Long musical friendship culminates in Cleveland Orchestra world premiere (preview)
By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer
November 16, 2015

“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."