Interview Jennifer Stumm & Nils Mönkemeyer

It’s that time of year again, when the Delft Chamber Music Festival (DCMF) descends upon us as a small musical paradise. And where there’s chamber music, viola players are sure to be part of the action. In this 2015 edition, artistic leader Liza Ferschtman has invited two very special violists, Jennifer Stumm and Nils Mönkemeyer. The DVS reporter was fortunate to meet up with both of them for a chat about chamber music, viola, and viola advocacy.

by Kristofer G. Skaug


Nils Mönkemeyer  (photo by Ronald Knapp for DCMF).

DVS: Nils Mönkemeyer, welcome in Delft – your first time, I believe?

Mönkemeyer: I was very excited to come here, because I met Liza (Ferschtman, ed.) at the Lockenhaus festival (Austria); I liked her instantly, I think she’s a phenomenal musician. Besides, many of my friends came here regularly in the past.

DVS: And Jennifer Stumm, you are a regular at this festival. What keeps you coming back?

Stumm: Liza and I are really old friends, we’ve known each other for 17 years. Apart from the really charming and beautiful old city, this festival has a reputation of having a certain kind of very intelligent and sensitive musicians; so the concerts here are such a pleasure to play. We really work, it’s a process, and I walk away from a concert thinking something quite special happened. It’s really an extraordinary festival!

Mönkemeyer: Judging from the short time that I’ve been here, it really feels like everyone could play with everyone, and it would work. That’s very special.

DVS: You still have relatively limited rehearsal time, does that bring out extra tension in the performance, as if there’s something that still needs to be negotiated on stage?

Jennifer Stumm

Stumm: Well, that’s true of any festival. But Delft actually has more rehearsal time than most places. We really do work hard to prepare, which I think brings the most satisfying results.

DVS: Are there any pieces that you are particularly looking forward to perform here?

Mönkemeyer: Well yes, the Brahms (string) quintet on Monday (August 3rd), because that’s the only piece, apart from the Duo recital earlier that same day, where I get to play together with Jennifer.

Stumm: Yes, Monday is really “Viola day”.

Mönkemeyer: Definitely, Monday is going to be really cool. I have to say that I never played a duo concert (with 2 violas) before. I don’t know why. Even in my student days.

DVS: There was a viola quartet here at DCMF, some time back; the Bowen Fantasia, with Isabelle van Keulen and her friends.

Mönkemeyer: Well she is one of the few violinists who can really play the viola.

DVS: Some viola players personify their instrument by e.g. giving it a name. How do you think about your instruments, do you see it as a utility, a household pet or a soulmate?

Stumm: Naming my instrument? No.

Mönkemeyer: Or as in, is the viola male or female?

Stumm: The instrument has such a character of its own, it doesn’t need to be assigned a label. Violas are a character actor in the music, and I want my instrument to be able to do anything, so I wouldn’t want to say “it’s a man, and his name is Herbert!”, because then I would have a hard time asking it to play the part of a really sexy woman, for example.

DVS: In the interest of acoustics and ergonomics, luthiers have experimented with innovative viola designs, leading to some pretty strange shapes. Have you tried one of these instruments?

Stumm: Occasionally I’ve had the opportunity to try such instruments, although not in all seriousness. I don’t really look at the viola as if it’s lacking something. Of course every instrument has its pluses and minuses, but I don’t feel that the viola has anything to be ashamed of. In fact to me this is what gives the viola its character, what I love about it: The fact that it is so changeable, and that it could be either male or female, because the instrument itself is not acoustically perfect.

Also because violas are physically so diverse means that with your personal physical characteristics you have to find the instrument that’s right for you.

Mönkemeyer: I think that is very particular for viola players. The size, the set-up of the instrument can be so different. An instrument that my student is playing sounds good, until I try, and then it sounds terrible. My own viola is reasonably big, but it’s quite difficult to make it sound well. I have to work hard for the right sound, but I like that. Others prefer their instrument to sound smooth and soft right away. Violas can be so different!

DVS: What are your favourite “unknown viola pieces”,   deserving of more public recognition?

Mönkemeyer: I have recently recorded a CD with Spanish baroque repertoire, for example a viola sonata by Gaetano Brunetti, he was a Spanish viola and violin player from the Boccherini era. There were 12 sonatas which were written as mandatory audition pieces for the orchestra. I hadn’t thought that I would take to this music, but it’s gorgeous.

Stumm: I’d like to mention the music of Alessandro Rolla, which I recorded. For example some of his sonatas, and the duet for viola with violin accompaniment :-). There’s so much undiscovered early repertoire, but people just don’t dig very hard.

DVS: But then again, violists are probably the only musicians who think of Hindemith as ‘mainstream’…

DVS: Have you had any exposure to the Viola Societies in your home countries?

Stumm: Sure, the American Viola Society is very big, and also sponsors the Primrose competition, which I won; so I actually owe them a lot. They’re really dedicated people, working hard to give young violists opportunities, they have a big national convention where I played a few times. And also in the UK where I live now, there’s a thriving Viola Society.

Mönkemeyer: Well, the German Viola Society is not as big as the American one, but for me it was very important. I grew up in the countryside, and I didn’t know any other viola players at all. So I always looked forward to the monthly newsletter from the Viola Society, which arrived by ‘snail mail’, and I could read about concerts with Yuri Bashmet, Kim Kashkashian and so on; It also provided a way to order viola sheet music which was difficult to get by. So for me it was the only link I had to other viola players, when I was younger. Only after I joined the German Youth Orchestra did I realize how many other violists there were around!

DVS: Do you see any missed opportunities that Viola Societies have failed to pick up on, where more priority should be given, in order to have a bigger impact?

Stumm: I’m going to say something very controversial now: I dream of the day when we don’t need Viola Societies! They are important now, for the advocacy of the instrument. But in the future – well, we’re on our way. I mean, how many violin societies do you know? And why is that? Well, maybe they’d only be having fights… 🙂

Mönkemeyer: But maybe the “nerd factor” of such a club is also holding violinists back. Violists are less worried about that, they’re more like Star Trek fans…

Stumm: But really I do hope so much that the viola will keep climbing until it’s no longer a niche instrument; and that major composers are writing repertoire for us, which is to me a key indicator of where the profession is going. There is a growing number of violists who never played the violin.

Mönkemeyer: That’s a very important thing; many music schools don’t offer a good viola teacher. If you want to start playing the viola you pretty much have got to go to a violin teacher initially, who may not know exactly how to approach viola training. That’s one area where the Viola Societies can make a big difference, by providing teaching materials, courses for would-be viola instructors, and so on. This could be key to get more young viola players. Again this is my countryside upbringing speaking.

Stumm: Anyway, advocacy seems to be a natural part of a viola player’s life.

DVS: What are your most exciting plans for the coming year?

Stumm: A few years back I did a (TEDx) talk about the viola, concerning its physics and the way it is in a way acoustically imperfect, and how that creates the character of the instrument. So I’ve developed a concert program around that, which I’ll be on tour with toward the end of next season, starting in May in Berlin.

Mönkemeyer: So what are you going to play there?

Stumm: It’s a mix of viola solo works and chamber music; as the basis I have two viola quintets, the Mozart g minor and the Brahms G major. And then I’ll be playing some of the Ligety sonata, the Brahms songs, and then George Benjamin’s “Viola, Viola”.

DVS: Are you coming anywhere near here (Netherlands)?

Stumm: No, not next season. But maybe the season after.

Mönkemeyer: This summer I have my own 3-day viola festival within the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, with four concerts every day! Chamber music, concertos, and more. My students are performing there as well. And in The Netherlands, I go on tour with Liza (Ferschtman) next season, we play in Amsterdam (Concertgebouw), Eindhoven and many other places.

DVS: Thank-you so much for your time, looking forward to see (and hear) you in the concert hall!


