Archive for the ‘Friday’ Category

A Final Fanfare

Welcome to the final viola studio blog from the Shepherd School of Music.

The combined viola studios at Rice

The combined viola studios at Rice

We would like to thank all of you who have followed our blog throughout the academic year and hope you have found it as interesting and stimulating to read as we have in thinking and writing about all things related to the viola! It has been a great privilege to offer our thoughts to you, and we would like to sincerely thank the American Viola Society for giving us this opportunity. Special thanks must go to David Bynog, who has collated our work each week and posted it on the AVS web page.

We would also like to thank Joan DerHovsepian for her invaluable contributions on playing and preparing orchestral excerpts and to all of our students and alums who have spent time preparing posts on such a wide variety of viola related topics.

A final, huge thanks must go to our wonderful TA’s, Stephanie Mientka and Jarita Ng, for making sure all topics were covered, that our posts were written on time, and for sending them on to David Bynog.

As a final gift we have embedded a video of a work we played recently at a Shepherd School recital with the combined viola studios and some special guests. The concert focused on the fact that we had some rather special instruments on stage, basically three Giovanni Grancino violas from the late 1600s and a Gasparo da Salò viola from 1585! Added to the mix was a double bass, also by Grancino. Our guest violists were Kathryn Plummer and Aloysia Friedmann alongside Professor of Bass at Rice, Paul Ellison. Another very special guest, whom we persuaded to play as she was coming to the concert anyway, was Kathryn Steely from Baylor University! The work, an arrangement by Sam Bergman—member of the Minnesota Orchestra—was Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (or Common Violist, as we put in the program). It was a fun concert, which included viola duos, trios, quartets, and the Gordon Jacob octet before the grand finale offered here.


Wishing all violists out there every success, now and for the future!

Ivo van Der Werff and James Dunham


Bloch’s Suite Hébraïque – Edward Schenkman

For my final blog post, I wanted to write about one my favorite viola pieces of all time: Suite Hébraïque, by Ernest Bloch. I have a strong attachment to this piece and was fortunate enough to play the first movement with the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra as a senior in high school.

One of the most interesting facts about Ernest Bloch that I discovered while playing his piece was that he was not in fact Jewish. His composition style was, however, influenced by Mahler, who was Jewish, which is why much of Bloch’s music incorporates Jewish elements. One example is his use of augmented seconds that appear throughout the Suite Hébraïque, which are characteristic of klezmer music.

Suite Hébraïque was composed for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as a token of appreciation for a concert in Bloch’s honor. There were originally five separate pieces: a rhapsody, three processionals, and a meditation. The publisher released the processional and the meditation as separate pieces and combined the other three into what is now the Suite Hébraïque.

The first movement is written in an improvisatory style that conjures up a gypsy-like atmosphere. A cadenza-like passage in the middle marks the emotional climax of the piece, which slowly winds down to a resigned conclusion. The second movement opens with a march rhythm from the harp and pizzicato strings, which ushers in the viola with a confident Phrygian melody. The third movement, another processional, was renamed Affirmation and is characterized by sprightly dotted rhythms and frequent use of augmented seconds.

This first solo performance with an orchestra was an incredible experience for me. I learned that the anxiety that I felt leading up to the performance only enhanced the energy and musical connection I felt on stage. I hope to one day perform this masterpiece with a more informed perspective and improved technical ability.

A Case for the Schnittke Concerto by Jill Valentine

I was riding in the car once with a friend who loves classical music. She had volumes in her car with titles like Classical Chill Favorites, Serenity Classical, and 100 Classics for Relaxation. A dose of Zen in the car was how she survived her daily grind. I was happy to take off the analytical ears myself and enjoy our drive as well. Besides a little too much reverb, it was a well-rounded sampling of major works musicians know well and audiences always love. But it got me thinking.

I had my own music on shuffle once on the highway, and appallingly, after a Jack Johnson track, came the second movement of the Schnittke Viola Concerto. As the buzz kill subsided, I considered what a Classical Not Chill or 100 Best Overwhelming Classical Pieces collection would have on it and how well it would sell. Very often I’ve observed that musicians’ lists of favorite pieces don’t include many purely “relaxing” works. We seem to love the works that emotionally exhaust us from listening, be it from the level of romantic emotion, struggle, despair, joy, etc.

If you’re looking for something to add to that playlist, I would recommend the Schnittke highly.

Nobody should be able to drive down the open road with the windows down loving life while listening to this concerto, but the Schnittke is not made for that. I would argue that it’s made not only to disturb you, but to also make you laugh (uncomfortably) and to drain your energy. It’s one of those rare works when a composer pours his autobiography and his fear wholeheartedly into it, and a work where the viola‘s “weakness,” especially in projection, is rhetorically valuable in itself. Schnittke wrote the concerto in the 1980s while he suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes that eventually took his life. He essentially died and lived to write about it, knowing his time thereafter was limited. It reminds me a lot of the Bartók concerto in that way, but in Schnittke‘s case, we know this is him talking the entire time, and we see his own death in his own words at the end of the piece.

The three-movement rollercoaster is all levels of disturbing and heartbreaking, rich with “should-I-be-laughing” humor and very toneful throughout. It is’‘t serial, and it has enough Romantic influence that I’‘s accessible once you get past the intensity. There’s a melody at the onset, and it even comes back a few times!

The concerto is incredibly difficult to play in many respects. I don’t want to think about how long I have worked on it, and I still can’t play it. But I’ll put it down for a few years and try it again later for sure.

Technical problems include the typical modern-music issues like large jumps, connecting disjunct lines, extended left-hand technique, and endurance with minimalist rhythms that tire your bow arm. Here are some clippings to illustrate:


This is an example of the disjunct, but very connected phrases that happen a lot in the outer movements, which involve big shifts, string crossings, and double stops with awkward replacements. This is also one of the most beautiful moments in the piece, if you ask me 🙂

Not only are the technical aspects challenging, but memorization is also incredibly difficult. The outer movements have many long notes that extend over mixed-meter bars, so anyone with photographic memory will have a huge advantage. I struggled with memorizing the order of time signatures/rests as much as the notes and rhythms themselves.


