Concerto for Two Violas and Orchestra
About This Composition
Although I didn’t know it at the time the seeds for this double viola concerto based on themes from Smetana’s String Quartet # 1, “From My Life”, were sewn all the way back in the late1960s. And those seeds were connected, in no small way, to The Cleveland Orchestra.
Bob (Vernon) and I were in our teens studying violin at Juilliard with the renowned pedagogue Ivan Galamian. During the summers we attended the Meadowmount School of Music, Mr. G’s intense eight-week summer school for violinists and cellists nestled in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains. Leonard Rose taught cello at Meadowmount and Mr. G had invited Joseph Gingold, one of your most revered and beloved concertmasters here in Cleveland, to teach string quartets to all of us.
Because there were no violists at Meadowmount some of us had to learn to play the viola for the quartets. After the assignments had been made Mr. Gingold would take all of us who pulled viola duty and go through his “short-hand” method of learning how to read the alto clef. Actually it was not a method to really read the notes. In fact most of us didn’t even know what notes we were playing for a couple of years! His “trick” was extremely clever: you had to imagine you were reading the notes in third position in treble clef on the violin, but then slide your hand down to first position on the viola, on the same string as you would have been on if you were playing violin, (I, II, III or IV). You Got That?! Once we grasped it seemed so easy---we were off and running, although accidentals were a serious impediment at first because we didn’t know what notes we were playing.
Back in those days there were 106 of us at Meadowmount, coming from not only America but almost every country in Europe and Asia. Each summer in mid-August there would be a scholarship concert to raise money and Mr. G would trot out the best of the best: Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jamie Buswell, Young Uck Kim, and other wonderful fiddlers whose names you might not recognize. The first half would be concertos, unaccompanied Bach or short pieces, and then after intermission there would be a quartet, quintet, sextet or piano quintet.
One summer when I was 16 or 17 Mr. Gingold decided that the Smetana quartet, “From My Life”, would be the post-intermission offering. This quartet has one of the most virtuosic viola parts in the entire string quartet repertoire. In fact the opening is legendary, instantly recognizable, the type of part to which only a Giant could do fitting justice. The viola part was assigned to none other than Pinky Zukerman. We all had heard him play viola before, wonderfully, but this performance was shocking, sending him clearly into the land of Giants. From the first notes of the opening solo, accompanied by murmuring eighth notes in the two violins and cello, he literally blew the roof off of the concert hall. On that first page of music there are outbursts from the other strings at times, even wild triplet eighth notes, but it was crystal clear that Mr. Viola was the star, front and center. Even though the fourth movement concludes softly, murmuring, with lone pizzicati in the cello trailing off into the distance, the audience erupted into a mad frenzy of clapping, screaming bravos, everyone on there feet. Yes, a Star Was Born that night, but for me it wasn’t Pinky (although I adored and still adore him, he has always been my favorite amongst living violinists), it was this Smetana string quartet, “From My Life”.
It wasn’t until a number of years later that I got to perform it on a concert at Meadowmount, playing second violin, with the brilliant violinist Bob Vernon assuming the viola duties. We had a wonderful time rehearsing and an even better time performing it. Mr. Gingold knew practically the entire quartet repertoire by memory and frequently at lessons he would play either the first violin, second violin or viola part from his teaching chair along with us. In the case of “From My Life” at lessons he showed us tricks that he endorsed and thought we should do. There is no doubt in my mind that all of these came out of the time when he was a member of the remarkable Primrose Quartet: he played second violin to Oscar Shumsky, Harvey Shapiro played cello and of course, the great violist William Primrose. For example, in the opening iconic viola solo and following occurrences in other instruments in the first movement he advised us not to adhere to the pedantic eighth not up beat. He instead wanted us to turn the upbeat into a sixteenth note, making it much more brilliant. And the final two bar phrase of the first movement in the first violin part, going all the way up on the D string to just tug at the heartstrings of Smetana’s sad life. And the C major arpeggio triplet eighths in the second violin solo in movement two, the Polka, playing them on the G string with repeated down bows and then going up an octave higher for the landing note G with a high harmonic, all for the sake of genuine bravura. By the way all of these things can be heard on YouTube in a marvelous recording of “From My Life” by the Primrose Quartet.
Mr. Gingold was a beautiful violinist and musician, great concertmaster and a wonderfully nurturing man. During the summer that he announced his retirement from The Cleveland Orchestra I remember asking him one day what he would miss most. He sort of smiled and then answered quickly: “Playing the Eroica symphony, Ricky!” I remember him telling us that on their numerous train trips while on tour he and George Szell would play a high stakes musical game. The Assistant Conductor would bring up to their seats a random score, something that had nothing to do with the works to be performed on their tour. He would turn to the middle of the score, pull up the right corner of it only enough to expose maybe two bars of music and two staves of parts, and then he and Maestro Szell would bet on what the piece was. He said that Maestro Szell always won, because it was almost impossible to figure out what the work was from only that slight tidbit of visible score. Oh, for the good old days!
