The New World Symphony's Viola Visions kicked off Wednesday night with a concert of music that spanned three centuries and gave full voice to the splendor of the instrument. There was the world premiere of a hardworking new concerto by Nils Bultmann that used an ingenious distribution scheme. There was Andrew Norman's new arrangement for eight violas of his Gran Turismo for eight violins, and Garth Knox's exquisite Marin Marais Variations on “Folies d’Espagne" for four violas. And in the middle there was Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 6.

Viola Visions © Rui Dias-Aidos
Viola Visions
© Rui Dias-Aidos

It marked the first events in a new "annual summit" by the New World Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas to celebrate one orchestral instrument, and not the usual suspects. Over the festival's five days, leading violists – including Roberto Díaz, Kim Kashkashian, Matthew Lipman, Cynthia Phelps, Nadia Sirota, Jonathan Vinocour and Tabea Zimmermann – came together with young artists at the New World Center and online participants for a series of masterclasses, seminars and performances, all live-streamed in partnership with the Violin Channel.

If you're looking for music for 31 violas, look no further than Bultmann's' Concerto4 for large viola ensemble, designed so that the eight viola parts, "comprising the full spectrum of levels of difficulty," make their way in some form from the four soloists at the center of a series of raised concentric half circles to the other 27 players.

After the large crowd of violists recovered from being cheered as if they were conquering heroes, and Bultmann checked his digital page-turning button, an exceptionally dapper MTT spoke to the audience for a few minutes about the piece, his affection for the viola, and his pride in the players, many of whom came from different schools in the Miami area. Plus, he noted, among the vast viola assemblage were five alumni of the New World Symphony program in the orchestra, including principals, from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco, Houston and Atlanta Symphonies, After commenting drily that violists had one thing going for them right off the bat – having middle C right in the middle of the viola's alto clef stave – MTT posed with the musicians to give family members in the audience a chance to take pictures of the momentous gathering. Then he dived into the music.

Viola Visions © Rui Dias-Aidos
Viola Visions
© Rui Dias-Aidos

Bultmann's concerto opened quietly amid dramatic premonitions before he and the other three primary players took over with lots of their solos repeated in various ways by the rest; there were moments of klezmer abandon, thrilling close harmony among the soloists, and exuberant splashes of pizzicato and col legno. After a series of grand unisons, Bultmann's ambitious piece died away in a flurry of pizzicati leading to a low key finish.

Before Bach took the stage, legendary luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz with the help of an old-fashioned slideshow told the fascinating story of the viola, how it descended from exotic instruments like the lira da braccio, its role a character actor opposed to the prima donna violin. Like a skilled surgeon, Zygmuntowicz detailed how the shrinking universe of old violas, some dating from the 16th century, have been recut, shortened and narrowed, using Phelps' Gasparo da Saló, Diaz's fabled "Primrose" viola, and a Strad from the Library of Congress (one of only eight extant Strad violas), as examples. Asking rhetorically whether the viola is a small cello with some high notes, or a violin with five additional low notes, Zygmuntowicz left the stage to Bach.

With MTT listening in an otherwise empty upper balcony, the New York Philharmonic's principal Phelps and the San Francisco Symphony's principal Vinocour took Brandenburg 6 lovingly in hand, rich in sweet, juicy intonation, energized by the interplay between the two violas and the differences in their sound and projection, backed only by pairs of gambas, one cello, one double bass and harpsichord which, except in the slow movement, was inaudible. While the gambas do little more than supply color and harmonic support, the cello has a tremendously demanding, exposed role to play which Alan Ohkubo executed with untiring precision and flair. After the last movement at times raised visions of dueling violas, Phelps threw in a clutch of delicious little ornamental curlicues to carry the music home.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Rui Dias-Aidos
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Rui Dias-Aidos

From Tabea Zimmermann's first stroked notes in Garth Knox's sensuous Marin Marais Variations, as the Bach might have been stroked if Viola Visions had been a original instrument coven, it was clear that this was a new/old aesthetic at work that leapfrogged the Bach, each of its variations dedicated to a different techniques. It was more than a piece “ideally suited both for lessons and for concert performances”, as the publisher states, the music's 11 minutes seeming to expand into a universe of hallucinogenic transmogrifications, one dripping with glissandi like Dali's melting clocks, one a haunting quarter tone solo for the third viola. Zimmermann herself starred not only with her quicksilver virtuosity but in her teamwork with fellow violists Stephanie Block Jessica Pasternak, and Kip Riecken; she watched over them like a mother hen while dancing and moving gracefully in time to the music.

Showing no mercy, the concert ended with Andrew Norman's porting of his Gran Turismo for eight violins to eight violas. The players held nothing back in Norman's intense 8-minute creation of a sound universe inspired by the art of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla, an auto-racing video game, “and thinking about the legacy of Baroque string virtuosity as a point of departure”.


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