The Plain Dealer

Friendship bears musical fruit with viola world premiere
April 26, 2007
By Donald Rosenberg, Plain Dealer Music Critic
ACTUAL NEWS PIECE

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Franz Welser-Möst conducts Mozart’s Symphony No. 28, Richard Sortomme’s Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra (with Robert Vernon as soloist) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. 8 PM tonight; repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Severance Hall, 11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

As fellow violinists four decades ago, Robert Vernon and Richard Sortomme shared learning and performance experiences at legendary teacher Ivan Galamian’s Meadowmount School of Music and at the Juilliard School. Now they’re playing collaborative roles they once couldn’t have imagined: soloist and composer.

Vernon, former violinist and longtime principal viola of the Cleveland Orchestra, gives the world-premiere performance of Sortomme’s Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra tonight at Severance Hall with his colleagues and music director Franz Welser-Möst. The program repeats Friday and Saturday.

The commissioned work is one chapter in a long-term friendship that has turned many artistic pages. Vernon performed several times in New York with Sortomme‚s chamber ensemble, For the Love of Music. After Vernon first heard one of his chum’s pieces, “Culminations 1” (for solo viola, orchestra and synthesizers), he encouraged Sortomme to send it out to conductors.

Then, at Vernon‚s request two years ago, Cleveland Orchestra officials commissioned Sortomme to write a solo work for their principal viola. To get a feel for the process, the composer asked Vernon to send him discs of other pieces he had premiered with the orchestra.

“They were all lyrical”, Sortomme said during lunch the other day. “Bob said, ‘I don’t feel that I have anything to prove. I believe the soul of the viola is lyrical, not technical. I hope you won’t write the most pyrotechnically difficult music you can’”.

“One of the reasons he wanted me to write a piece was because my palette would produce singable, recognizable melody.”

But Sortomme, 58, hit a sonic brick wall soon after he started the piece, which initially was announced as a viola concerto. He came up with thematic ideas that didn’t seem to want to go anywhere.

So the composer phoned Vernon and revealed his dilemma. “I can‚t write you a 20-minute vocalize”, Sortomme told him. “He agreed and turned me loose. But I wholeheartedly agreed with him. The technical parts should flow from melodic-based material. That opened the floodgates for me. I free-associated and was productive.”

At one point, Sortomme‚s desire to add flashier substance to the Rhapsody compelled him to consider a brilliant ending. The score was starting to assume a programmatic character, a contest between viola and orchestra.

"He's so loyal," Sortomme said of Vernon. "He explained to me numerous times what a rock [Ramsey] is, and what a terrific player she is."

On the way to the intended bravura conclusion, the composer devised three cadenzas in which “the solo viola rips the piece away from the orchestra”, said Sortomme. “He‚s saying, hey, look at me. I’m the soloist.”

Yet Sortomme realized that the viola’s lyrical voice had to prevail. The piece ends with the soloist sustaining a B-flat over soft string chords.

In composing the Rhapsody, Sortomme used audio-production technology that enabled him to hear the piece in synthesized form once it was fully orchestrated. The software also gave Vernon a chance to get to know the piece by playing through it at Sortomme’s home in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

With the technology and Vernon’s input, Sortomme molded the piece he wanted the Rhapsody to be. “I’m not living in the same kind of fear that most composers do”, he said, referring to the first orchestra rehearsal. “I’ve had a shot at it. I think music schools should avail themselves of the technology.”

The California-born Sortomme began exploring composition in theory and ear-training classes in the preparatory division at Juilliard. While free-lancing as a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, New York City Ballet Orchestra and for recordings, as well as performing in two chamber ensembles, he was writing pieces that colleagues came to admire.

In the early 1990s, Sortomme assisted British film composer Stephen Endelman on several film projects but eventually went off on his own. Among Sortomme’s works is “Androcles and the Lion”, initially for chamber ensemble, narrator and three actors in Chinese shadow theater. Later revised for full orchestra, it received its second premiere by the New York Philharmonic on a Young People’s Concert in December 2004.

Androcles was copied and produced in full score by Philip Myers, the Philharmonic‚s principal horn, who also conducted the chamber version. Myers later asked Sortomme to write him a cadenza for Mozart‚s Horn Concerto No. 4. The composer supplied a two-minute adventure for solo horn, two orchestral horns and solo viola.

“It‚s like a mini-Sinfonia Concertante”, said Sortomme, whose wife, Carol Webb, is a violinist in the Philharmonic. “I connected to Mozart’s world and then did my own thing.”

As he did both as composer and violist while shaping the Rhapsody for old pal Vernon. “I tested out every note of that piece”, Sortomme said. “When I was writing, the viola was right there on the bookcase, so I picked it up.”

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: drosenberg@plaind.com, 216-999-4269