The Delft Chamber Music Festival has a packed programme, starting this weekend and lasting until August 9th. Among the highlights (for viola fans) worth noting:

  • Monday Aug 3rd: Stoelendansconcert Midden-Delfland, 13:00h
    with Viola duos by
  • Monday Aug 3rd: Concert in Maasland, 18:00h
    with Brahms string quintet, op.111 (with 2 violas:
  • Wednesday Aug 5th : Jong Talent Dag, 15:00h
    with young violist
    Dana Zemtsov and pianist Mariam Batsashvili
  • Sunday Aug 9th: Behagen en/of Prikkelen, 14:15h
    Marc Desmons (viola) in the Dvorak Piano quintet.
  • Sunday Aug 9th: Denken en Gevoelen, 20:15h (festival closing concert)
    Marc Desmons in the rarely heard cello quintet by Gyorgy Catoire (!)

Interview Michael Kugel

When our Lord divided peoples with different languages, we got from Him one connective language – Music.



Autographed portrait of Michael Kugel, drawn by DVS President Karin Dolman

Michael Kugel grew up in Kharkov in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine), receiving his first musical education there. He went on to study viola, composition and conducting at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory. At the International Viola Competition in Budapest 1975, he won First Prize – ahead of Yuri Bashmet. He built a successful career as violist and teacher in the Soviet Union. Since 1996 he lives in Belgium, and currently teaches at the Maastricht conservatory. He is also a prolific composer and author of books. 

by Kristofer G. Skaug

DVS: What are your memories from that famous competition in Budapest in 1975? Which piece did you play, to win the final?

I played the Bach Ciaccone, and the Bartok Concerto. In the former Soviet Union, it was not possible to travel to these competitions privately. In order to enter this competition, it was an obligation to succeed in the All Soviet Union competition, and the special jury chose 3 musicians to go. It was more difficult that the International competition itself.

DVS: The viola repertoire seems to be full of forgotten composers and forgotten works. What are your favourite “unknown viola pieces”,  deserving of more public recognition?

I’d like to mention George Onslow’s original viola Sonata in c minor (1820). Beautiful music with a small problem: a very poor viola part and very rich piano part. I have created a new edition where the parts are equal.

DVS: What do you think of the emerging trend of viola ensembles, is it just a passing curiosity, or does it have a true value in itself?

Viola ensembles have a true value if the music and musicians are good. For example the Zemtsov viola quartet.

DVS: Did you ever have any plans to compose music for viola ensemble?

I have arranged my ‘Preghiera’ (originally for viola + piano, ed.) for the Zemtsov quartet.

DVS: On the other hand, you have successfully transcribed well-known violin repertoire such as Paganini’s “Carnavale di Venezia”, Beriot’s “Scène de ballet” and the Bizet-Waxman Carmen suite. Do we count this as viola repertoire, or are they still essentially violin pieces?

‘Il Carnevale di Venezia’ which you mentioned is not strictly a Paganini transcription. the full name of the piece is: ‘Il Carnevale di Venezia duo concertante da N.Paganini‘. I took 8 variations from Paganini’s music, added my own 16 variations and a virtuoso piano part (I have played piano and my piano Sonata have been published several years ago). Beriot’s piece is not actually my transcription, I just have made some changes and made the orchestration for strings and percussions.

From my virtuoso transcriptions: H.Ernst – ‘The last rose of summer‘ and ‘The forest king‘, Paganini – ‘La molinara‘ and ‘God save the Queen‘; Wieniawski – ‘Variations on an original theme‘, Tarrega – ‘Requerdos de la Algambra‘. This music is now obligatory in my viola class (not everything of course), like virtuoso music is obligatory in violin, cello and even double-bass education. The solo viola music was written for true soloists, not orchestra players.

DVS: You have a tremendous reputation as a virtuoso musician. Developing such a technique on the heavier viola seems like an act of defiance against the laws of physics. Where does all that “fast and furious” energy come from?

My book ‘Pedagogical Essays‘ was published last year (only in Russian), and in this book I have tried to describe my system, including playing virtuoso music without problems. In this system, physical limitations do not exist. If somebody comes to my class with hands or back pain – in two, maximum 3 months of proper guidance, the pain should disappear. Freedom and relaxation are the key values.

DVS: In your view, which statement is more true?
(a) The techniques of violin and viola are principally analogous, and any differences between them are complementary, so it is good for your development to play both.
(b) If you want to become a really excellent viola player, it is counterproductive to spend any significant amount of time playing the violin.

If somebody wants to combine violin and viola – no problem, but not during a study.

DVS: One of your colleagues (Lars Anders Tomter) said in an earlier interview: “The viola is more introverted (than a cello or violin), its base character embodies ambiguity and tenderness.” Supposing we accept a grain of empirical truth in this statement, what is the relationship between such intrinsic properties of the viola, and the psychology of the musician who plays the instrument?

I wrote a book ‘The history of an era‘, about the Sonata by Shostakovich and the Bartok Concerto, in which I noted that the so-called Swan Songs by two of the greatest composers of the 20th century have both been written not for violin, but for viola: That is significant. Viola is the only instrument very close to the human voice and for sure has a specific color and tenderness. But… if a musician has a talent, the type of instrument he plays is a secondary thing.

DVS: Who was your most important teacher, and which part(s) of his teaching do you pass on to your students today?

My most important teacher was no doubt Yury Kramarov. His signature statement was ‘Never play music without sense‘. I am teaching in this way: When our Lord divided peoples with different languages, we got from Him one connective language – Music. First you have to understand what you are playing, then add your passion; and now stop playing – just speak the music!

Music has its own alphabet, and this alphabet was known 300 years ago in the Baroque, but it is completely forgotten now.

DVS: Your Russian education and early career must have been very different from the environment where you live and work today. What do you miss most in Western European music education and professional life, compared to the former Soviet Union?

Both in the Soviet Union and here I have met fantastic musicians, and I do not have a feeling that I miss something. And my concert life both there and here was/is very rich. Educational life… I still regularly meet with my colleagues professors from the Moscow Tchaikovski Conservatory, and my western colleagues are also very good…

DVS: Being the land of Vieuxtemps and Ysaÿe, it seems no big surprise that you chose to settle in Belgium?

I did not actually choose Belgium particularly, nor The Netherlands. At the right time I just got an invitation, and that is the reason I am here. I have later received many propositions to come and teach elsewhere, but I love it here.

DVS: Which future prospects are you most looking forward to?

I will keep work as long as I can. Next concerts, next students, next classes, next CDs, next publication of my Divertimento for tuba and piano…

Michael Kugel will be lecturing about viola technique at the 2nd National Viola Congress in Ede-Wageningen, on June 27th.

“Mooi, maar ‘t kan beter…” (verslag Masterclass Tabea Zimmermann)

recensie/verslag door Adriaan van ‘t Wout

Op weg naar TivoliVredenburg te Utrecht, waar zaterdagochtend 21 maart 2015 de wereldwijd gevierde Tabea Zimmermann een Masterclass zou geven, stuitte ik op tieners die zich verdrongen voor de ingang. Een goed teken, dacht ik aanvankelijk, maar ze stonden in de rij om kaartjes te bemachtigen voor de populaire popgroep ‘Tokio Hotel’. De belangstelling voor de masterclass was aanzienlijk geringer; slechts een 30-tal altvioolvrienden en -vriendinnen had de moeite genomen om zich naar ‘Cloud Nine’ te begeven. Darija Kozlitina (Rotterdams Phil), Frank Brakkee (Radio Fil) en Roald van Os (DVS) hadden uit 16 aanmeldingen 4 jonge talenten geselecteerd die de confrontatie met de Master mochten aangaan.

20150321_MC_016Elisa Karen Tavenier oogste complimenten over deel 1 uit het Konzert in D, Opus 1 van Karl Stamitz. “Mooi, maar … (gevolgd door het onvermijdelijke) … ’t kan beter. Je speelt nog te veel met de linkerhand van een violiste. De altviool lijkt wel op een viool, maar moet toch anders bespeeld worden”. Tabea onderstreepte dit met een reeks rek- en strekoefeningen voor de linkerhand en het advies toonladders over 3 octaven te studeren met opschuivende posities en speciale aandacht voor de zwakste schakel: de pink. Tenslotte nog: “Kantel de alt, wees flexibel, maak verschil in houding bij het spelen op de C-snaar en de A-snaar.”

