Cleveland Orchestra Premiere — Sortomme’s Concerto for Two Violas

On November19 principal violist Robert Vernon, due to retire at the end of the 2016 Blossom Season after 40 years, joined his stand partner Lynne Ramsey in Richard Sortomme’s Concerto for Two Violas on themes from Smetana’s From My Life with Music Director Laureate Christoph von Dohnanyi on the podium. This was a Cleveland Orchestra commission.

Sortomme’s concerto is equal parts nostal­gia and invention. He based it on themes from Smetana’s Quartet No. 1, a piece that figured memorably in the lives of Sortomme and Vernon, who studied the work with Cleveland Orchestra Concertmaster Joseph Gingold at the Meadowmount summer school in the Adirondacks. The quartet also figures in the orchestra’s institutional history: George Szell arranged it for the ensemble and played it on his first set of concerts as the orchestra’s music director in 1944.

Sortomme’s new work is not so much a solo vehicle as the celebration of an orchestral family where two violas assume a prominent role, and everybody gets to join the party. On top of a full string section, Sortomme calls for triple winds, full brass, harp, piano, enough percussion to keep five players busy, and even an accordion. The concerto unfolds in two long movements, each divided into a number of sonic scenes separated by silences and often interrupted by new ideas proposed by the per­cussion.

Sortomme’s keen ear for orchestral color reveals itself from the beginning, when a dramatic gesture leaves a clarinet note floating high in the air above low brass and piano. Later, oozy trombones (a reference to Sme­tana’s drunken sailors in the quartet) take the lead, and the first movement ends with a sudden lick of music. A poignant first viola solo opens the sec­ond movement, answered by the second solo­ist. Clear quotations from Smetana’s quartet thread their way in and out of the texture, interrupted by a Smetana-inspired polka that uses tom-toms and mallets. Conversations between the two violas, solo violin, and accordion lead to an intense valedic­tory duet. The work ends with increasingly smaller frag­ments of the opening theme passed back and forth between soloists and orchestra. The piece well written, expertly scored, and fun to listen to. Dohnanyi led a crisp per­formance, and Robert Vernon and Lynne Ram­sey played with beautiful tone and presence.

Daniel Hathaway