I imagine that, for everyone, there is a certain angle or aspect of their job that gets them more juiced than everything else does. I am absurdly happy when collaborating with composers. I love the way professional & personal relationships evolve as the work coalesces and how, at the end of the day, I’ve contributed to a work of art’s existing in the first place. Being what my teachers have always categorized as a “recreative artist,” commissioning new music is pretty much the only way I can be involved in the historic reality of a work.
When Judd approached me about programming a concert around concept of virtuosity, I was struck by how variably this term can be applied. I ended up settling on works that I’ve commissioned over the past four years by Marcos Balter, Judd Greenstein, and Nico Muhly. All of the music I have programmed is appealing, evocative, and virtuosic, but the works, like their creators, are vastly different from each other.
The first piece Nico ever wrote for me (and, incidentally, my first commission) was this crazy duo for viola and cello that I played on one of my undergraduate recitals:
It was a really well-constructed and beautiful piece, but one of the most awkward, un-idiomatic things I had ever seen. Everything was, well, technically possible, in isolation, but he had basically strung all that stuff in a row, creating a sort of ninja warrior-style viola obstacle course.
The lovely thing about working with composers is that music doesn’t exist in this precious, untouchable format. We worked on the piece and came up with something playable, hard, beautiful, and musically whole. What was neat about that process, and so many subsequent ones, is that we both came out of it with a ton of really useful information.
Ever since then, I have been spending a good deal of time trying to sort out different degrees of hard. The question is now “is this hard because it’s painful and unreasonable, or just because I’ve not really done it before.” It’s shocking how much falls into that latter category. There’s this really specific type of harmonically precocious melodic writing that Nico does that I finally realized is not, abstractly, any harder than numerous etudes I’ve played, just singular and unfamiliar. With that in mind, Nico’s been writing me a series of etudes featuring all that stuff. I’m going to play two of them on Wednesday.
I met both Marcos and Judd when we were all fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center. I’m pretty sure that I commissioned both of them over bourbon at The Smokers Table behind the dormitory. Both of those sloppy commissions yielded some incredible, gorgeous, and virtuosic viola music.
Marcos’ compositional world is very specific. An insanely over-simplified description of his music is ‘manic, active, & pianissimo.’ He is virtuosic in his manipulation of color. When Marcos sends me a score, I honestly don’t really know, at first glance, what it’s going to sound like. His pallet is so nuanced, I’m really surprised by the resultant sonorities; he has me approaching my instrument in completely different ways than anyone else.
Judd’s piece, Escape, is, in its own way, an old-fashioned, Major Work for the viola. It is virtuosic both in ways that I am familiar with, (the piece requires both the creative flexibility and stamina required to successfully perform a solo Bach work), and that are new to me (pairing up 70’s minimal textures with pretty speedy harmonic rhythm, extensive groove-ish passages, fancy fingering, the list goes on…).
I feel unbelievably lucky to be the first violist to play all of this stuff. These, in my opinion, are seriously good pieces of music that’ll hopefully be around for quite a bit.