20150321_MC_033Hessel Moeselaars interpretatie van de Sonate Opus 147 van Sjostakovitsj riep bij Tabea vragen op: “Wat voel je bij het spelen van dit stuk?” Moeilijke vraag, die de kern aansneed van de sfeer achter de noten. Haar advies: “Maak grotere verschillen tussen pp en ff, zing een paar passages als je studeert en probeer jouw gevoel dan over te brengen op het publiek. Studeer langzaam en werk meer aan de expressiviteit”.

20150321_MC_065Vervolgens imponeerde Iteke Wijbenga haar toehoorders met het 1e deel uit het altvioolconcert, dat Béla Bartók onvoltooid had achtergelaten. “Als je dit werk gaat spelen, moet je eerst uitzoeken wat van Bartók is en wat Serly daaraan heeft toegevoegd. Er staan bv. onlogische tempo aanwijzingen in. Luister naar de muzikale taal van Bartók en maak dan jouw eigen concept”, sprak de Master eerst, gevolgd door: “Mooi, maar … Was je nerveus?”. Iteke knikte. “Dat hoort er bij, accepteer dat je nerveus bent en bestrijd het niet, want dan wordt het gevoel alleen maar erger”. Vanuit de streektechniek werd daarna intensief gewerkt aan meer klankvolume en de opbouw van de dynamiek naar hoogtepunten. “Vertel het verhaal en maak het spannend”.

20150321_MC_118Lisa Eggen sloot de rij overtuigend af met een deel uit de Sonate Opus 11 nr. 4 van Paul Hindemith. Maar desondanks besteedde Tabea veel aandacht aan de stoktechniek. “Gebruik je rechterhand bewust, niet alleen om meer toon, maar vooral om een ‘kernachtiger’ geluid te produceren. Maak een groter verschil in de dynamiek, varieer het tempo van het thema en stel je vingerzetting altijd in dienst van de uitdrukking”, waren kort gevat haar aanwijzingen.

Na afloop van de Masterclass probeerde ik Tabea Zimmermann te strikken voor een interview, maar wegens tijdgebrek kon dit zo niet plaatsvinden. “Stuur mij uw vragen per email en ik zal ze beantwoorden”, beloofde ze. Kort voor de paasdagen vielen ze in mijn mailbox.

Mijn vraag, of (in het algemeen gezien) expressiviteit in het spel van een student beïnvloed wordt door de leeftijd, kon en wou ze niet rechtstreeks beantwoorden.

”Ich möchte die vier jungen Menschen nach einem einmaligen Unterricht vor Publikum nicht beurteilen. Die Ausbildung ist langwierig und komplex und je nach Möglichkeiten zu gestalten. Ich kann weder Lehrer noch Studenten ‘einordnen‘, kann bei einer Masterclass nur eine Momentaufnahme mitnehmen und auch nur einen kurzen Einblick in meine Arbeit geben.“

Op de vraag, naar de reden waarom zij zoveel aandacht besteedde aan toonvorming, ging zij dieper in:

“Ich sehe die Tonproduktion als einen sehr komplexen Vorgang der aus sehr vielen einzelnen Faktoren zusammen wachsen muss. Mir geht es hauptsächlich um die Relation der Elemente. Das heißt, daß der Bogendruck im Verhältnis stehen sollte zum Gegendruck der linken Körperhälfte, des Daumens, des Arms, der Finger, der Saite etc. Der eine Student konzentriert sich zu sehr auf links, der andere zu sehr auf rechts. Man muss sehr viele verschiedene Techniken erlernen und ausprobieren, ehe man seinen eigenen ‘schönen‘ Ton gefunden hat. Und sobald man etwas gefunden hat, sollte man gleich noch einige Varianten dazu erlernen.“

Zouden instrumentalisten vaker lyrische passages eerst moeten zingen en dan pas spelen?

“Ja, unbedingt erst singen!! Die innere Vorstellungskraft wird trainiert und die Hände können dann den Ton viel besser entstehen lassen. Rhythmus, Melodie, Harmonie, Ausdruck etc. sind alles Teilbereiche, die bis ins Unendliche wachsen können. Da gibt es kein ‘fertig‘. Es kann so herrlich sein, gemeinsam mit der Musik zu wachsen und nach einigen Jahren den Blick auf ein Werk noch einmal komplett zu ändern.

Ich wünsche allen Lesern Geduld und Experimentierfreude.J “

Wie bovenstaande tips ter harte neemt, beseft wat er schuilt achter de woorden: „Mooi, maar …. ‘t kan beter”. En degene, die ook uitvoeringen kon bijwonen van Hindemiths ‘Der Schwanendreher’ in Utrecht en Amsterdam door Tabea Zimmermann met het Radio Filharmonisch Orkest o.l.v. Markus Stenz, heeft ervaren wat op een altviool allemaal mogelijk is. Het waren drie leerzame dagen.

Adriaan van ’t Wout.

Interview Tabea Zimmermann

World renowned violist Tabea Zimmermann hardly needs an introduction. She has established herself firmly as an elite solo and chamber music artist. She is also one of the most sought-after viola pedagogues today. The DVS is immensely honoured to host her Masterclass this coming weekend in Utrecht, where she will work with four talented Dutch viola students. This same weekend, she will also perform Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher twice with the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Amidst her busy teaching and performing schedule, she kindly found time to answer a few written questions for the DVS website.

by Kristofer G. Skaug

DVS: You started out on the viola at the unusually young age of 3. Was this a conscious choice of instrument, instead of the more usual violin or anything else?

My choice was to play music like my older siblings. Otherwise my parents would not have introduced me to the violin teacher of my sister. It was his suggestion to avoid both playing the same instruments and to make chamber music possible from the start. I joined my first string quartet at age 4 :-))

tabea-zimmermann_03_marco-borggreveDVS: Which teachers or role models inspired you most in your development as a musician?

My first teacher, the late Dietmar Mantel, influenced me most. But it took a long time until I realized that. My second teacher, Ulrich Koch in Freiburg, tried very hard to give me more stability (less flexibility) and to make me follow his rules of equal bow speed throughout a phrase, same speed vibrato etc.

When I studied with Sandor Vegh later, I understood that all the fantasy, flexibility etc were actually wonderful qualities!

DVS: Do you feel a belonging or affinity to a particular ‘school’ of viola playing (and teaching), and if so, which school would that be?

No particular school is big enough or wide enough for all styles. I like to look out for a maximum freedom in a very strict text. Technique according to musical context, not according to school.

DVS: Which traits or capabilities do you seek to nurture most in your students?

The capability to come to an individual judgement, based on knowledge, skills, taste, and abilities.

DVS: The viola is often described as a particularly ‘sensuous’ instrument.
This would imply that development of the senses and imagination play an important role. How do you go about consciously cultivating these capabilities?

It helps to imagine before playing. Singing, clapping or speaking the rhythm, imagining bow movement or left hand activity, there are many ways to ‘unsettle’ old habits.

DVS: Is there such a thing as a healthy balance between compulsive practice and complacency for a would-be musician?

I try to show ways to enjoy the practicing part. This is the most precious time we have to explore, develop, learn etc.

If it feels like a compulsion, you are on the wrong way…..

DVS: On this visit, you will be performing the Schwanendreher. Why do violists never seem to tire of Hindemith, where so many other musicians seem to hold a noncommittal opinion of him? Is Hindemith’s viola legacy somehow musically stronger than his other compositions?

I can only speak for myself. I find Hindemith a great composer and I would like to see more of his music on the big programs, but the truth is also that if I had concerti by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Berg, and Stravinsky to choose from, I would probably play a bit less of the Hindemith…

DVS: There seems to be a very strong “viola culture” in Germany, compared to other European countries. Would you agree, and if so, how would you explain this?

Unfortunately I cannot agree! I would love to see many more young German Violists…..

DVS: Which dreams are still on your ‘bucket list’, and (how) are you planning to pursue them?