This note at rehearsal 19 lasts for many beats over many meter changes, and the piano plays straight quarter notes the entire time. It’s very easy to lose count! Cues, such as the (blank) bar where the piano rests, are a good things to have.

The second movement is an overload of chords and notes. Visually, some pages look like a black wall. The chords move in patterns that make it easy to skip one or play one too many times. It’s the most terrifying movement to play without the music, especially the passages that have 16th-note chord accompaniment.


Here’s the first page of the second movement. There are three or four more pages later in the movement that look very much like this one. The notes aren’t hard, but there are a lot, and every restatement has a slight pattern differences.

After you’ve learned the piece by memory (congratulations!!) comes the most important element. You need to sell this piece, a composer’s 40-minute lament over his own looming death. He uses the weak registers of the viola to show his own frailty, the shrill upper register to show himself screaming. Every shortcoming the viola has is used for what it is, and the very human element that results from that is chilling. After I played it in a recital, a friend from the audience said (as a compliment, he assured me) that he “wanted to walk out several times.” Another friend described it as a car crash you couldn’t look away from. While you’re pouring yourself all over the stage and your audience is shifting around uncomfortably, try to save enough energy to make it through the piece, because the structure provides no time for rest. The movements get progressively longer and harder. The second movement has all the notes, but in my experience the third movement is the hardest, because when you come off of the exhausting second movement, rather than relaxing, you have to regroup and get through the longest, slowest, most emotional movement yet.

I’m making it sound horrible. And it is, but it’s worthwhile. We play pieces like this and wonder why we love them so much, when they’re so painful for all parties involved. It’s an acquired taste, I guess, and of course not everyone will like it. But I highly recommend the Schnittke, especially if you are looking for something on the darker side of the repertoire. It won’t make it onto your car-jams or study playlist, and because of its structure it probably wouldn’t bode well in an audition. But the Schnittke will definitely challenge you and your listeners and invite you to appreciate a different kind of “beautiful” in music.

Psychological Inquisition

by Ashley Pelton

We often talk about performance anxiety and what mechanisms we can use to cope with it; breathing, feeling grounded, using natural weight to release into the string, etc. However, I would like to propose that instead of trying to mask the symptoms and considering techniques that don’t often work, we need to attack this problem from the other side. WHY are we feeling this way, and what thoughts are holding us back from playing to our true potential?

About a week ago, I gave my last recital at Rice. As for many people, the preparation was stressful, my nerves would kick in randomly, and I generally felt anxious in the week leading up to it. For myself, I find that there is only so much I can do to fight back against these natural reactions. Instead, I have to search deeper for why I am anxious and approach it from the place in which the anxiety is rooted.

If you feel that purely masking the anxiety symptoms (whether with beta blockers or different coping techniques) isn’t working for you or only helps temporarily, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions and dig a little deeper into your thoughts:

(In no specific order)
• What does this performance mean in the scheme of life? Am I worried this performance will define my playing for the rest of my life?
• Who am I looking for validation and assurance from, and why? (Professor, friends, peers, colleagues, etc.)
• Who am I trying to impress or prove something to, and why?
• What is the worst thing that will happen if I make mistakes or if everything doesn’t go as planned?
• What do I want to get out of the recital? What will make me feel accomplished?
• What are my goals for this specific performance and this preparation process?
• Are there specific people who make me nervous, and why?
• Who can I trust and confide in when I have these thoughts that hold me back from playing my best?
• Who can I trust to advocate for me and comfort me, but also give me constructive feedback for improvement?

The truth is that we are our own worst critics. The people who come to our recitals and performances want to support us, want to enjoy the music. We will always strive for more and keep trying to improve ourselves, but it is so important to only compare us to ourselves and evaluate our performances in the context of our own personal growth.

Focus on the celebration of your hard work and know that it is only just another stepping-stone to what is to come.

Breaking Out of Isolation

By Joan DerHovsepian

0314a prison photo

As musicians, we can suffer from a kind of self-imposed incarceration. We isolate ourselves and get locked into certain ways of trying to master the orchestral excerpts. The old “favorites” we see on every audition require a commitment of weeks, months, and years (even decades!), devoting ourselves entirely to these succinct passages. With the incredibly high technical standard being met nowadays in orchestral auditions, there is the impression (close to a reality?) that we need to be note-perfect, stroke-perfect. We look inward to the smallest details and spend countless hours alone in the practice room trying to achieve flawlessness. For most of us mere mortals, there is no way to bypass this long and winding road to consistency. It’s how we physically train our bodies to perform difficult feats on cue. It also gives us the time needed to develop our opinions and interpretations in a natural way. Yes, the orchestral excerpts are technically difficult. But I remind the rep students weekly that the solo repertoire they play every day contains harder pyrotechnical demands. The chamber music they are performing asks for highly specialized finesse and subtlety. So let’s not get stuck in a practice rut with the excerpts, working on the same issues and challenges, trying to get things “just right” without a feeling of progress or inspiration. We can free ourselves from these musical bars of isolated orchestral excerpts, separated from the context in which they live. It’s time to break out of isolation. Here’s my plan:

When you learn a piece of chamber music, you don’t just learn the important viola passages, you learn the entire piece.

Thorough study of an orchestral audition list is no different. The audition candidate who covers all their bases will stand out to a committee. Check out the orchestral score. Listen to and learn the entire symphony or tone poem. How does your part fit in with the rest of the strings? The winds? Are you doubled by a flute, trombone, or percussion?  Might another instrumentalist playing a similar part be on your committee, listening for specific qualities in your playing? What is the underlying rhythm for the passage, and what instruments generate it? What is your role and function? Now put your function to practical use. Turn on your favorite recording and play along. I love to do this when learning both traditional chamber music and orchestral works. Step into the excitement of the middle of the orchestra. This could also give you insight into any tendencies or pitfalls that might be lurking within a passage.