It was impossible for me to imagine then, that my musical journey would intersect with The Cleveland Orchestra in the way it has, so many decades later.
Then life moves on. I was still in the upper school at Juilliard but Bob had taken his first job as violist in the New College string quartet in Sarasota, Florida. Friends of mine suggested that we play “From My Life” at a Friday night concert in Alice Tully Hall, because hardly anyone at Juilliard knew the piece. It was a little bold but I called Bob and asked him if he would come up from Florida to play it. He said he would if I could somehow pull it off. I had studied chamber music with Felix Galimir for a number of years and was close enough to him to ask if he could make it “happen”. He said he could and that spring Bob came up, we rehearsed like mad for three days in my West End Avenue bedroom, and closed that Friday night concert with “From My Life”.
Then life continues to move on. My wife and I-Carol (Webb), a wonderful violinist who is in the New York Philharmonic-created a chamber music series in 1979, For The Love Of Music. In 1980, our second season, we moved to Merkin Concert Hall in Lincoln Center for what was to be the first of nine seasons there. I invited Bob to be an Artist Member. I then asked him if, for the very first concert at Merkin, he wanted to play “From My Life” to close the program. He enthusiastically said “yes” so all of our paths crossed yet again with this magnificent quartet. Things had changed a little by then however. He stayed with us in a beautiful guest room in our first home in New Jersey, not buddied up with me in my student apartment on West End Avenue, and rehearsals were more comfortable and organized.
Then life really continued to move on! Over the next 15 years my career was extremely busy with chamber music performances and free-lancing in New York. I had composed while in high school and somewhere in the early 1990s the desire to compose surfaced again. My first concert piece that was the result of this process came in 1997: CULMINATION 1 for viola, orchestra and synthesizers. A number of my string-playing colleagues began asking me to write them chamber works and over the ensuing years I became busier and busier. My New York Philharmonic commission came in 2004, then my first Cleveland Orchestra commission in 2005, and my destiny was presenting itself to me.
I had been toying with the concept of composing a work based on themes from “From My Life” since late in 2005, when my first commission with The Cleveland Orchestra was consummated. That commission was for just one viola (it started out as a concerto but ended up as a Rhapsody) having its premiere in April of 2007. During the early stages Bob and I talked at length about what this piece would be and I even wrote some sketches based on two themes from the quartet. However, I eventually abandoned any concepts coming out of those sketches and went on my own way.
So, a year and a half ago when Bob called and told me I was about to receive my second commission from The Cleveland Orchestra, my mind secretly began to entertain “From My Life” again (this of course, after I picked myself up off the floor after fainting from joy for this commission, my second!). Bob and I again started talking about concepts and direction but I kept “From My Life” to myself.
Over the next two months I couldn’t shake this fascination, maybe even an obsession, for wanting to compose on themes from “From My Life”. Then a bright light went off and I understood: He and I, and Carol, had performed this piece so many times, as youths and young adults. It meant so much to us. It was so much part of our musical and personal history. Few violists on the planet could play it as wonderfully as Bob could. And, 2015-2016 would be his last season with The Cleveland Orchestra. He was retiring. Was this not the time to come around full circle, more than 40 years after we had heard it and first performed it; and use the themes of this wonderful quartet as the basis of the concerto for two violas I was about to start composing for him and Lynne?
That was all I needed. I summoned up the courage, called Bob and advanced my concept. He was polite and interested but not totally “sold” on the idea. Not for any particularly negative reason, however. I just think it caught him off guard and he needed to process my concept. It took maybe another three weeks before he embraced the idea, and then he got on board, fully engaged.
I have never before written a work based on another composer’s themes so the process literally presented itself to me as I began and progressed. I love this string quartet, know it intimately and decided that I should start by going through each movement and basically writing down all the thematic material and numbering each of them. That turned out to be a bigger job than I thought it would be because of the great wealth of melodic and rhythmic material in the quartet. It immediately became apparent to me that I would never be able to include all the material in the quartet and that I would have to include themes based on two criteria: 1. Themes that I thought were greatly important. 2. Themes that I greatly loved.
“From My Life” begins with the most iconic and virtuosic viola solo in all of the string quartet repertoire, instantly recognizable. Obviously it had to be included. I made a decision to move along with themes from the quartet in chronological order, and instead of four movements my work would be in two: My first movement would incorporate material from movements 1 & 2 of the quartet, and my second movement would incorporate material from movements 3 & 4. However, I decided to liberally “sprinkle” quotes from the iconic opening viola solo, in various forms, throughout my entire piece.
