Anniversary Concert Revisits Classics and Commissions


This season marks my 40th year as the violist of the Juilliard String Quartet and as a faculty member of The Juilliard School. I thought that an appropriate way to celebrate would be to give a recital right here at the School featuring works that were written for me and some classics of the repertoire with which I have been long associated. The time span of the works I have chosen (1921-2007) gives a very good idea of the musical depth, technical scope, and special qualities of the viola repertoire of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Milton Babbitt with violist Samuel Rhodes (in a publicity shot for Rhodes's faculty recital in 1990, which included the premiere of Babbitt's Play It Again, Sam.

(Photo by David Archer)

Related Stories


Three of the works on the program—Three Sad Songs by Donald Martino, Play It Again, Sam by Milton Babbitt, and Figment IV by Elliott Carter—were written for me. The Martino was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the Library of Congress in Washington in 1993. For more than 40 years, the Juilliard String Quartet was in residence at the Library, and has played innumerable contemporary works (and especially American ones), many of which were world premieres. As a token of his appreciation, the chief of the Library’s music division at that time, James Pruett, offered to commission a solo work for each quartet member from a composer of our choice. Robert Mann chose Sophia Gubaidulina; Joel Smirnoff picked Robert Stern; Joel Krosnick asked his longtime friend, Ralph Shapey; and I, being tremendously impressed by the extremely complex but expressive Fourth Quartet of Martino, awarded him with the commission. The result was the Three Sad Songs, which I premiered at the Library in 1997 with pianist Thomas Sauer. The work features the meditative, reflective, and sometimes severe qualities of the viola, with the piano providing punctuation. The beginning of the third “Song” is a cadenza for viola, which gets quite excited for a moment and then dies away into a Webern-like finish.

The Babbitt  and Carter works represent the two most incredible gifts I have ever received. Both are shining examples of the mature styles of two of America’s greatest creative geniuses. I gave the premieres of Play It Again, Sam (1989) here at Juilliard in 1990 ... and I say “premieres” because, on that occasion, I took the direction stated in the title very literally and performed the piece twice: once before and once after intermission. Babbitt’s style is kaleidoscopic; he takes all the parameters of music—pitch, rhythm, dynamics, register, timbre, etc.—and continually mixes them in a way that creates ever-varied, subtly related, fantastic shapes that are shuffled and reshuffled. The effect is sometimes whimsical and sometimes agitated, like a small universe in constant motion. This kind of quick, ever-varying juxtaposition makes the work a formidable challenge for the player.

The Carter Figment IV was presented to me in the summer of 2007, and I was totally and overwhelmingly surprised to receive it. It is the fourth in a series of works for solo lower string instruments (Figments I and II are for cello, and III is for double bass). I gave the premiere in Paris at the Cité de la Musique in January 2008. There are three major elements that are developed: a quick, two-note figure that begins and ends the piece and appears as a motive at crucial moments; a long, intensely expressive line that weaves its way throughout; and flurries of passagework, which interrupt the melodic line from time to time.

The Stravinsky Elégie was composed in 1944 as a memorial for Alphonse Onnou, the first violinist of the Pro Arte Quartet, at the request of the quartet’s violist, Germain Prevost. The piece is a mournfully expressive contrapuntal combination of two lines, embellished by quasi-Baroque ornamentation. The Elégie is a demanding but beloved component of the viola repertoire.

There is an amusing extra-musical reason for my inclusion of the Stravinsky in a group with the Babbitt and Carter. Two seasons ago, James Levine, the music director of both the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, put together several performances of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. He had the idea of asking Carter (as the Soldier) and Babbitt (as the Devil) to take part in the performances as narrators. I am proud to present at my recital a metaphorical reunion of the Composer, the Soldier, and the Devil.

No recital of mine would be complete without a work by Paul Hindemith on the program. Hindemith contributed a tremendous amount to the instrument as a composer and performer, particularly from 1919 to 1940. Besides numerous other works composed during that period, he wrote three concertos, three sonatas for viola and piano, and four solo viola sonatas. The sonata that he himself favored (and performed on many occasions) is the one I have chosen: the Solo Viola Sonata, Op. 25, No. 1 (1922). The “trademark” of this work is the fourth of its five movements, marked Rasendes Zeitamss. Wild. Tonschonheit ist Nebensache. (“Frantic tempo. Wild. Tonal beauty is unimportant.”) It is about a minute and a half of unrelenting, almost adolescent rebellion against everything a refined musician stands for—and because it is so extreme, it succeeds! A large part of the reason for its effect is the contrast with the two deeply expressive slow movements that flank it on either side.

The final work on my program is a true gem, the Sonata for viola and piano (1959) by Hall Overton. Overton, a distinguished classical pianist, composer, and teacher, was even more renowned for his contributions to the world of jazz. He worked and played with many of the great jazz musicians of his time—most notably the great pianist, Thelonious Monk, whose piano works he arranged for full orchestra. Overton (who was a member of the Juilliard faculty until his tragic death in 1972) described his music as follows: “Since I am both a composer and active jazz musician, my work reflects both of these sources of musical experience. As a composer, my main interest has been in the exploration of non-systematic, intuitive harmony, both tonal and dissonant from which other elements—melody, counterpoint and form—can be derived.” That describes the style of the Sonata very well. Although the work is continuous, its sections correspond to the well known four-movement classical model: declamatory first movement; scherzo, featuring viola pizzicato against the staccato piano; a reflective slow movement; and a dynamic finale, which fades to silence at the end. The work was commissioned, performed, and recorded by my beloved teacher, Walter Trampler. There is a companion Sonata for cello and piano, which was composed for my late colleague from the Galimir Quartet, Charles McCracken. I am proud to renew the partnership of 15 years ago with my dear friend and colleague, pianist Robert McDonald, as we perform this unjustly neglected work.

Popular Columns

Recent Issues