I would love to know a lot more about music!!!

But apart from that, my secret probably was so far that I did not plan far ahead but took the opportunities as they came along and tried to make the best out of it.

Many wonderful crossings in my life just ‘happened’.

Stay open, do the best you can in any given situation and share your experience with others…

Information about the DVS Masterclass on March 21st can be found here. Information about the performances of the Schwanendreher can be found here (March 20th, Utrecht) and here (March 22nd, Amsterdam).

Interview Mikhail Zemtsov

door Kristofer G. Skaug

English translation below

De russische altviolist Mikhail Zemtsov is aan de oevers van de Volga geboren. Als jong talent werd hij aangenomen bij het Tsjaikovsky conservatorium in Moskou. De muziek bracht hem de hele wereld rond, via Mexico en Noorwegen uiteindelijk naar Nederland, waar hij in de leer ging bij Michael Kugel. Samen met zijn vrouw Julia Dinerstein heeft hij zich diep genesteld in de nederlandse altvioolwereld, en ook hun dochter Dana timmert al een tijdje aan de weg als professionele altvioliste. Mikhail heeft ruim 13 jaar als solo-altist bij het Residentie Orkest gewerkt, een loopbaan die hij dit weekend afsluit met twee uitvoeringen van het Altvioolconcert van Bartok in de Dr. Anton Philipszaal. De DVS sprak Mikhail bij deze mijlpaal in zijn carrière.

Mikhail_Zemtsov_2DVS: Ondanks je oer-russische achtergrond heb je het grootste deel van je carriere buiten Rusland gewoond en gewerkt. Hoe begon die reis?

Ik ontmoette mijn vrouw Julia bij het conservatorium in Moskou. Op een gegeven moment wilden haar ouders met twee jongere broers naar Mexico verhuizen, en Julia en ik kwamen mee om ze te helpen zich daar te vestigen. Daar bood zich opeens de kans op een baan bij het Nationaal Orkest van Mexico in Mexico City. Ik kon via-via snel een altviool lenen om auditie te doen, en kreeg gelukkig de baan. We hebben in Mexico echt fantastische jaren doorgebracht, daar zijn ook onze kinderen geboren. Maar op een gegeven moment kregen we het gevoel dat we nog veel meer wilden leren, en de kansen voor professionele groei in Mexico bleken te beperkt te zijn. We zochten de weg terug naar Europa.

De eerste kans kregen wij bij het Stavanger Symfonieorkest (Noorwegen). Cultureel gezien is dat ook een wel erg ‘rustige’ plek, maar dat was op zich niet slecht, want we konden zo meer aandacht besteden aan onze jonge kinderen, en zo was er tenminste ook genoeg tijd om goed te studeren!

DVS: Hoe kwam je bij Michael Kugel terecht, en wat heb je bij hem geleerd?

Ik ontmoette Kugel voor het eerst bij het L. Tertis Concours in Isle of Man, daar zat hij in de jury. Hij moedigde mij aan om meer aandacht te besteden aan mijn ontwikkeling. Enkele jaren later heb ik dat advies opgevolgd, en heb ik me ingeschreven bij het conservatorium in Gent om bij hem les te nemen.

Ik heb ongelofelijk veel van die man geleerd, over houding, handen, techniek, muziek. Hij is een fantastische musicus, componist, dirigent, heel geleerd. Hij zoekt alles tot de bodem uit, over het stuk en de componist. En hij is zelf ook altijd in beweging. Als je na een half jaar terugkomt dan kan er opeens van alles veranderen aan een stuk dat je eerder al ingestudeerd had.

In het begin kon ik op en neer reizen vanuit Stavanger, maar dat was op den duur toch niet vol te houden. Van Kugel heb ik over het Residentie Orkest gehoord, volgens hem behoort dit orkest tot de wereldtop. Dus toen de aanvoerder van de altviolen Andrew Sparrow mij belde met het voorstel om een week te komen aanvoeren, was ik meteen geinteresseerd. Toevallig vond de officiële auditie voor de aanvoerdersplek in de daarop volgende week al plaats. Ik was heel blij met die baan. Zo kon ik ook bij Kugel verder studeren in Maastricht.

DVS: Welke bijzondere hoogtepunten zou je willen noemen uit je tijd bij het Residentie Orkest?

Er zijn heel veel mooie herinneringen. In 2001, ik was pas net aangenomen, gingen we op een groot tournee met Jaap van Zweden, o.a. naar Zuid-Amerika. En tournees in Europa, met concerten in mooie zalen, in Wenen (Musikverein), Budapest enzovoort .

De tijdperk met Neeme Järvi als chefdirigent was heel bijzonder, van hem heb ik heel veel geleerd. We hebben met Järvi o.a. de 7e symfonie van Mahler opgenomen op CD, waarvoor we de “Toblacher Komponierhäuschen” prijs kregen, een speciale Mahler-prijs. Ik koester ook de solo-optredens die ik met het orkest mocht spelen, o.a. het dubbelconcert van Britten, Harold en Italie van Berlioz en het Rhapsodie-Concerto van Martinu.

DVS: Je verlaat nu dus het Residentie Orkest en gaat op kamermuzikaal avontuur met het Utrecht String Quartet. Is dat iets dat je al heel lang had willen doen, een strijkkwartet?

Ja, ik had er altijd van gedroomd om in een goed strijkkwartet te mogen spelen! Ik heb in het verleden vaker auditie gedaan bij diverse kwartetten, maar op een of andere manier wilde dat alsmaar niet lukken. Bij het USQ gebeurde het allemaal heel natuurlijk: eerst hebben we een aantal keer kwintetten (met twee altviolen) gespeeld, daarna ben ik een paar keer ingesprongen als vervanger voor Joël Waterman. Op een dag vroegen de collega’s of ik met het kwartet op een fotoshoot wilde verschijnen. Toen pas vertelden ze mij ook dat Joël het kwartet had verlaten en dat ze mij als vaste altviolist wilden.

DVS: De meeste kwartetten beginnen al jong samen, je bent relatief laat ingestapt.

Inderdaad, ze zijn al 30 jaar bezig! Het is een hele eer om zulke goede altviolisten op te mogen volgen: Daniel Raiskin, Sven-Arne Tepl, Asdis Valdimarsdóttir en Joël Waterman.

DVS: En dan het Zemtsov Altvioolkwartet. Was dat jouw idee?

Nee, het was eigenlijk Kugel, die was gecharmeerd van het idee van een familie-ensemble. Met mijn broer Alexander, mijn vrouw Julia en dochter Dana samen spelen is iets bijzonders. Maar het heeft eerst vele jaren in de lucht gehangen zonder concrete vormen te nemen. In 2010 werden we uitgenodigd bij het Grachtenfestival in de kruizing van twee concertseries: “bijzondere ensembles” en “muziekfamilies”. Toen moesten we nog repertoire uitzoeken en iets instuderen. Hiermee is het kwartet dus gevormd.

Als spin-off van onze familie-ensemble is de Zemtsov Stichting ontstaan, waarmee we bijvoorbeeld masterclasses organiseren. Zo geven we eind april een intensieve 5-daagse cursus in Heemstede voor jonge altviooltalenten.

Een ander belangrijk doel van onze stichting is om getalenteerde (altviool)studenten uit arme landen (bijvoorbeeld Colombia of Oekraïne) een kans te geven om hier in Nederland te studeren. Op 28 maart om 20:00 organiseren we een benefietconcert in het Conservatorium van Utrecht, waarbij de wereldberoemde dirigent Lev Markiz het Kamerorkest van het Conservatorium zal leiden.

Mikhail is morgenmiddag 8 maart nog te horen in het altvioolconcert van Bartok, met het Residentie Orkest in de Anton Philipszaal te Den Haag.

English translation:

Russian-born violist Mikhail Zemtsov enrolled as young talent at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. He since travelled the world, ending up in The Netherlands, where he served apprenticeship with Michael Kugel. Together with his wife Julia Dinerstein, he has entrenched himself deeply in the Dutch viola community, and now also their daughter Dana Zemtsov is building a career as a violist. For more than 13 years, Mikhail has served as the solo violist of The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra (Residentie Orkest), and this weekend the milestone of his departure from this job is honoured by two solo performances of Bartok’s viola concerto.

