At the New World Center in Miami Beach on October 19, 2019, Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony presented a fascinating series of programs entitled Viola Visions. The last of the concerts, “NEW CLASSIC VIOLA,” featured three of the world’s greatest violists playing a range of new works highlighting new directions and new perceptions of what the instrument can really accomplish. It featured Roberto Diaz, Cynthia Phelps, and Tabea Zimmermann.
The program opened with Roberto Diaz, formerly Principal Viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra and now President and CEO of Curtis Institute. Diaz performed Pulitzer Prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s Viola Concerto (2014), commissioned by the Library of congress in honor of the late Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Library’s concert series.
At the concert, the composer remarked that she noticed that viola pieces tended to be “dark and heavy,” so she decided to compose a more celebratory piece with a “real swing to it.” Higdon dedicated the concerto to Diaz who performed the world premiere with conductor Robert Spano. Needless to say, the performance was gorgeous.
Cynthia Phelps, Principal Violist of the New York Philharmonic, now also a member of the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, is also one of the most sought-after chamber musicians of our time who has frequently performed chamber music with major instrumentalists. In this concert she played Morton Feldman’s “The Viola in My Life” (1871) with MTT conducting. Feldman’s instruction at the start of the work is quintessential Feldman: “Very quiet, attacks at a minimum, with no feeling of a beat.”
Before turning to Harold in Italy, the last piece on the program, MTT gave a fascinating talk about the relationship between Paganini and Berlioz, which has given rise to “Harold in Italy.” MTT pointed out that Paganini, the superstar violin virtuoso, had asked Berlioz to create a showcase for Paganini to showcase his formidable technique and Stradivarius Viola. The result, however, was disappointing to Paganini as the viola not only had a limited role but also had long stretches of silence in the solo part. Paganini refused to perform the work.
Although MTT had performed the work with Joseph de Pasquale and the Philadelphia Orchestra 40 years ago, it has remained one of MTT’s favorite pieces. He nevertheless harbored the wish that the collaboration between Berlioz and Paganini might have really worked if the viola part had been more virtuosic.” MTT contacted Steven Mackay, who, after an exchange of numerous emails with MTT, created a newly expanded, imaginative, augmented version in which the viola would play a greater role that might bring the work closer to what Paganini had hoped.
The 50 minute performance by MTT, in which the the brilliant soloist was the outstanding Tabea Zimmermann from Berlin, was absolutely stunning.