Interview: Utah Symphony Principal Violist Brant Bayless on Two Special Upcoming Viola Events!

Utah Symphony Principal Violist Brant Bayless (our Viola Day guest artist last year!) will be performing two monumental works for the viola in coming weeks. On Friday, September 27 and Saturday, September 28, Mr. Bayless will be performing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with violinist Viviane Hagner and the Utah Symphony. Following that, he will be performing György Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Viola on the NOVA Chamber Music Series on Sunday, October 13. We can’t wait for these concerts, and hope to see you all there!

This is great repertoire you are performing this fall – how do you prepare for performances like these?

It’s a real test, honestly. The Mozart is very familiar, and I’ve already played it in some pretty high-pressure situations…which is a comforting feeling for sure, but there’s always a risk that complacency might lead to trouble! So to prepare the Mozart, I’ve been biding my time keeping the trickier bits in my fingers while awaiting a marked part from my violinist partner for these performances. Now that I have her markings, I’ll spend the next few days getting them transferred to my part and getting comfortable with new-to-me bowing and articulations.

With the Ligeti, which I have heard neither live nor on record, I’m really trying to create something from the bottom up. The score is very detailed and has big technical challenges. A lot of work is going into discovering the best way to translate the printed page into sound. I may break down and listen to a recording before the performance, just to make sure I’m not wildly off-base, but it’s SO rare to experience a masterpiece like this without any preconceptions that I’m rather enjoying the feeling of being the first to perform this (even though that isn’t at all the case). Sure, I’d probably learn it quicker if certain things I could play more “by ear,” but things seem to be starting to coalesce…which is good, because there’s not much time left!!!

Have you performed the Mozart before? 

This will be my 5th set of performances as a professional. Each has been with a different violinist.

What are Mozart’s instructions regarding tuning, and how are you approaching it?

Mozart asks for the viola to tune one half-tone higher, brightening the sound of the instrument and allowing one to play in D major while it sounds in Eb. I have never performed it this way, largely for two practical reasons: 1. I usually have to play something else on the program, either in the orchestra or an encore (potential spoiler alert). My viola does not deal well with changing all four strings that dramatically. 2. I break enough A-strings as it is. The extra tension could potentially bankrupt my family.

There’s another more minor factor involved, theoretical and as yet un-tested by me in real life. That’s the idea that a violinist playing in Eb and a violist fingering in D will have a more difficult time playing in-tune with each other. There probably won’t be time to test this theory this week, but in the future I’d like to see if it makes a difference.

How much time will you spend with your duo partner?

Viviane and I will rehearse on our own briefly on Thursday morning, then with the conductor during lunch, then with the orchestra that afternoon. Dress rehearsal on Friday. So, not a whole lot of time.

What do you love about this piece?

Everything. In a lot of aspects it is the viola’s finest concerto. Mozart knew the colors of the viola so well. So well that even though he conceived it with all those open strings, it’s still idiomatic playing it in Eb. There are soulful moments, virtuoso moments, and everything in-between. But honestly, my favorite aspect is the orchestration. The divided violas in the orchestra have a lot of important moments. The oboe parts are so poignant. Every note matters, and it truly is a near-perfect masterpiece.

Do you happen to have a favorite recording of this work?

I grew up listening to the classic Perlman/Zukerman recording with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. It’s hard to top. Playing like that will never go out of style, even if we sometimes don’t feel (sadly) like we’re allowed to play that way today.

Have you performed the Ligeti Solo Sonata before?

Nope. Bought the music a few years ago, and buried it in my library because it looked too scary.

How did the programming of this work come about?

The NOVA music directors (this year the Fry Street Quartet are running the series) have a track record of asking me to do some pretty daring projects. This one might be the most daring yet—even compared to Berio’s Chemins II which I had to learn in my early days of fatherhood.

What has your process been like in preparation of your first performance?

With music like this, you have to have a plan and you have to be very methodical. I originally planned to learn it movement by movement, memorizing as I went. But time slips away, and this piece is proving elusive in the memorization department…so much so that I’m planning on using the music for this first performance. Good practice techniques work for any music, and I try to combine a lot of different approaches in my practice sessions. Slow practice is of course the foundation of everything. But small sections at tempo even if you’re not quite ready for it has a valuable place. I’m always striving to sound better and add to my depth of understanding during a session. Mindless repetition is NOT the way to accomplish that goal, and it’s certainly not the way to learn difficult music quickly.

What are some if the distinctive or interesting features of this piece?

The most interesting thing to me is the fact that this six-movement Sonata was not originally conceived as a whole…the second and third movements came first (themselves separated by a few years). At first I really didn’t feel the interconnectedness of the whole. The more I dig in, though, the more impressed I am with Ligeti’s virtuosity in connecting the movements while allowing them their individual identities. It really is on-par with Bach’s skill in crafting his solo string Suites, Sonatas, and Partitas.

