Introducing Ivo-Jan van der Werff

Where are you from?

I grew up in Letchworth, a small town 35 miles north of London in the UK, though my parents moved there from the Netherlands a few years before I was born, hence my Dutch name.

Why did you choose to play viola?

I started on the violin(!) age 11 but by the time I was 13 and attending the local Saturday morning music school, it was suggested I try the viola in a quartet. (I was already well over 6 feet tall and had long arms and large hands.) I never looked back; I loved the sound, sonority, and placement of the viola in the ensemble.

Where and with whom have you previously studied, and who is your current teacher?

My main teachers were Brian Masters (McNaghton Quartet), Margaret Major (Aeolian Quartet) at the Royal College of Music in London, a series of private lessons with Peter Schidlof (Amadeus Quartet), and finally Bruno Giuranna (Italian String Trio) in Detmold, Germany.

My current teachers are my students, who I constantly learn from every time I see them!

What or whom are your most important musical influences?

As a teenager I was totally taken (and still am) with the playing of David Oistrakh; his effortless playing, his wonderful sound and innate musicianship. I was a big fan of the Amadeus and Melos Quartets and of course listened to Primrose and Tertis.

The biggest direct influence on the viola was Bruno Giuranna who helped me develop a sound technique and musicianship based on wonderfully logical ideas and ideals, which eventually led to me writing my book, A Notebook for Viola Players, based very much on this philosophy.

What are your favorite viola pieces and why?

I’m a big fan of the Bloch 1919 Suite, though I’ve never performed it myself. The colors and stature of the piece are truly remarkable. The Shostakovich Sonata is just immense; the last movement has to be one of the most moving and intense pieces of music ever written.

As a quartet player for 30 years the viola parts in the late Beethoven Quartets take some beating for literally hitting the heights of truly great music.

What do you like about Rice and the Shepherd School of Music?

I have been teaching here since moving from the UK in 2007. It is a small, caring, supportive environment with a wonderful, friendly faculty, great students with an intensive work ethic, a fabulous orchestra, and lots of chamber music opportunities. It is also a wonderful campus with great buildings and open spaces. All in all, a fabulous place to work.

What was one of your best musical experiences?

Shortly after graduating from the RCM I performed Brahms First Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. The orchestra was on form, the conducting was amazingly intense; it was the highlight of my short period as an orchestral player.

The experience that stands out most though for me was not actually in a concert but in a quartet rehearsal. We had been working hard at the Cavatina from Beethoven’s Op.130, working on intonation, voicing, flow, and getting very frustrated with it. Our second fiddle made the bright suggestion that perhaps now was a good time to just play the whole movement through and not to get too bogged down in details. We raised our instruments and played. Even now, 25 years on, I can feel the goose bumps from that play through. When we finished there was dead silence. We all knew we had just experienced something huge, unique, and special. It was for all of us one of those defining moments when you touch on something really spiritual, one of those moments that make all the effort and hard work worthwhile.

Who is the maker of your instrument and bow?

I play on a composite viola, front and back by Giovanni Grancino c1690, ribs and scroll by Wilkinson from Beares, probably mid 1900s.

My bows are a fine Nicolas Maire c1860, a wonderful Pierre Simon also c1860, and a great modern bow, a copy of my Maire by Howard Green.

If you didn’t play the viola, what instrument would you play?

The Bassoon!!

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