April 26, 2007
The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Ohio.

American composer Richard Sortomme, left, and Cleveland Orchestra principal violist Robert Vernon explore passages in Sortomme’s Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra in the Szell Library at Severance Hall. Vernon gives the work’s world premiere this weekend with the orchestra under music director Franz Welser-Möst.

Old friends and new sounds

By Joel Rozen
The arts, The Sarasota Herald Tribune

When Richard Sortomme learned his Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra would receive its regional premiere at this year’s Sarasota Music Festival, the news did not feel much like a professional coup.

It felt more like a homecoming.

An alumnus of the three-week festival, which kicks off its 43th anniversary season Monday, the New York composer first experienced Sarasota’s white sands in 1968, when he was still a violin student at Juilliard and the festival was still under the aegis of Paul Wolfe and New College of Florida.

Now, Sortomme is ready for a reunion. “That’s what makes this doubly wonderful,” he says.

Even better, he adds, his upcoming collaborators are also old pals.

Robert Vernon, the violist who advocated for the rhapsody in 2005 and debuted it with the Cleveland Orchestra the following April, 2007, first attended the festival the same year Sortomme did and continues to serve on the faculty.

And the festival’s current artistic director was once a frequent collaborator in the 1980s; the two would play chamber music gigs together.

“When Bob Vernon suggested the piece, Bob Levin didn’t know I’d devoted all my energies to composing the last 10 years,” Sortomme says. “He said, ‘My gosh, this is like a full circle!'”

Robert Levin, a piano virtuoso and Harvard-tenured Mozart scholar, is now marking his 29th season with the annual music festival and second at its helm. He says Sortomme’s score resonates with “sounds of great evocative beauty.”

“It’s music that has a message,” he says. He first heard the piece in early 2007 and was drawn in immediately.

“It’s music that will gratify and stimulate and certainly show that there’s no reason why new music cannot be richly communicative.”

In fact, Sortomme’s tonal, “unabashedly lush” concerto might in some ways reflect the festival’s current M.O.: to provide the 85 visiting music students with challenging new repertoire at their coaching sessions and master classes, and resident audiophiles with challenging — but duly pleasant — experiences in the recital hall.

“Although audiences in Sarasota tend to be somewhat conservative, it’s very important to me not simply to dispense the tried and true,” Levin says.

And this year, that means trotting out a surfeit of new performance items.

Counting the usual six Friday- and Saturday-evening Festival Concerts, three Thursday-afternoon faculty Artist Showcases and steady rotation of student rehearsals and recitals, 18 new pieces have been woven into the festival lineup, with unusual chamber and solo works by Carter, Rameau and Varèse sharing the bill with the pop hits of Rachmaninoff, Brahms and Beethoven.

Performers will bring them all to life at either the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center or the Sarasota Opera House.

Although this year’s roster of faculty talent features only a small handful of new names, Levin estimates that 25 percent of his staff was hired within the last five years — and, anyway, a fastidious hiring policy is his way of keeping the caliber high.

“We are not seeking to fix what ain’t broke,” he says. “So our needs for new faculty have to do with the availability of our present faculty.”

A number of old favorites will return to the 40-person team this year, including pianist John Perry, violinist/conductor Joseph Silverstein and flutist Carol Wincenc.

Of the newer generation, Tokyo String Quartet cellist Clive Greensmith will celebrate his second year at the festival, and violinist Federico Agostini of the Quintetto Fauré di Roma will devote his freshman year to keeping festival standards, as Levin puts it, as “dizzyingly” high as possible.

And fresh off his Metropolitan Opera conducting debut several weeks ago, Dante Anzolini will wield his baton for the festival’s finale performance June 21.

Sortomme will also be on hand that night to help Anzolini and Vernon introduce his piece.

“What I can say is that from the instrumentalist’s point of view,” he says, “it’s very difficult. But it’s eminently playable.”

With its long, arching melodies and regular cadences, Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra gathered favorable reviews in Cleveland for its tonality — a rarity in an age where more experimental, abstract musical palettes are what’s in style.

“It’s risky business to write tonal music,” says the composer wryly. “Nine times out of 10, you’ll be accused of being ‘derivative.’ That’s why so many composers are writing in this atonal, whacked-out, texturally driven style.

“As an adult, I had the luxury of saying I don’t care.”

Sortomme’s rebellion, in this case, features three cadenzas and several pyrotechnic flourishes in one movement, all driving toward a very soft note — a pianissimo — at the end.

What makes the piece even more unusual is the instrument it places front and center. The viola, always more of an inner-voice instrument, falls in a strange range to shoulder the melody line.

“Usually, the solo instruments in the string family are the violin and the cello,” acknowledges Vernon, who has played principal viola for the Cleveland Orchestra for 32 years. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

Still, Sortomme has come a long way since his early career as a composer, and in the last decade has written several works featuring instruments in a lower, darker-sounding range.

“I’m very comfortable in that tessitura,” he says. “And so far I think it’s my voice.”

Now, Sarasota is glad to have that voice back in town.