By Lisa Boyko & Annalisa Boerner

This past spring a new viola concerto received its debut here in Cleveland. Richard Sortomme’s “Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra” was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for principal violist Robert Vernon and was premiered by them on April 26th. An excited and expectant audience filled Severance Hall that night, listening spellbound to the soloist’s melancholy opening notes. The piece is a journey through a varied landscape: at times agitated, at times contemplative. The orchestra’s role in the drama is creatively crafted and colored. Three accompanied cadenzas help structure the one-movement work.

In a pre-concert conversation, the composer shared his philosophy of composing, as well as some background on the “Rhapsody”. A concert violinist (and former classmate of Vernon), who got into composing through film work, Mr. Sortomme claims to be “old-fashioned” in his approach to music. “I live in a tonal world,” he says. When writing music, he continues, “there are a variety of different moods that I’m trying to capture”. His objectives apparently fit in well with Vernon’s own desires for the new piece. Composer and soloist both agreed that “the ‘soul’ of the viola is lyrical, not virtuosic”, but allowed that a 20-minute piece required the variety and complexity that more technical passagework can provide. The resulting music dramatizes, in essence, “a fight for the soul of the viola”. The aforementioned cadenzas ingeniously advance the plot. First a “call-and-answer” dialogue scene, then a lyrical interlude, and finally a spotlight shining on the virtuosic viola in all its glory.

Robert Vernon embodies these two complementary ideals – lyricism and virtuosity – in his flawless technique and ultra-expressive sound. Whether it was sparkling passagework or a soaring melody, his beautiful playing was pure story-telling. The orchestra, mostly a sensitive partner, at times overwhelmed the soloist - but that may have heightened the drama! Richard Sortomme had commented that new music “can be entertainment in the best sense of the word – it can mean being transported.” Robert Vernon proves the point. The conflicted soul of the viola finds repose in the final lyrical ascent to a high Bb, lingers there, then fades away. The transported audience wakes up to Severance Hall again, and rises to give a standing ovation. Truly a world premiere worthy of its page in viola history!