To illustrate a few examples:

  1. The first movement uses microtones (based on the intonation of the natural overtone series). No other movement uses microtones, but by having this movement as an introduction, it sets the stage for experimentation rooted in folk-music idioms for the remainder of the piece. 
  2. Theme and variation—another folk idiom—plays an important role throughout, as it did in many works of Ligeti’s distinguished predecessor Bartok. 
  3. The uneven rhythms of folk music lie at the heart of this piece. Even in the last movement (which is in 3/4 time with exactly one bar of 4/4), syncopation and rhythmic play wins the day. 

Any further thoughts you’d like to share about either or both of these upcoming performances?

It really is astonishing to me how these two composers use the viola so differently, yet they both have such a deep understanding of what our instrument is capable of. Music will always evolve, and new music will probably always challenge audience’s ears, but truly great sonic constructions such as these set themselves apart and will change your life…all you have to do is invite yourself in.

Summer Recital in Logan: Viola Miscellany!

On June 4 at 7:30pm, violists Gavon Peck and Dr. Joelle Arnhold, along with pianist Bethany Pietroniro, will perform an eclectic program featuring works by both past and contemporary composers at the Russell/Wanlass Performance Hall at Utah State University. There will be a pre-recital lecture given by Dr. Arnhold beginning at 7:00pm.

Program to include:

  • George Enescu, Concert Piece
  • J.S. Bach, Viola da Gamba Sonata no. 3 in G minor
  • Frank Bridge, Lament for Two Violas
  • Joan Tower, Wild Purple
  • Paul Neubauer, Joan, Your Phone is Always Busy
  • Kenji Bunch, The 3 Gs
  • Arnold Bax, Sonata for Viola and Piano

Johansen-Livengood Trio in concert

The Johansen-Livengood Trio is presenting a concert of viola, clarinet, and piano works on Tuesday, May 14 at 7:30 pm in Dumke Recital Hall at the University of Utah. Carl Johansen and Lee and Melissa Livengood will perform works by Bruch and Piazolla. See you there!

Roger Chase Utah Residency and the UVS Annual Recital, February 6-10!

We have a big viola week coming up! Renowned British violist Roger Chase will be returning to Utah for a series of concerts and classes, followed by one of our favorite events – the UVS Annual Recital!

Roger Chase in recital with Michiko Otaki, piano, and the Fry Street Quartet

Program: Bax – Viola Sonata, Rolla – Duo Concertante in C Major for Violin and Viola, Brahms String Quintet in G Major, Op. 111

  • Logan, UT: Wednesday, February 6, 7:30 PM, Russell/Wanlass Performance Hall, Utah State University
  • Provo, UT: Friday, February 8, 7:30 PM, Madsen Recital Hall, Brigham Young University

Masterclasses with Roger Chase, free and open to public

  • Logan, UT, Thursday, February 7, 4:00-6::00 PM, Chase Fine Arts Center, Room 220
  • Provo, UT, Friday, February 8, 11:00-1:00, E-400, Harris Fine Arts Center, Room E-400
  • Salt Lake City, UT, Saturday, February 9, 11:00-1:00. Gifted Music School, Performance Hall

UVS Annual Recital, Sunday February 10, 3:00 PM, Dumke Recital Hall, University of Utah. Blockbuster program to include:

  • Kathleen Bradford, performing the Vaughan Williams Romance
  • Leslie Harlow, performing the rarely-heard Sonata for Viola and Piano by Ottmar Gerster
  • Julie Edwards and Friends, performing the Bloch Concertino for Viola, Flute, and Piano
  • Carl Johansen and Company, presenting the Debussy Trio for Flute, Harp, and Viola
  • A special Tag-Team Performance of Vadim Borisovsky’s arrangement of Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet by Emily Barrett Brown and Sunny Johnson!

January Viola Events at the University of Utah-You’re all invited!

Dear Utah Viola Society,
The University of Utah has a brand new Viola Club! Welcome to the world, L’Alto! L’Alto is hosting two (count’em, two!) amazing guest artists at the University of Utah this month.

Professor Katherine Murdock will be offering a masterclass at the University of Utah on January 16, 2019 at 2pm, Room 318. Professor Murdock is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Maryland. If you aren’t able to attend this wonderful class at the U of U, she will also be offering an open masterclass at BYU on January 17, 2019 from 5-7pm, location TBD.

Both of these masterclasses are free and open to the public.

Dr. Molly Gebrian will be visiting the University of Utah January 22-23. Dr. Gebrian is Assistant Professor of Viola and Music Theory at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She will be presenting a lecture, masterclass, and recital as part of her visit. Her lecture entitled “What Musicians Can Learn about Current Brain Research” will be Tuesday, January 22 in David Gardner Hall at the University of Utah in Room 270 (“the choir rehearsal room”) at 4:10pm. The masterclass will be in Dumke Recital Hall at 6:15pm. On January 23, Dr. Gebrian will be featured with her partner pianist/percussionist Danny Holt performing Trios for Two.

All of these events are free and open to the public. Join us!

We are so grateful to the University of Utah College of Fine Arts and FAF Grants, and L’Alto: Viola Club @ U of U for making these events possible! Special shout-outs to the officers of the club: President Katherine Deneris, and officers Tara Hoellein and Rachel Dodge for their work organizing these two events. Bravi, tutti!

(If you want to keep track of what L’Alto: Viola Club @ U of U is doing, you can join their Facebook group!)