DVS: In spite of your very Russian background, you spent most of your career outside of Russia. How did this journey begin?

I met my wife Julia at the conservatory in Moscow. At a certain point her parents and two younger brothers wanted to move to Mexico, and Julia and I came along to help them get settled. Unexpectedly there was a job opportunity in the National Orchestra of Mexico, in Mexico City. I was able to borrow a viola to do the audition, and was fortunate to get the job. We had a fantastic time in Mexico, where our children were born. But after a while we had the feeling that we wanted to learn more, and the opportunities for professional growth in Mexico were too limited. So we sought our way back to Europe.

We had an opportunity to work at the Stavanger Symphony orchestra (Norway). Culturally speaking that was still a quite ‘peaceful’ place, which wasn’t all bad, as we had young children at the time, in need of our attention. And there was certainly always enough time to get some decent practicing done!

DVS: How did you end up with Michael Kugel, and what did you learn from him?

I first met Kugel at the L. Tertis Concours on the Isle of Man, where he sat on the jury. He encouraged me to pay more attention to my own development. A few years later I was able to act on that advice, and I enrolled at the conservatory of Gent (Belgium) to study with him.

I learnt incredibly much from that man, about posture, hands, technique, music. He is an amazing musician, composer, conductor, very learned. He researches everything in minute detail, about the piece and the composer. And he himself is always developing, too. If you return to him with a previously studied piece, half a year later he can have completely new insights.

In the beginning I tried to travel back and forth from Stavanger, but that couldn’t be sustained for long. Kugel first told me about the Hague Philharmonic, according to him a world class orchestra. So when the (then-) principal violist Andrew Sparrow called to invite me for a week of trying out, I was immediately interested. Coincindentally, the official auditions for the principal job took place the next week after that. I was very happy to get this job. This way I could also continue my studies with Kugel, in Maastricht.

DVS: Which special highlights would you mention, from your time in this orchestra?

There are so many good memories. In 2001 for example, I had only just started, we went on an extensive tour with Jaap van Zweden, to South America. There were also tours in Europe with concerts in beautiful halls, Vienna (Musikverein), Budapest and so on.

The period with Neeme Järvi as chief conductor was very special, I learned a lot from him. With Järvi we recorded Mahler’s 7th Symphony, for which we were awarded the “Toblacher Komponierhäuschen” prize, a special Mahler-prize. I also cherish the various solo performances that I made with the orchestra, for example the Britten Double Concerto, Harold in Italy by Berlioz and the Rhapsody-Concerto by Martinu.

DVS: So now you leave your orchestra job to go on a musical adventure with the Utrecht String Quartet. Is the string quartet something you always wanted to do?

Yes, I had always dreamt of playing in a good quartet! In the past I have auditioned several times for quartet jobs, but somehow was never selected. At the USQ, it came very naturally. We started out playing some viola quintets. After that, I substituted for the violist Joël Waterman for a few concerts. Then one day I was asked to come to a photo shoot with the quartet. Only then did they tell me that Joël had left the quartet, and that they wanted me as their new violist.

DVS: Most quartets start out at young age together. You’re coming in relatively late.

Indeed, they’ve been at it for 30 years already! It is a great honor to be the successor of so many great violists: Daniel Raiskin, Sven-Arne Tepl, Asdis Valdimarsdóttir and Joël Waterman.

DVS: And then there is the Zemtsov Viola Quartet. Was that your idea?

No, that was actually Kugel’s idea, he was charmed by the idea of a true family ensemble. Being able to play together with my brother Alexander, my wife Julia and my daughter Dana is something very special. But it was just an idea for many years. In 2010 we were invited to the Grachtenfestival (in Amsterdam) at the junction of two concert series, ‘unusual ensembles’ and ‘musical families’. So we had to pick a programme and start rehearsing. Thus the quartet actually took form.

As a spin-off from our family ensemble, the Zemtsov Foundation was created. This foundation organizes masterclasses, such as our 5-day intensive course next month in Heemstede, for young viola talents.

Another important goal of our foundation is to help talented students from poor countries (for example Colombia or Ukraine) to come to the Netherlands for their studies. On March 28th, we organise a fundraising concert in the Utrecht Conservatory, where the Conservatory Chamber Orchestra is conducted by the world famous Lev Markiz.

Mikhail can be heard tomorrow afternoon (March 8th) as soloist in the Bartok Viola Concerto, in the Anton Philipszaal in The Hague.


Interview Barbara Buntrock

“Violists have more room to develop a personal and unique sound.”

The German violist Barbara Buntrock studied with Barbara Westphal, and continued her studies with Heidi Castleman at Juilliard, Lars Anders Tomter and Tabea Zimmermann in Berlin. She received honours at e.g. the 2012 Tokyo International Viola Competition (2nd prize), ARD Munich, the Concours de Genève, and the German Music Competition. She currently holds a teaching post at the Lübeck Conservatory, and performs regularly as a freelance violist and with her Mariani Piano Quartet.

Buntrock recently visited The Netherlands to coach a chamber music course at Gunst, Wat’n Kunst in The Hague, where she generously found time for a chat with the local DVS representatives.

Barbara_Buntrock_3DVS: What happened on the day when you switched to viola?

My father, who Is a violin-maker, always used to tell me, “You should also play the viola, it’s good for your flexibility and for your sound”. For a long time I didn’t want to try it, however. But then, one day, I did – and I loved the C-string sound. It was such an amazing sensation. And my mother was a cellist, so I grew up with string instruments of a deeper “sound”.

DVS: Did your father build an instrument for you?

Yes – he first made me a quarter violin. He used a special technique to put drawings on the instrument, scratching the shape and then putting ebony wood dust in it, making the shape black. My instruments would have several shapes of cats on them, because I love cats. And maybe this did increase my motivation to play, in the early years.

Later, he also built several violas for me, named “Barbara 1”, “Barbara 2” and so on, in different sizes. So I could start with a small viola and move on as I gradually adapted to new dimensions. But two of those violas were so big, I never got around to using them – the biggest one ended up with a colleague of mine in the Gewandhaus orchestra (Leipzig).

DVS: Does your father still build instruments?

He still runs his shop in Wuppertal. It was a difficult moment when I ended up not playing one of his instruments. I was looking for a different sound.

DVS: Your current viola is quite a special one?

I was really lucky to find it, it was built by Antonio Mariani in Pesaro, around 1650. It belonged to an amateur, but Lionel Tertis used to borrow this instrument from time to time for special concerts or recordings. I have letters in which Tertis asks to borrow the viola, or simply thanking for the loan. I bought all the Tertis recordings I could find, trying to listen for this viola, but it’s very difficult to recognise it with the old recording sound quality. So I can’t tell for sure whether he actually used it for a recording.

DVS: Was there a specific quality about this instrument that he particularly needed for certain purposes, or was it just his favourite instrument?

I don’t know. In 1920, he bought another Italian instrument (his famous 1717 Montagnana), and the letters are all from before that, while he was still searching around.

My viola has beautiful inlays in the back, and they reveal that the body was at some point cut down from a larger size, the inlays don’t exactly fit to the new shape on the edges.

BB_Inlay_with_detailDVS: If asked to play just one piece that would explain why you love the viola, what might it be?

I think something English. Bowen, Bridge, these composers who wrote for Tertis. I feel they really captured the sound and the character of the instrument. Maybe it had to do with his (Tertis’) playing.

DVS: You left your safe orchestra (principal violist) job in Leipzig to focus on chamber music; how did this open new doors for you?

Well, I already knew the freelancing life that I have now, before I took the orchestra job. I always wanted to play in an orchestra at some point, for the experience; you never know if it’s the right thing for you, until you’ve tried it. And also for my teaching, I need to know what the students have to prepare for. I learnt a lot in those two years. Musically it was amazing to play with Riccardo Chailly. I also liked the musical variety: The Gewandhaus orchestra plays symphonic repertoire, but also opera and church music. The orchestra counts about 180 musicians, so they can do two things at the same time.