Finding parallels between your orchestral excerpts and other pieces by the same composers can help draw conclusions.

For example, finding a natural rhythmic feel to the dotted figures of Brahms’s Haydn Variation VII can be a challenge. One day, while working with a student on this movement, we compared the opening of Variation VII with the opening of the 3rd movement of Brahms’s Quartet, Op. 67 in B-flat major, written just two years after the Haydn Variations. Although the quartet is written in 3/4 time and the Variation in 6/8 with a different character indication, the essence of the two rhythmic figures is the same, falling somewhere between a strictly written rhythm and a double dotted one. Finding an alternate setting for this same rhythmic theme in the viola part can give us another context for its natural rhythmic flow, leading to a more organic understanding when played as an excerpt.

Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56

0314b example1

Brahms String Quartet No. 3, Op. 67, mvt. 3

0314c example2

Now, go one step further:

Imagine what role and personality a particular viola excerpt would take on if it were within the environment of a string quartet, perhaps not even played by the viola.

Could our Mozart #35 excerpt from the 1st movement serve as the cello part of a Mozart quartet?  What type of sound and articulation would the cellist from your favorite string quartet use while playing that? How about the high lyrical passage from the 1st mvt. of Shostakovich #5? Would we find more freedom of creativity if we thought of it as the 1st violin part of a Shostakovich string quartet? Can you imagine how their vibrato would be fully incorporated into the musical line as they played in their upper register? Could our excerpt at no. 77 in Ein Heldenleben be the solo horn part of another Strauss horn concerto?!

Imagine you are performing with others and they are counting on you to give clear physical cues.

How would one move, lead, and cue when playing and performing these passages as a principal violist or as the violist of a string quartet? For me, working out a natural way to physically show the important musical features can further shape and define my own interpretation, even when I’m playing alone.

In a string quartet we are the sole violist, entirely responsible for creating character of sound in our part.

When playing within an orchestra section, we have help creating character, and there is the necessity to blend. However, standing behind the audition screen it’s just us. We are alone and fully responsible for conveying the character of not only the viola part, but the entire orchestra—and in only a few short bars!  A common pitfall when performing tutti excerpts is trying too hard to have a blended section sound.  We are not responsible for making more than one violist’s share of the volume. We do need to assume full authority for the character. Showing quality, maturity, and an individual voice is our goal.

We first take care to honor everything we see on the page: the viola part AND the score. Next, we turn our awareness to tradition: knowing what has been done in the past is an integral part of making good decisions. Do a lot of listening. Remember what you first thought and loved about the piece (before you stripped it down to the nuts and bolts). After that, break out into the world of creative ideas. This will help sustain your attention and fuel your sense of discovery through countless practice hours. The excitement of presenting a well thought out interpretation and focusing on new musical goals in “old rep.” is the best way I have found to move on and up from plateaus. A committee may be impressed with a nearly note- and rhythm-perfect excerpt; certainly no easy feat. But that’s not going to excite and move them. And how will that set you apart from the rest of the note-perfect multitude? Show a quality and depth that comes from truly searching in a greater context, from the wide set of experiences you already know. That depth is clearly heard, even behind the isolating audition screen; it is the reason they will fall in love with your playing. So break out of your excerpt isolation! Who’s with me?!

Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra Tour

by Jarita Ng and Stephanie Mientka

Ask any Shepherd School student what he or she likes about the school, and we are pretty confident that one of the responses would be along the line of, “I love orchestra,” and “the orchestras are awesome.” You get the picture.

There are two orchestras at the Shepherd School—Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra and Shepherd School Chamber Orchestra. Woodwind, brass, and percussion players rotate between the orchestras every concert; string players stay in either orchestra for the semester. We have rehearsals three times a week. Standard. (Unless you are comparing that with the orchestra programs at Cleveland Institute of Music, Curtis Institute of Music, the Juilliard School, or other schools that have rehearsals the week or two before a concert, then the Shepherd School program is pretty intense.)

What was not so standard this year was the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra Debut Tour that took place in February. There were two concerts at school before the tour, one at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore on February 15, and one at Carnegie Hall in New York on February 19. It was the first-ever tour that the Shepherd School Orchestra did. We enjoyed the musical experience as much as we enjoyed the friendship shared while traveling, eating, sightseeing, hanging out, and of course working through the endless rehearsals together. Here’s a glimpse of the tour:

Friday, February 14
Houston to Washington, D.C.

What could possibly be a better way to start Valentine’s Day other than meeting up with your friends at 5:30 a.m. after a long concert the night before? We flew to Baltimore on a chartered plane. TSA agents came to the school to do the security check, which was a new experience for most of us!

Despite the fact that our concert was the next day in Baltimore, we stayed at a hotel a block away from the Smithsonian. After we checked into our rooms in the afternoon, some of us almost immediately ventured to the museums. (Jarita: I practiced a little, out of guilt.) We had a free evening in D.C., but we didn’t do anything crazy knowing that the concert was the next day. Although we did decide to record the 4th movement of Mozart’s 35th symphony as a group to send to our wonderful orchestra repertoire teacher, Joan DerHovsepian, as a Valentine’s Day present!


Hanging out bright (actually dark) and early at Shepherd School lobby Photo credit: Rice University


We learned how to do the Rice University owl sign 10 seconds before this was taken. Alex (front left) doesn’t look that happy in here. Photo credit: Rice University

Saturday, February 15
Concert in Baltimore

We left D.C. in the morning to travel an hour to Baltimore. When we arrived we had a simple lunch, then some free time before the dress rehearsal. We hung out, and some of us decided to start a massage train, which isn’t exactly the most efficient and relaxing way of getting a massage. But hey, it did the job.

Some Shepherd faculty members were at the rehearsal. Leone Buyse (flute), Michael Webster (clarinet), Kenneth Goldsmith (violin), and some Rice Alumni who play in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra came to support us. We are fortunate to have such dedicated faculty!

