the viola teacher in my life

My dear viola teacher, Samuel Rhodes (pictured here with “America’s crabbiest” composer, Milton Babbitt) performed a terrific recital this past evening at Juilliard, to celebrate his 40 years on faculty, and as member of the Juilliard String Quartet. (Mr. Rhodes was not my sole viola teacher – but he was my primary teacher throughout college, and thus far, my last.)

Much great music was on the program, including pieces by Donald Martino, Milton Babbitt (who was in attendance!), Elliott Carter, and Hall Overton, as well as more “popular fare” by Stravinsky and Hindemith. (See Mr. Rhodes’s own article in the Juilliard Journal.)

None of the pieces were well known, improvised, or comfortable to perform; indeed, my wife (who graciously accepted my invitation to attend such an evening with curiosity) found them challenging to listen to — “there’s no melody, no rhythm I can grab on to.. it sounds like improvisation..”

And yet, there he was, Mr. Rhodes, tearing into each piece with a fiery and well calculated intensity, along with his partner, Robert McDonald, swinging and jamming, as if this was their own brand of jazz — angular, concentrated, superbly progressive. If I had closed my eyes, I could make believe that I was not at Juilliard, but at The Stone. Hall Overton’s Sonata sounded brilliant on first listen, while the other works still could use more preparation for ultimate enjoyment. I remembered, 10 years ago, attending a masterclass by Babbitt on the viola piece, “Play It Again, Sam”, in which he discussed the various structural issues, as well as pointed out where the Golden Section was in the piece, but I’ve since forgotten.

Mr. Rhodes, in my unbiased opinion, has the sweetest viola sound in the world. His vibrato, typically slower in speed than most of his colleagues, matches perfectly the voice of his instrument. One of my favorite viola moments in recorded history, belongs to him — listen to this beautiful slide, in the Juilliard Quartet’s recording of Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht:

I couldn’t help but to entertain the idea that this could have been my life. Had I not fallen into performing at weddings, or being exposed to and arranging a wide variety of “world music”, or composing for films, or indeed had I not been so much of a self-professed musical hooligan, I would’ve probably become a classical violist, with a strong mandate for contemporary music. As a student at Juilliard, I loved performing with Joel Sachs’s New Juilliard Ensemble, and if I were still in school now, it would’ve been a dream to learn all of the pieces on Mr. Rhodes’s program, especially the Overton Sonata.

But something snapped. I now hesitate to trust a composer who’s not willing to trust me to personalize his (or her) work, whether by improvisation or other means; the only exception would probably be Kurtag. “I wish I could go back to college”, as they sing in “Avenue Q”, and turn back the clock, even if it is for just a week or two in a year, to learn really heavy repertoire, help composers find their sound, expand my palette, and top it off with some fiddle tunes on my 6-string famiola, which begs for a repertoire of its own. Perhaps this is an excellent idea — indeed, perhaps the rest of the Kontraband would be into this as well. Note to self.

Mr. Rhodes ended his celebratory program with a short encore — not a csardas or another zinger — but with the pensive slow movement from Hindemith viola/piano Sonata, Op. 25 No. 4. It was mournful end to a rewarding program. With little doubt, Mr. Rhodes played this piece in memory of his own viola teacher, Walter Trampler, who had premiered the Overton sonata that ended the official program.

40 years with a single quartet, 40 years on faculty, 40 years of students, commissions, repertoire.. what amazing luck, devotion, persistence!

As it was always with Mr. Rhodes, tonight was a night to remember, full of brilliance and an ever-searching imagination.

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