DVS: What did you like most – symphonic, opera or church music?

Maybe I even enjoyed most the opera playing. It’s less predictable, less perfect. You cannot always plan everything that happens. For the orchestra players it’s more challenging because you have to follow the singers, strange things can happen and you have to jump and improvise more. In a concert hall, everything is in principle perfectly rehearsed, and there are less ‘surprises’.

DVS: There seems to be a strong viola culture in Germany, compared to other countries. Would you agree, and if so, how would you explain this?

Oooh, I never thought about that! It is probably related to role models like Tabea Zimmermann, who made PR for the viola. And we are lucky to still have a strong, living classical music tradition.

DVS: Would you say that the viola is growing in popularity today?

In the classical music, yes for sure! There’s a fresh view on the viola in the string world. We have more viola concertos for example. And to me, the most interesting part is that the viola sound is very personal, very different. And luckily in music recording, there’s a trend away from the ideal of “perfection”, where every little scratch is edited out. Instead, the trend seems to be moving towards more characterful interpretations, accepting risks.

People want to hear something more special, more personal. This trend is an advantage for us (violists), because the greater range and variety of viola sound offers violists more room to develop a personal and unique sound in a recording. I’ve had a recording engineer ask, “are you sure you want to leave this in? it’s not perfectly in tune…”.

DVS: Maybe that’s a bit German, the “Tonmeister” thing?

Well, you can use intonation to a certain degree, to change the mood. And It’s not always the same, not always “in tune”. I like to use this in my playing. As long as it’s on purpose, of course (laughs).

DVS: You also play in a piano quartet, how did you meet your colleagues?

We played together for the first time at a small festival, at Lake Constance. The pianist put us together, I had known him for a long time. We found that we matched really well, and we decided to enter the German Music Competition together, to have a goal to work towards. Through this competition we were selected for a scholarship with a nationwide promotion system, where you get to play lots of concerts. We played about 35 concerts that season, it really helped us to grow together .

DVS: The name of the ensemble matches the name of your viola (Mariani)?

Yes, although that wasn’t even my idea! It’s always difficult to find a good ensemble name…

DVS: Are there any special projects in the near term that you are particularly looking forward to?

In March I will be on the jury for the German Music Competition (Deutscher Musikwettbewerb, DMW), which is quite an honour. I will be on the sectional jury for violin and viola, and later on there is a plenary to determine an overall winner among all instrument categories.

Next to the DMW, the German Music Council organises a degree programme for young conductors. For this year’s exam they have to conduct a viola concerto, either the Schwanendreher (Hindemith) or the Bartok concerto. And I have been selected to play, which means rehearsing and performing six times with different conductors. It will be interesting to see how phrases work musically in each case, to really get to know these pieces. That’s very different from a normal solo engagement, where you have perhaps one rehearsal with the orchestra, fixing only the things that didn’t go well, and that’s it.

DVS: We wish you all the best with these projects, and thank-you so much for your time!

© 2015 Dutch Viola Society / Roald van Os and Kristofer G. Skaug


Interview Lawrence Power

”The most important thing is that you have something to say.”

Lawrence_Power_3He 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


Interview Lars Anders Tomter

“The viola has a Mona Lisa duality, both joyful and melancholy at the same time.”

The “Norwegian Giant” Lars Anders Tomter is widely regarded as a world class violist. Last month he played at the Delft Chamber Music Festival, and the DVS was lucky to find mr. Tomter prepared for a chat about the festival, his role as a violist and the development of viola repertoire.

Lars Anders Tomter performing during the Delft Chamber Music Festival 2013. Published with permission from DCMF / (c) Ronald Knapp

Lars Anders Tomter performing during the Delft Chamber Music Festival 2013. Published with permission from DCMF / (c) Ronald Knapp

DVS: You have been coming to the festival in Delft for quite a few years now, haven’t you?

Yes, this must be at least the fourth time.

DVS: What sets the Delft Chamber Music Festival apart from other festivals?

Every festival has its own character, and Delft has a lot of it. For one thing it is due to the very special location, a town which is worth the trip regardless. Secondly due to Liza [Ferschtman, artistic manager], whom I value highly, a fantastic musician and a wonderful person. Easy to get along with, clear but flexible, both in her musicianship and in her general demeanour. So it’s both the place, with its audience, and the artistic leadership.

DVS: Liza Ferschtman explains that she consciously invites individual musicians rather than fixed ensembles to this festival. As a consequence, the programming features many pieces from the fringes of the chamber music repertoire, with unusual casts such as quintets and sextets. Does this agree with your own preferences?

That’s indeed the key idea. I also run a festival like this, in Risør [Norway]. Such a festival is a bit like a family gathering, even if you don’t actually know all the other players beforehand. An orchestra is a state, a chamber ensemble is a family. And it is always interesting to see which combinations of musical and human personalities will give sparks.

The string quartet is actually a singularity, with a huge repertoire, and a highly developed sense of perfection. Therefore the string quartet repertoire has been more or less conceded entirely to the domain of professional quartets. Perfection in itself is of course a good thing, but there is a risk that the playing becomes predictable when one has worked together for 30-odd years. On the other hand, when players do not know each other so well, the result could be less predictable, in a good sense.

So a festival like this is a golden opportunity to pick up the non-quartet chamber repertoire. Some of these works are true pearls, and in certain special cases they can surpass the same composer’s string quartets. For example, the Brahms piano quartets and quintets, as well as his string sextets, are at least as good as his string quartets. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the Brahms quartets, they are very good – especially the 3rd quartet with the viola solo, haha. I also want to mention the Mozart (viola) quintets, they are a special treasure. And the Schubert (cello) quintet, of course.

And then there is the piano trio, also with a considerable standard repertoire. But this combination of instruments is not so homogeneous, so the advantage of a fixed partnership is less obvious, and it is a bit easier to put together a decent piano trio from three good individuals.

DVS: So, within the context of such an ad-hoc festival ensemble, do you sense a special role for the viola player?

I’m sure there is! But I’m so used to this role, I have little reference for comparison to the other instruments. I did play the violin quite a lot in the past, but it was almost always viola for chamber music.

I simply love the sound of the viola, it has something eternally attractive to it. It’s got a Mona Lisa duality, both joyful and melancholy at the same time. That ambiguity fascinates me, and it is very well suited to the music of Mozart and Brahms. Those two particular composers certainly knew how to employ the viola in their music, and that is no coincidence.

A cello often plays high in its own register, like an operatic tenor, showing off. The viola is drawn to the deep end of its own register, it is more introverted, its base character embodies ambiguity and tenderness.

DVS: But your own viola is definitely not of the modest kind… how did you find it?

Tomter with his 1590 Gasparo da Salo. Published with permission from DCMF / (c) Ronald Knapp

Tomter with his 1590 Gasparo da Salo.
Published with permission from DCMF / (c) Ronald Knapp

I had spread the rumour that I was looking for something grand. I had my mind set on an original Brescian instrument, preferably one of the “nameless” (and hence affordable) ones. But then I came across this one, a Gasparo di Salo from 1590. So it had a name, and a price. There was a long and exhausting search for a private sponsor who would help me to get this viola, but at long last I was fortunate to get help from Selvaag (a major Norwegian enterpeneuring company, red.).

DVS: So you were very determined to have this instrument?

This was exactly what I was looking for. It is a big instrument (44.5cm), which suits me physically. Such a size gives you something extra, it has all I could wish for in a viola: Depth, power, sonority, and evenness in range. Oftentimes in a viola you have to choose between depth and high range, but this instrument has both, it doesn’t choke. It is a very complete viola, the best I’ve ever experienced.

DVS: Is there an explanation for the remarkable increase in the number of internationally renowned violists in general, and from Norway in particular?

