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Introducing James Dunham

James DunhamWhere are you from?

I was born in Washington, D.C., and, from 6–10 years old, my Diplomat father took us to The Hague, Holland. We later moved to Northfield, MN (Carleton College), and my final two years of High School were at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Clearly the beginning of my “walkabout,” which has taken me to Los Angeles; Rochester, NY; Boston; and now Houston!

Are you a current Rice student? If not, what is your association with Rice?

Professor of Viola and Chamber Music since 2001 and Co-Director of the Master of Music in String Quartet program.

Why did you choose to play viola?

I didn’t. The viola chose me. Violin through High School (IAA), and I began secondary viola at Interlochen my senior year. (Raymond Stillwell was the viola teacher then and was very generous to me.) I continued to play both instruments and was a Tanglewood Fellow the summer of my freshman year. I applied on violin and viola . . . guess which they chose . . .? And I had a GREAT time! Viola clearly was for me: the tone, the size, the role, the character; all suited me. As I said: IT chose ME!

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

Important teachers for me were often my mentors:

David Schwartz: formerly Yale String Quartet, later multiple MVP in the L.A. Studios;

Alan de Veritch: co-principal, L.A. Philharmonic;

Jan Hlinka: co-principal, L.A. Philharmonic;

William Primrose: one LONG, pivotal lesson (set up for me thanks to his former student, Alan de Veritch!).

What or whom are your most important musical influences?

Mischa Schneider: cellist, Budapest Quartet; coached virtually every piece the Sequoia Quartet played, including producing our recording of the two Prokofiev Quartets for Nonesuch!;

Felix Galimir: Preeminent violinist, mentor, quartet leader, Artist;

Robert Mann: coached Sequoia Quartet when in Los Angeles;

Eugene Lehner: violist of the Kolisch Quartet, my Tanglewood coach for 2 summers;

Summer Festival influences: Tanglewood, Marlboro (and Chestnut Hill Concerts, CT,

where I was a resident artist during my 20s)—too many great artists/mentors to list.

What are your favorite viola pieces and why?

Britten: Lachrymae. I love that it’s “Variations & a Theme”; perfect balance of pacing, texture, imagination, sonority.

Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano. Incredible emotional range, profound character, and his courage to        make his final musical statement, after a life filled with uncertainty and strife, a C Major triad.

Ideally where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Alive! (Sorry: just being silly!)

Who is the maker of your instrument and bow?

I am fortunate to have a great Gasparo da Salò viola, c. 1585. It found me when I was not quite 24 years old and just barely able to afford it. Since that time, my entire career has been with this instrument: I am the caretaker during my lifetime, keeping it ready for the next steward who will care for it after me! Interestingly, many years after I bought it, I was working with a colleague who did a total double-take when she saw this instrument: “That’s Miss Tuttle’s viola!!” She was certain that, when she studied with the great Karen Tuttle, this was her viola! Several more years later, I was performing in a mini-festival at Merkin Hall in NYC, and Karen Tuttle came back stage. I approached her, introduced myself, and asked if this viola looked familiar. She gave it a sharp-eyed look and stated: “That’s my viola!” After a lively conversation about it, she added with no little amusement: “I bet you paid more than I got!” I had to admit this was no doubt the case!

This viola is mentioned in several books: the classic by Maurice Riley as well as a lovely small one by Kyozo Watanabe of the Cremona Violin Shop in Los Angeles. It is also highlighted in a recent outstanding volume featuring Maggini and Gaspar titled 1520–1724 Liutia in Brescia (Eric Blot Editioni). Christopher Reuning of Reuning and Sons in Boston helped coordinate it and served on the Scientific Committee of the Exhibition on which this book is based. (The pictures of “my” Gaspar begin on page 36!) The book is incredible, and all the photos are stunning.

I confess that, once I had this viola in my possession, it occurred to me that there was bad news to coincide with the good. After playing this great instrument, if there were any problems, I could never again blame the instrument: it was now 100% my responsibility!!

Best awkward stand-partner/ orchestra/ audition experience?

Too many to enumerate, but here are two.

1) As I was beginning my professional work in Los Angeles, the time came to join the Musician’s Union Local #47. I was instructed to come to the union building for an audition. I dutifully arrived and was led to a small room by two rather bored musicians. When I opened the Bach Suites on the provided stand, they said in astonishment, “You read music!” I replied, “Well, of course!” and showed them my viola. “Well,” they said, “we thought you were a guitarist, and they all come in playing by ear thinking they can get work here! Just play a little bit: you’ll be fine!”

2) I was fortunate to do a great deal of motion picture work in L.A. when I lived there, and one day the conductor turned to the viola section and asked our principal: “What note do the violas have here, concert pitch?” How do you explain that the alto clef does not indicate the viola is a transposing instrument??

Thanks for reading this blog: we are so fortunate to play this beautiful instrument with its many colors, emotions, characters, and roles!


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