Where as the opening viola solo in the quartet is fast, brash and impassioned I chose to open with a very soft and reflective treatment of the melody. In fact I intentionally withheld the playing by our soloists of the opening solo material in all its glory, FF Allegro Appassionato, until more than half way through my second movement.
The job that was presenting itself to me turned out to be more difficult than anticipated: how to do justice to Smetana with nods to his melodies and rhythms, while still doing justice to myself, to compose a work true to my musical style, heart and intents. At certain points I either thought I might be too close to the actual music of Smetana, at others I thought I might have drifted too far away, maybe composing too abstruse a treatment.
My opening is a good example of this process. The quartet starts with a FF secco chord followed with eighth notes murmuring in an accompaniment for the imminently entering raucous viola solo. I start with a dramatic FF chord in the brass with piano and double bass, but it is long, not secco, and makes a diminuendo. Then the quartet’s fast eighth notes are represented by slow quarter note murmurings, with hugely different harmonies, that create the “bed” upon which the two soloists enter in a staggered format. They quote the notes of the quartet melody but in a much slower and gentler fashion, summoning up melancholy rather than fury.
The second theme of the first movement offered me a wonderful opportunity: quote it in a recognizable way, with different harmonic directions and a memorable orchestration. This is where I use the vibraphone with its haunting vibrato, for the first time, along with muted strings and a few winds, creating a very gentle propulsion and caressing mood underneath the two soloists.
The second movement of the quartet, which is a fun loving and romping Polka, is introduced in episodic utterances by the French horn, trombone and xylophone. The two solo violas quote this Polka, accompanied by pizzicato and snap-pizzicato strings, occasional arco celli and violi, secco winds, castanets and tambourine. The trio section the Polka, as explained by Mr. Gingold to us while at Meadowmount so many decades before, portrays drunken soldiers wandering the streets late at night while on a shore leave. I had a lot of fun composing this section. There are no direct quotes from the quartet. Instead I use very obvious, slow portamenti in all three trombones and in the solo violas, accompanied by rhythmically halting percussion portraying street bands and high, sliding violin harmonics to complete the late-night mood. The Coda romps, in fact runs wildly to its conclusion to end my first movement.
The third movement of the quartet begins with a beautiful and famous unaccompanied cello solo. My most exact quotes come from this third movement. The reason for this is that it contains some of the most gorgeous melodies in the entire quartet and I felt that I had to include them. This also led to a serious dilemma for me: at one point while quoting one of the themes I felt I was too close to the original; not in terms of harmony or orchestration of course, but in the manner in which I was employing the Smetana melody. I was so concerned that I called a close friend, Robert Levin, the brilliant pianist, theoretician and Mozart scholar. Bob has one of the most incredible musical minds of anyone living today, and I had to unburden myself to him. After I went on for a few minutes about my frustration and concerns he interrupted me abruptly saying, “Ricky, you have stop worrying about this. I know your music well and if you compose this section honestly, being true to yourself and from your heart, this will all be just fine. And, by the way, the truly great composers borrowed from each other all the time.” At that point he proceeded, spontaneously, to rattle off 8 or 10 examples of where composers (all of whose names you would instantly recognize!) “borrowed” from either themselves or other composers. He had accomplished what he set out to do after hearing my concerns: calm me down and have me resume my journey, my way, which I did.
The fourth movement of the quartet is a bubbling and dancing Vivace and I introduced all of its melodies and rhythms right at the onset, liberally jumping from claves, woodblock and marimba to various winds. This movement employs recurring quotes of the quartet’s first movement opening viola solo more than in any other part of the piece, sitting along side all of the various, quoted fourth movement themes. It is quite free-form writing. The solo violas quote the Vivace opening three times, twice in C major and finally in E major, the original key of the fourth movement. In this Vivace I wanted to capture as much Eastern European flavor as I could, a real folk if not gypsy character, so I included an accordion in my orchestration. Along side of it are portamento and pizzicato celli, as well as pizzicato and staccato violins, tambourine and bongos.
This brings me to something I said much earlier: that I saved, withheld, the solo violas from playing the very opening of the quartet, the incredibly virtuosic and recognizable theme, until half way through my second movement. When it finally does make its appearance it follows a rather gentle reworking of this movement’s second theme with both soloists, accompanied only by harp arpeggios and vibraphone. It winds down, and winds down, and then: WHAM! A shock, a jolt, that very first chord from the quartet with a slight rhythmic variation that interrupts the calm and serene mood we are in. The orchestration and harmonies are only nods to the quartet’s, actually being very different, but the melody, here played in octaves between the two soloists, is unmistakable. FINALLY! The two soloists get to play this theme in all its glory, whaling away with all the emotion, passion and abandon that they can muster. At one point I even marked the section “Allegro VivoTempestoso”. My work continues with that opening theme being tossed between the soloists and very large tutti exclamations of it, each utterance becoming shorter and more intense, until there is a coda that runs, precipitously, to the end.