The overall level of viola playing has improved a lot in the last decades. Some pioneers have acquired technical skills far beyond what had previously been thought possible for a violist. In their time, Tertis and Primrose set new standards for viola technique. The virtuosity attained by Primrose is probably unsurpassed to this day, he was in a way the Heifetz of the viola. I must also mention Peter Schidlof from the Amadeus Quartet, a unique violist with a voice that I never tire of listening to.

In modern times we see a considerable number of viola soloist careers:  Nobuko Imai, Kashkashian, Bashmet, Tabea Zimmermann, and many others.

In the last decade we have also seen an improving level of viola playing in Norway, and a few artists have actually made themselves noticed. Those successful musicians spring from a solid culture of string teaching. Names such as Eivind Ringstad, Ellen Nisbeth and Ida Bryhn. Oslo Philharmonic lead Catherine Bullock is an example of excellent musicians drawn from abroad, strengthening the viola community in Norway.

DVS: Who was most influential in your musical development?

I’d have to mention all of my teachers, mostly violinists. I started out in Hamar with the violin teacher Michael Oustad, a wonderful guy, who was great at teaching children, that’s very important. Next I came to Leif Jørgensen, it was with him that I started playing the viola. I made my debut recital in the Aula (an Oslo concert hall, red.) when I was 17, mostly a violin programme, but also one piece on the viola. Later on I continued my studies with Max Rostal.

After this I went back home for a few years, during which Leif Jørgensen helped me to a teaching position at Godlia (Østlandets Musikk-konservatorium). I was then asked to play the Bartok concerto with the Bergen Philharmonic. I was about 20-21 years, I had never before played a viola solo concerto, I had barely even heard the piece, but I accepted the challenge and went to buy the sheet music. At least I had almost a year to prepare for it. During this time I also got involved in a string quartet, and entered some competitions. I ended up studying with Sándor Vegh for 2 years, and from then on I only played the viola.

In terms of influences, I learned something from all of the good players I met. Technically I feel that violin and viola are fundamentally the same, I can do both quite easily. But nevertheless I’m very much a violist – the viola is “my” voice, just like every singer has a voice of his own.

DVS: We talked about the viola repertoire earlier. You have arranged several pieces for viola yourself, for example “Fratres” by Arvo Pärt. How do you approach the adaptation of repertoire from other instruments?

You have to be critical, it is very much a case-by-case consideration. The “Fratres” transcription was in fact approved by Pärt himself. This piece is a bit of a special case, because there are already so many transcriptions. But there was a violin and a cello version to work from, and that made it even easier.

I have also recorded the César Franck sonata for viola, which also already existed for violin and cello – that makes it a natural choice. And the Grieg cello sonata, which works very well on viola, maybe even better than the original.

As for concerto repertoire, I have recorded the Bach double concerto for violin and oboe (BWV 1060, red.) for viola and bassoon, and the Mozart clarinet concerto for viola, which was transcribed shortly after Mozart’s death (1802). The latter recording (Simax, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra) also features a viola quintet version of Mozart’s famous clarinet quintet.

DVS: There are many examples of the connection between the viola and clarinet. Not only do they share some repertoire (e.g. the Brahms sonatas) but they also regularly appear together, for example in trios with a piano (Mozart’s Kegelstatt, Bruch’s Eight pieces).

Yes, I suppose this is because they have roughly the same range. The Brahms sonatas were produced in both clarinet and viola versions from the start.

DVS: It looks like there’s a steady increase in the production of new works for the viola, both as a solo instrument and in chamber ensembles. Is the viola becoming a favourite instrument for contemporary composers?

It is true, and there are two clear reasons: One, there are more strong viola soloists around commissioning new works. I’ve done so myself. And secondly it is exciting for a composer to write for an instrument that still has unexplored possibilities. And at any rate, the viola has many more options for sound production than most wind instruments. It is matched by the violin and cello in this respect, but as a solo instrument, the viola has been standing in their shadow until recently.

DVS: Would it be appropriate to speak of a viola renaissance?

Yes, if you like.

DVS: And then the inevitable question: Do you think there will ever be a Norwegian Viola Society? Now that we have established a first cooperation with Eivind Ringstad’s recital at our congress in September, it would be very useful to keep this connection alive with some structure in Norway.

That is a very good idea. I have in fact tried to encourage some of my colleagues to start such a thing, unfortunately I have no time myself.

© 2013 Dutch Viola Society / edited by Kristofer G. Skaug

Interview Rosalind Ventris

“I want to do this for the rest of my life.”


The young British violist Rosalind Ventris is quickly emerging as one of the most promising artists of her generation. At 17, she was the youngest competitor at the 2006 Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition, where she won the prize for the most promising British entrant, and the EUCO prize. She made her London concerto debut the following year, performing Hindemith’s Viola Concerto “Der Schwanendreher”. Rosalind is currently based in London, giving concerts throughout the UK, and abroad. This month she visits The Netherlands with recitals in the Concertgebouw and in Den Hoorn (Texel), with works by Hindemith, Roxburgh and Bowen.

DVS: How did you get started on the viola?

I started learning the violin, and then took up the viola as well aged eight. I played both till I went up to Cambridge University to read Music and at that point only wanted to practise the viola! At the very beginning I played a violin strung as a viola, and then a small viola by the Scottish maker Thomas Hardie. After that I played a wonderful viola by Andreas Hudelmayer which is very light. Having taken up the viola at quite a young age, I was very lucky to have access to good instruments which didn’t cause me any serious physical strain.

DVS: What made you decide to become a professional violist?

When I started playing I knew I wanted to be a musician, and I went to a specialist music school- the Purcell School of Music- when I was ten. I have always loved the sound of the viola and its repertoire. That said – I went to many music courses when I was a teenager and I remember having a moment when I was playing the slow movement of Beethoven Op.59 No.2 on a course and thinking, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life.’

DVS: Your favourite musical advice?

Wow, there have been so many! One of my favourites: ‘Practise with your brain, perform with your heart.’ David Takeno.

DVS: Most memorable viola moment?

Playing my first solo recital at the Wigmore Hall last October, it really is a magical hall.

DVS: How do you experience the difference between performing solo repertoire (Concertos, solo recitals) versus chamber music? Do you have a preference?

I don’t have a preference; I just love playing the viola! I’m amused that some people still don’t think of it as a solo instrument though. It’s sometimes said that the repertoire is ‘limited’, but there is great music written for the viola (and, of course, excellent arrangements). It’s just a matter of discovering this music, if you have the curiosity and want to.

You learn so much from playing with other people, both through things you talk about, and just playing together. When everyone gets along it’s really very fun too! I’ve learnt so much from rehearsing with Lara Dodds-Eden and my flute, viola, harp trio, Trio Anima. As a soloist with orchestra life is a little lonelier, but you’re still collaborating with a group which has its own sound which is very exciting. You have to have definite ideas about any music you play, but you have to be especially clear when playing a concerto. Playing a recital completely on your own is something has its own unique demands – for obvious reasons!

DVS: We almost forgot to ask about your viola…!

I’m very fortunate to be playing a wonderful brothers Amati viola, made in 1619, which has been leant to me for this tour. It has an absolutely gorgeous mellow chocolatey viola sound!

DVS: Musicians and composers from Great Britain spearheaded the renaissance of the viola in the late 19th / early 20th century, with great names such as Lionel Tertis, Frank Bridge, York Bowen, Rebecca Clarke, Britten, Vaughan Williams and many others. How is this heritage visible in British music institutions today, particularly for violists?

There’s a lot of British viola music played by composers like the ones you mention today, but it’s a shame that this repertoire is not more widely known within the UK. In my experience, it seems that even the Rebecca Clarke Sonata, which I’ve performed many times, is not really known by the general public. I think that all of the music colleges here have recently had a viola festival of some description and from what I’ve seen or heard of a good deal of early twentieth century repertoire is played at such events. We also have the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition and Festival on the Isle of Man, which is one of the few international competitions exclusively for the violists.

DVS: How are classical musicians affected by the economic crisis in the UK?

I find recent comments from the government slightly worrying regarding things to come. I completely agree with what John Gilhooly said at the RPS music awards: ‘Making money never has, and never should be, the driving force for great art.’

