The Plain Dealer

Long musical friendship culminates in Cleveland Orchestra world premiere (preview)
November 16, 2015 at 11:48 AM, updated November 20, 2015 at 11:20 AM
By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer

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CLEVELAND, Ohio - Never mind that two thousand people will witness it each night. The moment about to transpire on stage at Severance Hall this week will be deeply personal. More than just another world premiere, the new Concerto for Two Violas being presented this week by the Cleveland Orchestra and music director laureate Christoph von Dohnanyi signifies the culmination of a long musical bond. Even as it serves as an early chance for the public to honor retiring principal violist Robert Vernon, the concerto for its composer and Vernon amounts to an intimate commemoration, a milestone on a path they've strolled together.

"Until I actually started writing, I didn't see what a good story this is," said composer Richard Sortomme. "I had no idea the seed for the piece had actually been planted 40 years earlier." Indeed, for this concerto, his second offering to the Cleveland Orchestra, Sortomme can take only half the credit. The rest belongs to Bedrich Smetana.

Smetana's String Quartet No. 1, subtitled "From My Life," is the basis of the entire concerto, itself one-third of a program including Schubert's "Great" Symphony in C Major and Smetana's Overture to "The Bartered Bride." Literally every moment of it stems in some fashion from themes and motifs - the quartet is famous for its viola part - Smetana penned in 1876, while taking stock of his own life. "I couldn't even include everything," Sortomme explained. "It's a hit parade. But I'm very conscious about not being derivative."

But the backbone of Sortomme's concerto isn't all "From My Life" represents. No, in a way, the piece also forms the foundation of their friendship.

Acquaintances since college and longtime chamber-music buddies (Sortomme plays violin), Sortomme and Vernon have been sharing stages at schools and music festivals since the 1960s. Over that time, the Smetana has found its way onto their stands more than a few times, further cementing their bond with each appearance.

Sortomme said the two also grew close witnessing others perform the piece, notably former Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster Josef Gingold and famed violist Pinchas Zukerman.

"They just blew the roof off the concert hall," Sortomme recalled of a concert at the Meadowmount School of Music in Westport, New York. "This was rock 'n' roll for us. It's very connected and interwoven into our history."

About his score, Sortomme deliberately offered few details. All the composer said was that it condenses Smetana's four movements into two, plays to Vernon's lyrical and technical strengths, and speaks a musical language he described as "advanced tonal."

"At certain points I thought I might be too close to the actual music of Smetana, while at other times I thought I might have drifted too far away," Sortomme wrote in a program note.

As to why it features two violists rather than one, however, Sortomme was perfectly up-front: Vernon wanted it that way. For his last solo appearance as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, Sortomme said the violist insisted on sharing glory with his colleague, first assistant principal violist Lynne Ramsey.

"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."

Writing his first piece for Vernon and Cleveland, in 2007, a Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra, Sortomme said he could barely contain his excitement or process the importance of the assignment.

Today, even bolstered by experience, he still feels much the same way. Now, however, it's the significance of the occasion - not the momentous stature of the orchestra or of Dohnanyi - that gives him pause.

Composing for a major institution is one thing, Sortomme said. Composing for a dear friend, one who will be all but impossible to replace and whose career paralleled your own, is quite another.

"I never feel my music is good enough until it finally is good enough," Sortomme said, adding that every time he thinks about this coming weekend, "I pinch myself. I'm aware of its gravity."