Interview Jutta Puchhammer

The Viennese-born Jutta Puchhammer-Sédillot is described as a violist of  exceptional quality. She is professor of viola and chamber music at the University of Montréal (Canada), and holding part time tenures at a number of other institutions.

She is renown for her performances of rare post-romantic viola repertoire, and has released acclaimed solo CDs with works in this genre. Jutta has a vast experience in chamber music, having been part of the Quatuor Claudel String quartet, The Kegelstatt Clarinet/vla/pno Trio, The Montreal String Trio, and several other ensembles. At various festivals she has performed with artists of international reputation. Jutta is the principal viola of the Canadian Laval Symphony orchestra, and the Vice president of the International Viola Society. She has been awarded the Maurice Riley prize for international achievement. This weekend (16-18 October) Jutta is in The Netherlands, invited by the Dutch Viola Society. On Friday she gives a masterclass for conservatory students in Rotterdam, while her workshop and recital in Dordrecht on Sunday are aimed at a general public.

by Kristofer G. Skaug, DVS_N6A4690-Modifier

DVS: At what point in your life did you decide to become a violist, and did your family (background) support you in this respect?

I started out on the violin, but at age 15 my violin teacher at the music school in Vienna proposed that I play the viola in my youth orchestra. So I did, and I really liked it, I liked the character of my fellow violists, there was no competition, and more enjoyment of playing together. I continued this way for 2-3 years, until I met a viola teacher from the University of Vienna, Siegfried Führlinger. He knew my parents, and after we played some duets together, he asked me to study with him at the university.

DVS: Did you continue studying the violin also?

Only for one year. The last violin piece I studied was the Mendelssohn concerto, and I realised I couldn’t stand the squeaky high sounds anymore. So that’s when I stopped.

DVS: What or who moved you to travel out, away from Vienna?

In European schools you learn a lot of languages, and we were encouraged to have pen-pals in other countries. My pen-pal was a French-Canadian, with whom a romance began. When I was 25, after having completed my studies in Vienna, I decided that it would be easier for me to move to Canada than for him to come to Austria. So I came to Montreal, which was a challenge, because I had not studied here, and had no connections. Montreal is unusual in that it has two communities divided by language, and also the musical job market is divided, and each circle is difficult to get access to. I was fortunate to get some help in this respect from the conductor Agnes Grossmann, whom I knew from Vienna.

DVS: How is musical life there, compared to Europe?

Well, there are differences in taste, which become apparent after some time. I decided to study for a Master’s degree with Heidi Castleman (at Juilliard), in order to have a recognised paper here. And then I came to appreciate some differences in taste and approach to viola technique.

DVS: Can you elaborate on this distinct taste?

It is for a large part the school of technique, which I learnt from Heidi Castleman. It’s clean and crisp playing. The sound is very clear, designed to carry well. I notice also stylistic accents in chamber music, a tendency to make statement entrances rather than merging in softly. The priority is technique first, then music making.

DVS: Are there specific traits of the Montreal music scene, that you would like to mention?

I tend to think of Montreal as somewhat “up North”, far away from the centre of events. We do get frequent visits from international artists fortunately, and in some respects the classical music scene is doing quite well, for example there is are many good contemporary composers. But chamber music is in decline. And a couple of years ago we lost our only serious classical music radio station. This is very sad.

And then there are the schools – they used to offer instrumental music lessons. Thanks to public spending cuts, this has now been reduced to group lessons, in the best case. So a decline in musical education.

The OSM (Montreal Symphony Orchestra) still gets money. But just about everything else is being cut. And musicians have to work longer hours for less pay. The students even play for free, hoping to gain a toe-hold somewhere. But this goes at the expense of established musicians. Not a good situation!

Meanwhile, students stay in school and obtain doctorates, but that doesn’t help them getting an orchestra job. The orchestras audition internationally, and even then they often don’t hire.

DVS: What is the make of your viola, and how did you come to choose this one?

I have a viola by Geoffrey Ovington (Vermont, USA) – in fact I have had two of them. The first one I bought after a summer music camp in 1982, where I came across one of his instruments. I decided to just order a new viola from this maker. The second one, a 43cm Mantegazza model, he actually gave me as a wedding gift in 1989, after I had helped him access the European market. It’s actually made from Austrian wood. I actually never tried anything else. I prefer modern violas, they often respond better to changing conditions (traveling). I say, rather 10 new violas than one old instrument.

I also prefer to use a light bow, it’s easier to put on weight (by ‘leaning in’) than to take it away. And it allows you to add more tone colours, because you are less likely to ‘strangle’ the sound. In some situations a heavier bow can be easier to use, particularly in orchestra playing. But I like to work hard with my instrument, to feel it respond to what I want.

DVS: Do you have any main creeds in your viola teaching?

My teaching revolves around _N6A4447-Modifierdeveloping the artistic personality of every student, to hear his inner voice and producing the confidence to make that sound happen. I always hope to expose what makes each student special.

Another important theme is movement: To avoid forcing yourself, but letting your body work in the most natural way. Everything should be easy. So I visualise movements that are somewhat similar to the actual movement you need for the viola, and we practice that, without the actual instrument: Getting away from the instrument in order to come back to it. My workshops in The Netherlands will also be focussing on this.

DVS: You are also active in the Canadian Viola Society, what are the main activities and future goals of the CVS?

The CVS tries to hold a national event every 2 years, but geography is a real challenge in Canada. Core CVS members travel around a bit to encourage activities in various parts of the country. The distances are hard to cover, it’s a 6-hour drive from here to Toronto, and that’s only the beginning. Differing holiday periods and even time zone difference get in the way sometimes. We hosted the International Congress in 2006…

But nowadays I am mostly involved as board member of the International Viola Society (IVS). And as such, I think that participation by national delegations at the International congresses is a very important activity. Unfortunately the financing of International congresses is also becoming more difficult, so regular Society members often cannot afford to go, even if they would like to.

DVS: Jennifer Stumm recently gave us this quote: “I dream of the day when we don’t need Viola Societies”. Do you sympathize?

No, not at all. The Viola Societies encourage international exchange and learning among violists. The CVS and IVS have given me many valuable experiences, to learn about how the viola is used in different parts of the world. For example hearing the viola played together with African instruments, or in Iceland with stone drums. I’m a big believer!

DVS: What about your personal future goals?

I “rediscovered” a collection of French pièces de concours, very virtuosic repertoire written for the (yearly) final examination of all viola students at the conservatory in Paris. The first piece is from 1896, and from there we follow the series up to 1940. Some of the pieces became quite popular in their own time, but both the pieces and their composers are mostly forgotten now. One exception is Enescu’s Konzertstück, which was also a part of this series. After World War II, the tradition changed, and they started using more standard repertoire pieces for the examinations instead of writing new stuff.

We are in the finishing phases of editing a Schott edition of this music, in three volumes (13 pieces), to be released next year. The edition is complete with fingerings, allowing students to catch on quickly. It is difficult enough as it is, this music is very challenging. I also hope to be able to record some of these pieces, and I intend to present this work at the IVC in Cremona next fall. Some of these pieces will also be on the recital programme in Dordrecht this Sunday!