DVS: What are your personal near term goals and prospects?

My goal is always to try and play with all the depth and sincerity I can. I’m playing in Aldeburgh at the end of next month, and very excited to be part of the celebrations of Britten’s centenary this year. I’m really looking forward to be taking part in the IMS Prussia Cove Tour later in the year too.

© Dutch Viola Society / edited by Kristofer G. Skaug

Interview met altvioliste Esra Pehlivanli

We have to push composers to write viola music without limits – Esra Pehlivanli 

Esra Pehlivanli
voltooide haar muziekstudies met onderscheiding aan het Staatsconservatorium in Ankara en vervolgens bij de altvioolvirtuoos Michael Kugel aan het Koninklijk Conservatorium Gent en aan het Conservatorium Maastricht. Ze won prijzen op prestigieuze concoursen zoals de “Kryzstof Penderecki International Contemporary Music Competition” (Polen) en de “Torneo Internazionale di Musica” (Italië), ontving de Jur Naessens Muziekprijs (Nederland) en de eerste prijs bij de “Premio Valentino Bucchi International Viola Competition” in Rome, waar ze ook een eremedaille uitgereikt kreeg van de president van Italië.

Esra Pehlivanli treedt veel binnen Nederland op (Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Concertgebouw Nijmegen, De Doelen Rotterdam, Frits Philips Eindhoven) en in heel Europa (van Ierland tot Turkije), Zuid Amerika en China.

Onlangs heeft Esra Pehlivanli vijf CD’s uitgebracht, met opnames van meesterwerken uit het verleden en nieuwe composities speciaal voor haar geschreven. Naast de uitvoering van de klassieke meesterwerken voor altviool, werkt Esra graag met componisten samen om nieuw repertoire te creëren, en de hedendaagse muziek voor altviool te promoten.

DVS: At what age did you first start playing the viola, and how did that come about?

When I was 11, I entered the Ankara State Conservatory where I was born, and began to learn how to play viola. The music education system in Turkey is different than in some other countries. There are no music schools that you can go first and later on you decide if you want to become a professional musician or not. You directly start with the conservatory and it takes ten years. Before that I was singing at the children choir of the Ankara State Opera & Ballet House. This was for me the start with music. I enjoyed so much, especially the part when we were on stage performing with full orchestra, soloists, choir, costumes, decors and lights….  I knew I wanted to be a musician and wanted to keep on experiencing such a charming momentum all my life.

DVS: Can you tell us any specific “revelations” from your viola studies that greatly influenced your technique and style?

I love Kreutzer studies. I think if you are really able to play the etudes, you are a great instrumentalist. You have everything in these studies, all about right and left hand. Vibrato is very important, I learned this from my previous teacher Mikhail Kugel. Not many violists pay attention to that area. Therefore it’s quite common to hear violists with very slow vibrato, as if they are 80 years old! I learned from this viola master not only about vibrato but all about the technique, style and most important how to become a stage performer and musician. 

DVS: Viola students of today have the opportunity to watch (and learn from) great violists in action on YouTube. Which artists would you particularly recommend studying?

I wouldn’t say studying but maybe observing if your purpose of watching is about learning. I like very much to listen to Mikhail Kugel, Yuri Bashmet and Tabea Zimmerman. They are all very different from each other but very unique. I also find it very important to watch or listen to not only violists but many other instruments as well. We can learn so much from music, it doesn’t have to be specifically viola music. I always believe, music develops your playing technique very much (I don’t mean for beginners). Therefore I’d always recommend to listen to every musician which gives you pleasure and make you feel something.

DVS: Which qualities do you seek first and foremost in a viola (for your own use)?
What about the bow?

I don’t have very big hands, therefore for me the size is important so I can hold it and play it comfortably. But of course the sound is very very important. I have to have a connection with the instrument. It’s a piece of wood, I give life to it. It has to be a special connection between the instrument and the player. I like very much if the viola has a dark sound on the low strings and not so sharp A string. Viola has a great range, this we must hear in the instrument. Therefore the balance between the four strings is very important too.

I use a heavy violin bow. This is very good to play for recitals, chamber music and solo concerts. You can do many things much easier than with the viola bow. More and more viola players are choosing this type of bows. If you haven’t tried it yet, I’d advise you to do so. 

DVS: Your play in ensembles with some unconventional instrument combinations such as accordion, pan flute, recorder, percussion. How does this differ from the “usual” viola partners such as the clarinet, the piano, and the string quartet?

Until now I performed in many different chamber music settings and it always requires different attention on tuning, sound production, vibrato, breathing… I have four ensembles where I play regularly: Duo MARES with accordion, Black Pencil (which we reviewed last month, ed.) with block flute (recorder), panflute, accordion, percussion, Trio Kybele with a mezzo-soprano and piano, and the Duo Pehlivanli & Safonova with piano. Viola has a wonderful range, which can fit into any kind of chamber music ensemble. It has the middle register, warm sound, not so high as violin and not so deep as cello or contrabass. This opens a lot of doors to combine it with any instrument such as in ensemble Black Pencil.

Viola with blockflute, panflute, percussion, accordion? It is really unique and actually difficult to combine. Every time I’m trying to find a way to melt better with those instruments. They do as well, this is chamber music. For example, if we have a slow unison motive and I play it with my full vibrato, it doesn’t work that well. The pitch changes, I have to find a way to combine it, little slower and smaller vibrato. So I get closer to the wind vibration. Same as if you play with clarinet. Intonation is another issue. When you play with piano, you know that there is one well-tempered instrument and you have to adjust your intonation into that instrument, whether it is good or not, you have to. But playing with instruments where there is no fixed pitch, then the intonation becomes relevant. To play with accordion is the same. I have to be extra careful with my intonation. The tones changes with the bellow change, with the register change, and it’s a wind instrument.

DVS: Do you have a favourite viola concerto? (as a performer and/or as a listener)

It’s difficult for me to tell, because I’m quite a moody person. Although I like very much Walton, Schnittke concertos, Hindemith’s works with orchestra and of course Mozart Sinfonia Concertante and Bruch double concerto.

DVS: Every cellist’s “school orchestra trauma” seems to be the Pachelbel “Canon”. What is the most infuriatingly annoying viola part you’ve ever had to play?

There are many unfortunately (!) I wouldn’t like to name it for respect to the composers.

DVS: Speaking of repertoire, would you say that contemporary composers are more aware of the viola than their predecessors, in general?

Definitely! Viola is the instrument of today. It has not been discovered enough until the second half of the 20th century. In my opinion it also comes from the players’ abilities. Today’s violists are much better than 50 years ago. We can inspire composers better, and they know that viola is no longer an accompaniment instrument but can perfectly be a solo instrument too. It is the performers’ duty to improve the instrument, if the composers are still writing a relaxed viola part, we have to push them to write it without limits. There are no limits to improve and do it better. At least this is how I think all the time. I like very much new music and the collaboration with the composers, to create it, perform it, to receive a score that no one has played before, and afterward leave it to everyone. This is a great process. 

DVS: Is there a viola “community” in Turkey, and do you see a Turkish Viola Society arising in the (near) future?

Well, you just gave me a great idea! There is a big unofficial viola society in Turkey. It just needs to be organised. Why not, maybe in the near future.

DVS: What are your expectations of the Dutch Viola Society, in practical terms? What could it do to help you as a professional violist?

There are many violists living or based in The Netherlands who are working in the orchestras or performing as a chamber musician or soloist from all ages. We should have a better infrastructure to come together, share ideas, knowledge, and repertory. This can be organised as conferences or broadly oriented festivals. The website is great and of course we are living in the social media times. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to add a page where you mention the new CD recordings especially from the Netherlands. One of the things I wanted to do is to create an online catalogue for the contemporary viola repertory. Maybe we can work on this topic together. The DVS can occasionally commission new works to Dutch composers, there are many interesting people around. Networking is very important in order to enlarge our Dutch Viola Society.

© Dutch Viola Society / edited by Kristofer G. Skaug