Misha V. Stefanuk – 4U for four violas (2001)
premiere recording by Ljova, viola (2020)
Deadlines are important — as is follow-up. This piece took nearly 20 years to record — with apologies!
In the late 90s, I was a viola student at Juilliard and, in parallel, a student of the internet. There was no social media in those days, and musicians with websites were uncommon — but there was a site called mp3.com that encouraged indie musicians to upload music, create custom CD compilations, playlists, and get paid in return – initially, 10 cents per stream, eventually reduced to 1 cent per stream. (Ah the good old days — Spotify now pays $0.002.)
One of the musicians I met on MP3.com was the Moscow-born composer, pianist and organist Misha Stefanuk, who moved to nearby Hoboken after finishing his studies in Nashville. We collaborated on recording our pieces — he wrote for me the “Suite for Jazz Viola and Piano” and “Sonata for Viola and Piano”, which we recorded together — and he also recorded my early piano pieces. It was a very joyful collaboration.
On September 10, 2001, I was in Hoboken to record with Misha, and passed through World Trade Center Path Station on the way back…
Neither of us remembers when in 2001 this piece, “4U” was written, before September or after. At some point I received an envelope with a score for this piece. I had been dabbling in multi-tracking violas for my own film scores, but i had never recorded anything by anyone else. I didn’t know anything about click tracks, my editing skills were elementary, and I didn’t have a way of dealing with a 24-page score.
Deadlines are important — as is follow-up. I had this piece, but no deadline, and the composer was cruel enough never to follow up. I was hoping that he would be my recording engineer for this piece, but shortly after 9/11, Misha moved to Atlanta, where the picture above was taken while I was on tour with another project.
For nearly 20 years, there were always things that had a higher priority. Now, in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, I’m thrilled and exceptionally lucky to have finally recorded this piece, written for a much younger version of myself. Below are some notes from the composer — and the viola you’re hearing was made by Alexander Tulchinsky.
4U was inspired by Ljova Zhurbin’s mulititrack viola compositions which eventually led to his debut album “Vjola: World on Four Strings.” “4U” is a four viola quartet, designed to be premiered by one viola player, overdubbing all the parts, however, it is equally at home played life by a viola quartet.
4U is a suite of five short movements, loosely following the sonata or suite multi-movement compositions. In many ways it follows the idea of Prokofiev’s classical symphony.
First movement starts with Vivaldi-like build up on a repeated chord, developing into irregular rhythmic ostinato to be reminded of in the last movement. Rhythmic play borrowed from Stravinsky leads into medium level polyphonic explosion ending in an upward glissando.
Second movement starts with dream like melody with continuing polyphonic development in two parts, while etheric chords are build in two other instruments. A short polyphonic episode leads to final appearance of the main theme, this time with two somewhat parallel voices playing the accompanied melody.
Third movement introduces fairly familiar waltz melody, not unlike Mahler or Ljova’s father would write. Melody is played con sordino, while the counterpoint appears in sul ponticello, creating yet another surrealistic color. Middle section is played ordinary and reminisces of a menuet trio, even the number of voices excludes the first viola part.
Fourth movement perhaps requires even more explaining. First musical remark states Hanon-like, high school dropout music referring to mechanical and somewhat unmusical treatment. Then the third viola enters with imitating three large pipe organ inkling of a wedding march. The moment that gets a little out of hand, the fourth viola finally enters with the remark that reads espress-ivo, somewhat in between expressive and too much coffee. That musical character then causes the fourth viola player to first hum and then full voice sing his part, as he (or she ) gets more and more unreasonably excited, with three last glorious three-note chords on three open strings.
The build up of the final allegro is similar to the first movement but with more development in the melody, which also plays around with some extra unexpected repeating, perhaps inspired by Haydn’s musical humor. Development section involves two voice polyphonic fights with each voice played in parallel intervals by two violas, interrupted repeated passages and instrumental theater ostinatos. Coda is similar to the first movement, tying together the form, just slightly little more extended.
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