The concert program for this evening was:
Hector Berlioz: Le corsair, Op. 21
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Soloist: Jon Kimura Parker
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Concerts are almost always more fun to play—especially after rehearsing so much and getting to know the pieces well—as they can be spontaneous in a performance. In the famous 18th Variation in Rachmaninoff before the last chord, Mr. Parker did something different. Everyone’s breath was taken away for what seemed like forever before Mr. Parker played the final chord. It was magical. (Here’s a link to a recording of the variation, played by Mikhail Pletnev and the Berlin Philharmonic. Wish we had a recording of the concert so you would know what we mean!)

Jarita: The most memorable moment of the concert, aside from the goose bump-inducing time in the Rachmaninoff, was how my D and G string pegs slipped, and my strings were completely loose one line before my solo in the fifth movement of Bartók. There was not enough time to tune them back, and my mind was running in 20 different directions, which is why I didn’t exchange my viola with my stand-partner, Aaron Conitz, sooner than I did. The result was me playing three notes successfully on the A string, and the rest was attempted, but nothing came out. Right after that, I gave my viola to Aaron who, very purposefully, walked off stage and came back within a page of music. He’s my hero!

Stephanie: During our hour-long bus ride to Baltimore I couldn’t believe how much energy there was on my bus. We had spent five weeks preparing and rehearsing for the tour, and the day was finally here. I can definitely say we were more than ready to perform! The Meyerhoff was such a gorgeous hall, and it was an honor to perform there. I remember first walking on stage for the dress rehearsal and just feeling totally blown away. There was so much excitement in the air that the dress rehearsal felt like a performance! We had a lot of downtime before the concert, and by the time the clock struck 7:30 p.m. everyone was ready to go. This is one of those performance experiences of a lifetime, and no one in the orchestra will ever forget that night. As of today, this was one of the best musical experiences of my life, and I know so many orchestra members that would agree.


Having fun in a massage train before dress rehearsal Photo credit: Antoinette Gan


Dress rehearsal in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Photo credit: Rice University


The viola section after the concert (L to R, back: Marie-Elyse Badeau, Rachel Li, Yvonne Smith, Daniel Wang; front: Chi Lee, Leah Gastler, Jill Valentine, Meredith Kufchak, Jarita Ng, Blake Turner, Stephanie Mientka, Aaron Conitz) Photo credit: Stephanie Mientka


Larry Rachleff and Jon Kimura Parker after the concert Photo credit: Rice University

Sunday, February 16
Free day in Washington, D.C.

Free day in D.C. means museum day. Most of us went to the Smithsonian museums, some of us to the memorials or the White House, among other tourist places. In the evening more than half of the violists went out to an Irish pub in Georgetown. It was such a treat for us to be able to spend the day seeing national monuments and visiting world-renowned museums. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend our day off. The museums that day were packed with Rice owls!


Violinists (L to R) Eugeniu Ceremus, Anastasia Sukhopara, Jordan Koransky, and Christiano Rodrigues at the National Gallery of Art Photo credit: Boson Mo


Marie-Elyse and Jill having the time of their life in front of the National Monument Photo credit: Chi Lee


Violists at the Irish pub; we know how to have fun (clockwise starting with Daniel, Jarita, Chi, Jill, Stephanie, Rachel, Marie-Elyse) Photo credit: Stephanie Mientka

Monday, February 17
Washington, D.C. to New York City

We had an early start. We left at 8:00 a.m. to take the bus for five hours to the DiMenna Center in New York City for a rehearsal. We were so exhausted from the walking and fun the day before that most of us slept during a large portion of the ride. After we arrived at the rehearsal space, we had some lunch and started warming up. However, the truck that was responsible for transporting the basses and the box of music for the whole orchestra was not there when the rehearsal was supposed to start! We had no idea why it wasn’t there, but it was 1.5 hours late.

Despite the instruments and music arriving late, we had a good rehearsal and some in-music entertainment from our conductor Larry Rachleff, when he danced to the music of Christopher Rouse’s Violin Concerto while Cho-Liang Lin was playing the extremely difficult cadenza. At the end of the cadenza, Mr. Lin suddenly stopped playing, while trying to catch his breath from laughing because Mr. Rachleff’s dance was hilarious; he “face-palmed” and said, “Sorry, I lost it!” Told you that orchestra was awesome!

We had the evening off. But knowing that the Carnegie Hall concert was the next day, we took some much needed rest.


Cho-Liang Lin, “Sorry, I lost it!” and Mr. Rachleff pretending it’s not his fault Photo credit: Dorothy Ro


(Most of) Our wonderful viola section before our rehearsal at DiMenna Center! From front to back: Jarita, Blake, Leah, Meredith, Rachel, Jill, Chi, Yvonne, Marie-Elyse Photo credit: Stephanie Mientka

Tuesday, February 19
Concert in New York City

The day we’d all been waiting for was here! Carnegie Hall, New York City. One of the most famous halls in the world, and our Rice University Shepherd School of Music Orchestra had the privilege and the honor of performing there. After a good night of sleep, we all walked across the street from our hotel and entered Carnegie through the stage door.


Walking from our hotel to Carnegie. (Aaron and Jarita) Photo Credit: Stephanie Mientka

We had about a two-hour rehearsal in the beautiful hall, and we were honored again to have so many of our amazing faculty there listening and offering advice, including one of our viola professors, James Dunham!


Our wonderful viola section! (Front Row, L to R: James Dunham, Jarita Ng, Rachel Li, Meredith Kufchak, Yvonne Smith, Daniel Wang; Back row, L to R: Jill Valentine, Aaron Conitz, Blake Turner, Leah Gastler, Marie-Elyse Badeau, Chi Lee, Stephanie Mientka.) Photo Credit: Rice University

Carnegie is the type of hall where an orchestra can explore another dimension of dynamics and color. Maestro Rachleff spent this rehearsal not rehearsing the music, but pushing the orchestra to explore the new sound world we were playing in. Every moment spent in that hall was precious time, and I hope (of course!) that all of us will have the honor again, but it is a rare honor.

