then!). Poets from Rutledge’s birthplace of Detroit, Michigan contributed their works (recited on prerecorded videos) to mesh with Rutledge’s performance of various movements from the Bach cello suites. Indeed, poetry and Bach combined well together to a meditative whole.

Following this performance, we were treated to a recital of “Late Romantic Chamber Works for Tenor, Viola and Piano” in the POSM Recital hall. Tenor Richard Novak was joined by violist Ames Asbell and Joey Martin on the piano. For those of us who thought that the classical viola + vocals chamber repertoire was limited to Brahms’  Zwei Gesänge, this was an eye- (and ear-) opener!

The Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola and Piano (1914) by Vaughan Williams is a song cycle based on poems by Jeremy Taylor, Isaac Watts, Richard Crashaw and Robert Bridges (translation from Greek text).

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Five Songs for Tenor, Viola and Piano is a 2013 arrangement by Lorin Chisholm of songs originally only with piano accompaniment, adding a viola obbligato voice. The 4th song (op.4 no.4), however, has an obbligato written by Rachmaninoff himself, for Frits Kreisler. The sheet music, by the way, can be purchased here.

Tenor Richard Novak brought these songs with great conviction, and viola and piano realised a good complete sound picture. Thanks to Ames Asbell for bringing these rare works to the IVC, a very welcome diversification of the overall programme!

This beautiful recital was followed by the official “Closing Concert” of this IVC. The first part of this concert was in the safe hands of IVS Vice-president Jutta Puchhammer-Sedillot and pianist Paul Stewart. The programme title read “About Phantasies and Legends – rarely interpreted English music written for viola and piano in the era of Lionel Tertis“.

The program consisted of York Bowen’s Phantasie (1918), Arnold Bax’s Legend (1929) and Benjamin Dale’s extensive piece Phantasies op. 4 (1909). I have great recordings of all these pieces, but this was the first time I was privileged to hear them live; Jutta mastered them all with beautiful sonorosity and fearless virtuosity. She is a truly amazing violist… (could it be all those Pièces de Concours that she keeps practicing?). For this performance she received an extensive, heartfelt and totally deserved applause.

The Swedish delegation (violists Henrik Frendin and Håkan Olsson) was granted the honour of capping off the musical feast of the 46th International Viola Congress with their captivating program “Swedish polska” – demonstrating the migration of Polish folk music across the (not-so-wide after all) Baltic sea separating these two countries. In fact the “Polska” has become a genre of its own in Swedish folk music. Using baroque bows, the two men generally played facing each other at close distance, leaning into each other’s sound, expressively motioning their phrasing, and stomping out important departure points. It looked a lot like ad-lib improv session, with rich ornamentations and harmonies. This performance sent us off with a big smile on our face!

Following this we went to the Farewell party at Hotel Ikar, with speeches of thanks, food and drinks. Carlos Maria Solare awarded “Certificates of Appreciation” to our congress hosts Boguslawa Hubisz-Sielska, Ewa Guzowska and Lech Balaban for their work to organize the congress, and I was finally able to give our friendly congress host-assistant Edyta Butor the beer that I’d promised her (a well-known Dutch export). And last but not least, Jutta Puchhammer-Sedillot received the Silver Alto Clef, one of the highest awards of the International Viola Society. Her emotional response reflected how strongly she feels for the cause of the IVS and how much energy she puts into it.

It’s been a great 5 days in Poznan, with interesting programs, a nice ambiance, and happy reunions with old and new friends! In spite of a very compressed timeline to organize this congress, our hosts really pulled it off! So a zillion thanks go out to the Polish Viola Society and the organizing committee. I’d also like to mention the pianist Krzysztof Sowinski, who supported mulitiple recitals every day – a fantastic job!

Looking forward to see everyone again in Castelo Branco, Portugal, where the 47th IVC will take place from October 14th – 18th, 2020!

Signing off from Poznan,
your intrepid bloggers,

– Karin and Kristofer