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Quincy Porter Viola Concerto by Aaron Conitz

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Drawing of Quincy Porter playing viola

During my final year of undergraduate at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I participated in a studio recital project that was to feature music by American composers written for viola. While there were some obvious choices, my colleagues and I encountered something of a vacancy in the viola repertoire: American composers. It was because of this endeavor that I discovered the rich and diverse repertoire written for the viola by Quincy Porter. Among Porter’s works, I found the Suite for Solo Viola (1930) to be extremely attractive; its rhythmic drive, lyrical nature, and extremely idiomatic feel was quite provocative. I performed the work at the studio recital in Cleveland and then once again as part of my first doctoral recital here at Rice University. Working on the suite was challenging and rewarding; his compositional style is engaging, technically demanding, and always fits the instrument well.

My first encounter with the music of Quincy Porter inspired further investigation. While preparing the Suite, I found myself turning to recordings of the piece, which lead to the discovery of more of his works for viola. Eliesha Nelson’s recording of Porter’s complete works for viola was particularly inspiring, not only because of the wonderful artistry and execution demonstrated by Eliesha, but also in the presentation of so many beautiful pieces that I had never encountered before. It was obvious to me that these pieces needed to be performed regularly. The first piece I would turn to was the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. I would like to first give a brief biographical sketch of Porter to provide some historical context and, second, to describe my experience preparing and performing the concerto.

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Cover of Eliesha Nelson’s Grammy-Award-winning CD of Porter’s music

Quincy Porter (1897–1966) was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to a musical family. His early interest in composition and viola performance brought him to pursue studies in composition and viola at Yale College (1919) and Yale School of Music (1921) with Horatio Parker and David Stanley Smith. In 1921 he received additional instruction from Vincent d’Indy while studying in Paris. Upon returning to America he began private composition lessons with Ernest Bloch; when Bloch was appointed the first president of the fledgling Cleveland Institute of Music, Porter followed him to Ohio. Porter’s involvement at the Institute was as a member of the theory faculty and violist in the Ribaupierre Quartet, the resident ensemble of CIM. Porter received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to return to Paris for three years (1928–31). Several sources claim that his compositional style came to fruition during the time spent in Paris; notable works were composed during this period including his String Quartet No. 3, Suite for Solo Viola, and the Violin Sonata No. 2. In 1932 Porter was appointed as professor of music at Vassar College; this position would mark the beginning of his career as a composition teacher and music educator. He remained at Vassar until 1938, when he was appointed dean of the faculty at New England Conservatory. Porter returned to Yale University in 1946 as professor of music and remained in this position until his retirement in 1965.

Porter’s compositional output represents an amalgamation of his American and French training, with a strong emphasis on contrapuntal line within a rhythmic and polytonal harmonic environment. The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra strongly represents all of these distinctive qualities. Written in 1948, the concerto was first performed and recorded by Paul Doktor and later would be taken up by several other notable performers including William Primrose, the piece’s dedicatee. Primrose described the work as “one of the most engaging of viola concertos,” although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention as other works written for Primrose. Howard Boatwright, in his eulogy for Porter, suggested that the work’s lack of attention was largely due to the fact that it was directly contemporaneous with the Bartók Viola Concerto, even though “in many respects the Porter is a more satisfying piece.”

The work is comprised of four movements; the first three are performed attacca, with an optional break between the third and final movements. It follows a non-standard progression of slow–fast–slow–fast. The first movement is extremely lyrical and flowing, characterized by somewhat unusual groupings of five and six, slurred in such a way that the divisions of pulse are obfuscated, making it difficult for both the violist and accompanist to have a sense of metric structure. Examine the opening passage of the first movement—

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Opening of the Porter Concerto

The rhapsodic gestures are rhythmic in nature but are given a more cantabile effect through the slurring (e.g., groupings across two sets of sextuplets). This particular feature is maintained throughout the movement; learning to feel the rhythmic gestures but also to establish a lyrical quality was definitely a challenge on an individual level, but also became problematic when putting it together with piano (Note: not a likely piece to be able to put together for a lesson in one rehearsal …).

The second movement opens with an extensive orchestral interlude, after which the viola enters with a more extroverted, but nonetheless lyrical, melody. I found that the largest challenge in approaching this movement was not learning and executing the notes, although they did pose some difficulty, but putting it to memory; its meandering, soulful melodic passages soar above the orchestra, but tend to have such similar harmonic quality that it becomes difficult in distinguishing where one phrase goes that another didn’t and vice versa.

Without a doubt the third movement is my favorite of the four. It has an intensely introverted quality that suits the viola so incredibly well. Porter provides a number of modal scales that serve as the harmonic underpinnings of the movement. An extended cadenza is at the heart of the movement; it displays a wide range of virtuosic passage work and double-stops. The cadenza has such juicy substance that was so much fun to work on and experiment with colors and effects.

The finale movement is a raucous, almost rustic, dance and is full of challenging scalar-passage work as well as ostinato-like double stops (reminiscent of the second movement of the solo suite). One particular passage was great fun to learn and also to play—the harmonies Porter travels through are wonderful!

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Page from the fourth movement of Porter’s Concerto

This delightful movement has enormous character and flair, providing the performer with ample opportunity to demonstrate playing of the highest order. Unlike most viola concertos, the Porter ends with a bang!

My journey through discovering, learning, and performing this concerto was incredibly fulfilling, not only musically but also technically. The work displays such a range of technical and musical demands while remaining tonally accessible in a way that is certainly comparable to the “Big Three” concertos. I highly encourage everyone to explore and revive the works of Quincy Porter, for he is certainly an American composer to be heard.


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