That evening our concert began promptly at 8:00 p.m. When I (Stephanie) walked out on stage, I was pleasantly surprised by the large number of audience members that were already in the hall. As 8:00 p.m. drew closer, more and more people filled the seats. I saw so many friends, family, and faculty among the general public there to support all of us. How special is it to perform in one of the world’s best halls and be surrounded by so many people who care about you?

The concert program for this evening was:
Hector Berlioz: Le corsair, Op. 21
Christopher Rouse: Violin Concerto
Soloist: Cho-Liang Lin
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

The Rouse Violin Concerto was definitely a challenge to play, but such a wonderful addition to the program. It was a piece that took a lot of time to put together, but the end result was so powerful. Stephanie had the honor of bumping into Mr. Rouse himself while taking the elevator before the concert! What a nice man and fantastic composer.

At 8:00 p.m. Maestro Larry Rachleff walked out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall and conducted one of the best concerts our orchestra has ever played. (And this time Jarita’s pegs didn’t slip at all! However, Blake’s did. Speaking of viola jokes . . .)

After the concert there was a wonderful reception in the Museum Room in Carnegie, and there were many friends, faculty, family, and Rice Alum waiting there to congratulate all of us. A night none of us will ever forget!


Carnegie Hall Performance, February 19, 2014 Photo credit: Yvonne Pan

Wednesday, February 20

Stephanie: The day after our concert at Carnegie Hall was an entirely free day in New York City, which is such a treat for us. I was also really impressed by how people chose to spend their day. I decided to check out MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) with a good friend from the City, and I am not kidding, I saw half the orchestra there! I’ve had the great honor to play music with such amazing people, in and out. Jarita spent her day trying violas at various shops around the city, which was another great way to spend the day! (Jarita: but I got a headache at the end from trying all the violas. I think I tried at least fifteen, at two different shops.) It was a great day for everyone, but we all knew that the trip was ultimately coming to end.

Thursday, February 21

Bright and early at 7:00 a.m. we all met in the lobby of our hotel to begin the trek back to Texas. Everyone was more than exhausted from the week’s adventures, and most people slept immediately upon boarding the bus, and then the plane home.


Headed back to Texas! (Park Central Hotel, Manhattan, New York) Photo Credit: Stephanie Mientka


Our chartered plane from United Photo Credit: Stephanie Mientka

On the evening of February 21 at 8:00 p.m., the Shepherd students who stayed home performed a “conductor-less” concert.

The program included:
Mendelssohn: The Herbrides, Op. 26, “Fingal’s Cave”
Stravinsky: Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550

The students spent a week working with three members from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and prepared a completely conductor-less concert. They also put the entire program together in only one week, which was very impressive and inspiring. It was such a nice homecoming for us to arrive and hear a wonderful concert performed by fellow Rice students. The communication among the musicians on stage was superb. They looked like they were having fun without a conductor (oops)! The concert was absolutely fantastic!

The Chamber Orchestra concert concluded our week-long music adventure. Life bounced back to normal immediately on Friday with classes, lessons, and chamber-music rehearsals, but with many memories to savor.

Closing reflections

Stephanie: The week-long tour went by in a whirlwind, but we all came home forever changed by the experiences we had, the new friends we made, and most importantly the musical experiences that we had and shared with our wonderful audiences. It was such an honor to be a part of such an amazing ensemble of musicians. The person and place to thank for that is Maestro Larry Rachleff and the Shepherd School of Music. Without the amazing orchestral program at the Shepherd School, we would not have received the immense amount of community and donor support that made this trip possible. Thank you all so much for giving us this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Jarita: At the end of the dress rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, Mr. Rachleff, after a 15-second long silence that he gave to the orchestra and himself, expressed his gratitude; made sure we understood that the tour was something special to ourselves and to him; and reminded us to take “mental snapshots” that evening. It was a bittersweet moment knowing that it was close to the end. Along the tour, I took in and remembered as many moments as possible—the time and experiences shared with old and new friends, the musical experiences, and just being in the moment doing what we love inside and outside of music. It was a privilege to have had this experience. I am extremely grateful to the school, donors, staff, faculty, administrators, and fellow colleagues for making the tour possible; it is one of my best experiences yet in life.

Thoughts on Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher

By Marie-Elyse Badeau

Though condemned by the Nazi party, or maybe because of that very fact, Paul Hindemith’s music participated greatly in the great changes happening in arts during the twentieth century. His numerous pedagogical and theoretical writings contributed to a new form of music practice and accompanied more than one musician’s path to professional life. Hindemith’s compositions hold an important place in many instruments’ repertoire, and the viola, which he used to play as a soloist, particularly benefited from his attention as a composer. It is for his great contribution to the repertoire of my instrument and his diversity as a composer that Hindemith stands by far as one of my favorite composers. For these same reasons, I chose to introduce his famous concerto for viola and orchestra, Der Schwanendreher, especially the first movement, as a blog post from the studio.

First, because I think it is essential for a musician to know the background of a composer, let me talk about Hindemith himself. Born in Hanau, Germany, in 1895, Hindemith began his musical apprenticeship at an early age on the violin. His immense talent earned him a full scholarship to the Hochschule in Frankfurt. Later, he worked as concertmaster of the opera of Frankfurt and founded with his brother the Amar quartet. In this quartet, Hindemith initiated himself to the position and sound of the viola, the instrument that would make him known as an international soloist later on. After fleeing Germany during World War II, Hindemith returned to his native country, dying there in December 1963, after a life full of playing, writing, composing and conducting.

As for his compositional style, though he was never tempted by his contemporaries’ technique of serialism, Hindemith is nonetheless a modern and “anti-Romantic” composer. In all his compositions, counterpoint and structural identity are his signature as well as clear, diatonic melodies accompanied by progressions of chords beyond the realm of common-practice era harmonies. In fact, the German composer is more inspired by the compositional techniques of the Baroque era than the Classical, though Hindemith still features some neo-classical aspects in his music. Rhythmic energy is also characteristic of Hindemith’s music. It represents the industrial era in which Hindemith lived and is often called Motorik, in reference to the sound of the new motors invading the new century. Like these motors, the rhythms in Hindemith’s music are percussive and repetitive, like an obsessive ostinato. In spite of their many dissonances, his compositions stay tonal and tend to develop more and more little motives.

