Program Notes

Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra
composed 2006
by Richard Sortomme—born in Los Angeles on June 6, 1948. Currently living in Mt. Vernon, New York

This Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra was written on commission from The Cleveland Orchestra for principal violist Robert Vernon. Following initial discussions in 2005, Sortomme composed this work between January 16 and May 11, 2006, with some revisions subsequently taking place in July 2006. Rhapsody was given its world premiere performances at Cleveland Orchestra concerts on April 26, 27 and 28, 2007, with Robert Vernon as soloist, under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst.


This concerto runs about 20 minutes in performance. Sortomme scored it for piccolo, 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, gong, cymbals, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel), harp, and strings, plus the solo viola.

The composer wrote the following comments about this new work for the world premiere performances of this piece with The Cleveland Orchestra, April 26-28, 2007.

ROBERT VERNON and I first got together in the autumn of 2005 to discuss the new concerto I had been commissioned to write for him and The Cleveland Orchestra. At that time, Bob told me that he believes the “soul” of the viola is lyrical, not virtuosic — and that he hoped the new work would not concentrate on pyrotechnical display. We discussed this subject at length, in relation to the viola and how its musical strengths and character differ from the other string instruments, and I wholeheartedly agreed to honor his sincere request for lyricism over technical display as the primary focus of the concerto.

Once I began composing the work in early 2006, however, I felt somehow constrained by this search for lyricism. In writing a twenty-minute concerto, if I conformed to only lyrical ideas the result would be a “vocalise” for viola and orchestra, and not a work containing the depth and complexity that its twenty-minute length demanded. In discussing my dilemma with Bob we agreed that I should pursue any creative ideas, including those containing more of a technical spirit. We were both excited by the possibilities — and I was amazed during the next two months over how the piece’s program presented itself out of our process and discussions.

What resulted is that in this concerto a musical fight for the soul of the viola is played out. The fight is between the instrument’s innate lyrical character and the possibilities for virtuosic display through pyrotechnical writing.

By May 2006, the piece was completed to full score, and then input into music software. This resulted in a synthetic realization that comes close to reproducing the sounds of a real orchestra and thusly my entire orchestration. Bob and I met in July 2006 to listen to, play, and discuss the piece. Bob had already been playing through his solo part for six weeks and this meeting allowed him to thoroughly grasp the entire work. Subsequently, his observations and comments encompassing the solo part and the orchestration offered valuable insights that guided me in making finishing touches at various points throughout the score.

   

There are three cadenzas for the soloist in the piece, which, in the end we have titled Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra. They are not unaccompanied cadenzas, however, for the orchestra participates in each. The first, and longest, cadenza is a “statement-and-response” between the solo viola and the orchestra. The second cadenza is shorter and very lyrical, and is also very much an interruption in the music’s overall flow and musical structure.

   

The third cadenza is the most technically challenging of the three, and is the most important regarding the “fight” for the soul of the viola. It follows a full-orchestral tutti that is a technical tour de force. Just as this tutti climaxes, the solo viola enters totally unexpectedly, literally ripping away the virtuosic music from the first violins and announcing, “Look at me! I am the exciting virtuoso here.” During these brief statement-and-response exchanges between the orchestra and the solo viola the “struggle” is at its most developed and intense stage, wild and challenging, as if this is the solo viola’s last gasp at virtuosity. Ultimately, the instrument’s musical soul gives in to the power of lyricism and melody. Following this cadenza, the rhapsody’s final section revisits its main theme in a new treatment, and has the solo viola ending with a lonely, unaccompanied B-flat, trailing off into silence.

While I am a traditionalist, composing in the “old school” way with score paper and pencil, my working methods also allow me to talk briefly about the impact technology has had and the possibilities it presents. The personal computer is at the center of these possibilities, offering a variety of new and altered paths for traditional methods of doing work. Even in the arts, where hand-crafting and personal involvement are inseparable from the creative and performing process, computer software has lent a variety of new “helping hands.”

I sketch each new work, writing out a two-stave piano version, or occasionally in a larger format with up to ten staves, notating my ideas or intentions for instrumentation, accompanying rhythms, etc. This “piano score” approach makes the new piece easy to play through at any time and to work with or change during the initial composition period. I compose sections, textures, and connecting material as they each present themselves to me during this process, not necessarily in the order that they will ultimately appear in a work.

   

Once the piece is fully envisioned on paper, and all the various sections are pieced together in the correct linear architecture that has become the piece, I begin writing out a full score by hand, orchestrating with complete instrumentation. Only after this stage is completed do I have the entire piece input into music software capable of rendering an initial approximation of the score’s full sound. My goal from the outset is that I work fully with the instrumental sounds in my head, and to use technology to “hear” the piece only as a method of review. It is my hope and desire that it will be necessary to make only modest changes at most during this hearing stage. Certainly in this regard, today’s music software is serving as an invaluable tool for composers, with its ability to provide at any time, day or night, the kind of orchestral readings that some composers are afforded only in their conservatory days on a very limited basis for new works. Technology really can make a difference and become the composer’s friend.

—RICHARD SORTOMME April 2007