Der Schwanendreher: The Concerto

The title of this famous concerto may seem weird at first. “The swan turner” is in fact the title of a song from a German songbook published by Franz Böhme in 1877: Altdeutsches Liederbuch. A swan turner was, as well, a profession of the Middle Ages that is depicted in the original edition of the concerto in an illustration, or it can also refer to minstrels. The work has three movements, each of them introducing the listener to one or more songs from Böhme’s songbook. It is also the reason Der Schwanendreher earned the nickname of Concerto on Old Folk Songs over the years. Hindemith links altogether the songs by writing an underlined story or poem in the preface of the concerto:

A musician comes among merry company and performs the music he has brought with him from afar: songs grave and gay and at the end a dance. According to his ability and inspiration he expands and embellishes the tunes, preludes, and fantasizes, like a true musician.

The first movement of the concerto, “Tween Mountains and Deep Valley,” is a real masterpiece of counterpoint. It starts with a solo for the viola as a colorful prelude that represents well a wandering minstrel starting a show for his/her audience. The prelude, however majestic and deeply emotional, is also probably a violist’s worst nightmare. The most important things to remember when you practice it for an audition are how you want the jury or the audience to remember your playing and how the actual writing, and the respect of it, can help you achieve what you want. As I already said, Hindemith takes rhythm seriously, and I find, personally, that some players tend to change or “ornament” it too much. If the rhythm is played exactly, one will notice how the energy is still driving and how the different articulations written are contrasting with each other. Also, it definitely proves to everyone that good rhythm goes along with great musicality. The sound is also very important. One should play the prelude as if starting a really long story that will bring the audience all over the world together before it ends and draw the attention of everyone inward. It is important to remember that the orchestration of the concerto is slightly unstandard as well. In Der Schwanendreher, Hindemith eliminates the violin and viola sections of the orchestra, which leaves only cellos and basses to the ensemble. The heavy combination of the low strings, woodwinds, and brass sections makes the viola hard to be heard throughout the piece. Therefore, articulation and focus in your sound are keys to make yourself heard as well as keeping your energy going for the next thirty minutes. For musical ideas, I always think about playing Hindemith the same as I would play Bach. The themes have to be clear, and the progressions, or sequences, made obvious for the listener. Finally, the first chord is a problem for most of us. Starting with an octave in tune as a first note can be dreadful, but as my teachers told me (and I write it to remember it myself), your fingers know where to play, and you should trust them enough to quiet the urge to prepare your octave ages before. Just play it when it is time, it is usually way more in tune and ringing that way 🙂

I really hope my little talk about Hindemith and the first movement of his concerto can help you understand more the motivation behind the piece and give you a guide for what to listen to in any of Hindemith’s compositions. If you want to learn more about the other movements, I encourage you to read this article by Libror Ondras on the JavsOnline!

Nico Muhly’s Keep in Touch by Aaron Conitz

Throughout the years that I’ve spent attending and performing recitals, particularly of the viola variety, it seems as though we all end up hearing and/or playing pretty much the same pieces . . . over and over again. Now, don’t get me wrong, some pieces are outright essential for the student, pedagogically speaking, or are indispensable—solo Bach comes to mind—but I say that we should draw from the wealth of music, diverse and unknown, that has been written for the viola! I’ve always found satisfaction in uncovering less popular works and introducing them to receptive audiences; not only does one break the monotony of Brahms and Walton but is able to really showcase what the viola has to offer.

A recent interest of mine has been the combination of acoustic instruments with electronic forces. For a recent project I created a somewhat extensive list of works written for the viola, two or three other instruments, and electronics (both pre-recorded and interactive). The second parameter was that the pieces must be written after 1995; I felt it was necessary to keep the list as contemporary as possible. My investigation began by searching online library databases and then transferring into the world of personal websites, offering me a glimpse at music that either hadn’t been collected by libraries or still is yet to be published. There were more pieces than I really knew what to do with! I found pieces by well-known composers such as Kaija Saariaho, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Terry Riley; but also a number of composers I had heard of maybe once or twice or even not at all.

One of the composers in the latter category was a name I had heard a few times, but not really listened to his music in depth—Nico Muhly. A young composer, born in 1981, Muhly has truly established himself as a diverse and innovative voice within the American classical idiom; his works are a delightful pandemonium of musical styles—from electronic fusion to English choral music to neo-minimalism—and by using each of them he is able to create cohesive and compelling compositions. The work that caught my eye was Keep in Touch (2005), written for solo viola and pre-recorded electronic tape. I was so taken by the piece that I decided to program it on my most recent recital here at Rice University.

Keep in Touch was written for Nadia Sirota, a long-time collaborator of Muhly’s. Composed in 2005, the work is scored for viola and recorded electronics; throughout the work these two “voices” compete and interact with one another. Muhly created the electronic accompaniment using acoustic instruments, processed recorded material, and the vocalization of singer Antony Hegarty. Keep in Touch begins with an extended cadenza after which the electronic material enters; the work utilizes a chaccone-like framework with a set of repeated chords providing a harmonic and formal structure. The juxtaposition of Antony’s gorgeously androgynous, bluesy voice with the sweet, understated timbre of the viola results in a visceral and emotionally engaging piece.

I thought it would be interesting to discuss the process that I went through in order to learn the piece and also to document my first endeavor in preparing and performing a work with pre-recorded electronics. My initial approach to the piece was fairly straightforward and typical—getting the notes into my fingers, listening to a recording, and coming up with bowings and fingerings that would best suit my vision of the piece. I figured it would be best to have a good grasp of the work before sitting down and piecing it together with the electronics, but after my initial attempt at playing with the recording I was left confused. I had learned the notes and rhythms and had made appropriate decisions about colors, but something was not right. Every time I played a section, I would either end up ahead of or behind the recording, even when I was “following” the provided cues! I went back to the drawing board, getting down and dirty with the metronome; if my tempi were accurate I should be able to make it through, right? Turns out I was right, but not completely. I was able to play through the piece with great success in terms of ensemble, but after a lesson and a recital dress rehearsal it seemed that I was following the tape but not collaborating or interacting with it. How strange an idea, I thought, to interact with something so inflexible and inanimate as a recording!

The more familiar I became with the structure of the recorded material, the more comfortable I felt in allowing things not to be as absolutely synchronized as they could be. It was almost as though I had to allow an indeterminate musical idea to exist within the deterministic framework of the recording. The satisfaction and sheer enjoyment I received performing the work was incredible; I was able to interact with a wide array of bizarre and gorgeous sounds and meld the voice of the viola with that of Antony Hegarty.

My experience in preparing and performing a piece written for viola and electronics has certainly inspired me to pursue other works of this nature. The amazing presence of electronic and produced sound in popular music and film scores almost requires that we, as violists and musicians, pursue works that involve the electro-acoustic element.

Rochberg Sonata Analysis by Carey Skinner

Recently, as part of my final Music History course at Rice, I researched and analyzed the composition style of George Rochberg’s Viola Sonata. Specifically, I spoke with my professor and did research on how Rochberg bridged the gap between Serialism and Romanticism. This is a much-abridged version of my findings.

George Rochberg’s early works, particularly his First Symphony and First Quartet, feature “traces of Bartók’s melodic and harmonic practices, presented without quotation marks or irony.”1 In the early years of his career, Rochberg was less concerned with following the changing tides of composition in the twentieth century than with creating something beautiful. The vast majority of what he wrote was influenced by styles from past eras, and he often quoted other composers as a sort of tribute within his own works.

When he was twenty-one, Rochberg was drafted into the army and had to leave his studies at the Mannes School of Music. He was wounded in Normandy, France, and returned to the United States to continue raising his family. He was embittered by the war and frustrated upon his return in trying to live up to the “masters” of Romanticism such as Beethoven and Brahms. It was then that, like many of his contemporaries, Rochberg turned from the influence of Bartók in the early 1950s upon learning about twelve-tone music from Luigi Dallapiccola. He decided to embrace twentieth century music. It was with this new knowledge that he became known for joining the beauty of the Romantic era with the grit and complexity of twentieth century composition practices.2 From that point onward, and for the next decade, Rochberg composed almost exclusively with the twelve-tone method.

In 1964, however, Rochberg’s son Paul died of a brain tumor. The ups and downs of Paul’s illness are cataloged in the correspondence between George Rochberg and István Anhalt.3 It comes as no surprise that this traumatic event was a turning point in the life and work of Rochberg. It was then that he “abandoned serialism in favor of compositional practices common to earlier music,” and in doing so also returned to his study of Bartok’s compositions, “Using it not ironically, but as an expressive resource, a language he had earlier trusted to convey both pathos and austerity.”4 In his Sonata for Viola and Piano, Rochberg continued to implement the stylistic and harmonic tools of Bela Bartók.

In his book Five Lines, Four Spaces, Rochberg mentions his study of Bartók’s music and “[Bartók’s] way with chromaticizing an extended form of tonality,” and how it opened up a new world of possibilities. He says these “tonal extensions . . . spilled over” into how he heard things and how he composed. He specifically mentions how he became fascinated by the tri-tones created by the relationships between the intervals F to C and B to F-sharp. Rochberg refers to this equal division of the twelve chromatic tones as “the musical hieroglyph,” to “emphasize its symbolic, magical property.” Rochberg uses this property throughout the sonata both in the melody and in a wider harmonic scope.5

Figure 1

0207a Figure1

Margaret McDonald mapped out Rochberg’s use of tri-tones in her dissertation, “One Mind: Past, Present and Future; George Rochberg’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979),” and the following description is based on her analysis. In the opening two measures, the viola outlines the hieroglyph with statements of perfect fourths (F to C and B to F-sharp), which ultimately emphasize the minor second between F and F-sharp. McDonald explains that these groupings harmonically represent F major and B major. In figure 1 (above), Rochberg’s introduction of the important tri-tone motive is apparent in how he moves from F major in measure 1 to B major in measure 2, then back to F major in measure 3. These keys, being a tri-tone apart, represent the beginning of an overarching theme in the sonata of this dissonant relationship. Rochberg continues with the tri-tone harmonies throughout the work (see McDonald’s analysis in figure 2 below).

Figure 2

0207b Figure2

The grand-scale emphasis of tri-tones is supported by the same dissonance in both the melody line in the viola and the chords of the piano. Perhaps what is more interesting, however, is how Rochberg uses this interval to subtly imitate Bartók by emphasizing the minor second, a sound extensively explored by Bartók.

One strong example of Rochberg’s use of the tri-tone can be found in the second movement. It starts with a repeated chord in the right hand of the piano (see figure 3 below). The tri-tone is from F-sharp to C but with an F-natural on top, also forming a perfect fourth. This emphasizes the minor second between F-natural and F-sharp. When the viola enters in the third measure, all four pitches from the beginning: F, C, B, and F-sharp are present between the harmony and melody. With that chord still being repeated in measure 7 of this movement (see figure 4 below), Rochberg alters the original left-hand chord from a perfect fifth between D and A to a tri-tone between D and A-flat, once again placing emphasis on the change from the perfect to imperfect interval.

Figure 3

0207c Figure3

Figure 4

0207d Figure4

A crucial aspect of this work that must be addressed is its overall structure. For example, Rochberg loosely observed the traditional sonata form for this work but set his music apart by how he chose to break the structural rules. One way in which he did this was with his decision to forgo the expected uplifting final movement. Of this movement, the composer says:

The kind of last movement I knew I could not add—(that in fact I detested)—was a fast, concluding movement in order to fulfill a purely perfunctory function. If anything, I would have to speak the language and expressive character of what preceded it. I rejected the idea of a stormy finale—(the a kind of “battle scenario” merely to round off the old fast–slow–fast structural format) . . . I settled on writing an epilogue, one that had a sense of “remembrance of things past,” a musical recollection of major idiomatic elements that were characteristic of the opening . . . I needed to write a fantasia—a free, open, unhampered musical flow that went from thought to thought without being bound into a tight formal structure . . . despite its restless, constantly changing motion from idea to idea, it ends the work with a sense of deep repose and resolution.6

To fully mesh the old and the new, the perfect and imperfect, Rochberg knew the sonata needed a free-form restatement of previous important themes and motives in place of a conventional final movement. It is because of those kinds of decisions and innovations that, even with all of his imitation, Rochberg cannot be criticized for being unoriginal. The unusual conclusion to such an intricate work sets it apart as uniquely and quintessentially Rochberg.

When the first thoughts of all of these complex materials were forming in George Rochberg’s mind, he was not setting out to write a viola sonata. His work began on a violin sonata so that he could explore the close partnership between two musicians and specifically so he could write for a gifted violinist that he admired. Being separated from his work while at war, these thoughts were pushed into the background. Upon being commissioned to write a work in honor of William Primrose’s seventy-fifth birthday, Rochberg realized the potential for his old sketches. Had it not been for both the joyful and the mournful events in his life since the first conception of this work, the viola might not have this powerfully complex piece in its repertoire, nor would future composers have been able to learn of his creativity from a piece that combines multiple styles and practices so well.

“At the heart of the differences between tradition and the avant-garde lies the problem of language.”7 Rochberg begins the last chapter of his book with this statement. He talks at length about different twentieth century composers and how they approach the problem of language before continuing: “In a culture that moves rapidly from one radical vision to another, the problem of language intensifies. Each new departure must concentrate on its single image in order to produce even a modicum of works sufficient to state the idea behind the new radical aesthetic.”8

The twentieth century is set apart from other eras of music in its diversity and the aspect of constant change. George Rochberg was one of those few composers from this era who harnessed the ability to incorporate the past without getting left behind from the innovations of the future. He was able to create works with beautiful romantic melodies and characteristics without forgetting what era he was living in. The ways in which he used Bartók’s ideas paved the way for a new generation of musicians and composers by setting an example of open-mindedness and ingenuity.


[1] Danielle Fosler-Lussier, Music Divided, Bartók’s Legacy in Cold War Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 158.

2 Margaret M. McDonald, “One Mind: Past, Present and Future; George Rochberg’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979)” (Ph.D. diss., University of California Santa Barbara, 2010), 4–8.

3 István Anhalt and Alan M. Gillmor, Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of István Anhalt and George Rochberg, 1961–2005 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007), 1–45.

4 Fosler-Lussier, Music Divided, 158.

5 George Rochberg, Gene, Rochberg, and Richard Griscom, Five Lines, Four Spaces: The World of My Music (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 223–31.

6 Ibid., 228.

7 Ibid., 260.

8 Ibid., 261.

Learning to Program Concerts by Ashley Pelton

Over this past winter break, my boyfriend (a cellist) and I played several concerts at retirement and rehabilitation facilities in the Greater Chicago area. We had two main programs: one that included piano and one as a viola/cello duo. Ben, having lived and played in Chicago for his whole life, had already built relationships with many of these facilities and knew what to expect sharing his music with these audiences. I, on the other hand, was unsure of what was to come. There is so much I could say about my experience performing these concerts, because I learned so much from the preparation and the actual performances, but in this post, I will highlight my thought process in programming for our duo concerts.

We had an easier time programming the concerts with piano, because we each have solo works in the learning and performance stages. However, the combination of viola and cello is somewhat of an untraditional ensemble. Of course, there is repertoire for the instrumentation, just not quite as much as there is for other groups. Our first task was to track down works originally written for viola and cello (something we’ve been doing for years) and then to read through to find out which pieces we enjoyed playing. We then turned to transcriptions and wrote some of our own.

In thinking about what to program for our duo concerts, here are some of the things I thought about:

• Length of concert: How do we fill _____ minutes?
• Who is the audience? What kind of exposure have they had to classical music/other genres? What kind of experience are they looking for from our interaction with them?
• What order should the works go in to keep the audience engaged?
• How much variety should there be?
• How much stamina does each piece take, and what order of pieces will allow us to maintain our energy?
• Which (if any) solo works should we include to balance the program and allow the other person to rest for a few minutes?
• Should we use programs or announce each piece before it is played?
• How much background information should we give the audience?
• What pieces highlight our ensemble and which can we play well?
• Are there any songs or pieces we could play that might get the audience singing/dancing/clapping along/having FUN?

Some of the facilities we played at had Jewish residents. Ben grew up playing Klezmer music and suggested that we should play a few tunes for these audiences. I was apprehensive at first, having had no experience with this type of music. Fortunately, he convinced me and thankfully as well, because the audiences absolutely loved it! I played melodies from a Klezmer book that he had, while he improvised the harmonies and supported my sound. While I absolutely love classical music, I had so much fun taking a risk and playing an unfamiliar genre of music, one that certainly excited the audiences we were sharing our music with. We had audience members singing and clapping along!

From concert to concert, we switched around the order of our program and the pieces a little. We were experimenting to see what pieces the audience enjoyed most and how engaged they stayed throughout the length of our program.

In the end, our programs wound up including (in no specific order):

• Movements from Bach Cello Suite No. 2 (Ben)
• Movements from Bach Cello Suite No. 3 (Ashley)
• Klezmer Songs: Tumbalalaika, Russian Sher, Freylachs, My Yiddishe Momme
• Arranged Telemann Duos
• Rebecca Clarke: Lullaby and Grotesque
• Beethoven: Eyeglasses Duo
• Several Bartok Violin Duos transcribed for viola and cello

Because I had so much fun playing Klezmer music, I wanted to leave you with a video of Maxwell Street playing one of the songs that Ben and I played. Ben learned to play Klezmer in Maxwell Street’s junior ensemble. While the larger ensemble and vocalists certainly have a different effect than purely viola and cello, these tunes worked extremely well on our two lone instruments. Enjoy!