“Every day is a new day to discover more music to enjoy.” Q&A with Atar Arad


Bob Dylan, Nicolo Amati violas, Cuckoo’s Nest. These are just some of the topics that I covered when I caught up with Atar Arad, this year’s Primrose Memorial Concert guest at BYU.  After my 5 years studying with Atar, I was pleasantly surprised to discover some things I’d never known about him.

On composing:  “I consider myself a “late bloomer.” Even though he always wrote and performed his own cadenzas, (his cadenzas for the Paganini Sonata per la Grand Viola, Hoffmeister and Stamitz concerti are legendary!) the first piece that he wrote was his Viola Sonata in 1991.  Back in those days, students didn’t want early lessons (I’m here to attest to that!) and nobody would come in before 10am. But like most parents, he had to drive his daughters to school early, so he would arrive in his studio with a couple hours to spare before teaching. He would pass the time improvising, spending time exploring the possibilities of the viola and eventually decided to put it down on paper. As he began to write, he noticed that he didn’t even touch the viola, he would just write, and it came out “kind of naturally.” This was the beginning of his Viola Sonata. After that, he became more and more serious about composing, taking a sabbatical leave and writing first a String Quartet, then later took a longer sabbatical which resulted in his Viola Concerto.

Atar doesn’t consider himself a composer because he doesn’t live on income from his compositions. He says this gives him a lot of freedom because it means that he can write whatever he wishes and doesn’t have any pressure of time or deadlines. “I can just write what’s in me, when I feel like it.”

On his Twelve Caprices:  Caprices are pieces which are sometimes spontaneous, sometimes bizarre, often humorous, and if he felt in a strange or funny mood, he would write a new caprice. The first Caprice he wrote was “Rebecca,” in which he quotes the famous opening of the Rebecca Clarke Sonata. All twelve caprices are related in one way or other to known viola works. Atar described them as “written in my own language, but I consider it a thank you note to the composer.” After he’d written a few of these caprices and they began to pile up, he thought he’d eventually write 24 Caprices, after “you-know-who,” but when he reached #12 he realized that half of Paganini’s output was good enough. When I asked him which of the twelve was the most fun to write, he replied, “All of them, I had great fun writing all of them.”

On “finishing” a composition: “It’s done when I say it’s done.” He says that he very rarely changes anything, when they’re complete he moves on. If he doesn’t like something in the piece, he improves by making the next composition better. He says that his pieces are like his children, and he “likes them as they are, with their blemishes and everything.”

Learning from composing:  “When I listen to my own pieces being performed, I greatly appreciate and enjoy the players who are taking my tempi, bowing, dynamics markings and all interpretation instructions very seriously, and use these as a base for their own interpretation. More and more, I strive to have the same approach when working on a piece by Mozart, Schubert or Bartok. Thus, an Urtext edition and a manuscript become more and more precious and inspiring to me. Just as I expect performers of my pieces to try and penetrate my musical mind through every little detail presented in my music, I think I owe the same to Brahms (no comparison intended, of course) when working on his Sonata.”

Another important thing Atar has had to learn since composing is the art of self-promotion. He finished his Caprices and wanted to perform them, but the world didn’t yet know that they existed, so for the first time in his life he had to be proactive and organize opportunities for himself to perform and promote his works. He then organized tours presenting his works in Chicago, London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Detmold, Hamburg, Tel Aviv, Paris, Madrid and Sion, Switzerland. He has completely organized these tours entirely on his own, from finding the venues and concert presenters, to organizing all the travel arrangements. It can be painstaking work, but he said ultimately it was actually surprisingly easy, and after years of encouraging students to make it happen for themselves, he finally had a chance to put his money where his mouth is! (By the way, Atar says that the Primrose Memorial Concert is not part of his effort, and he is very grateful to Dr. Claudine Bigelow for her initiative, and is thrilled by the honor and excited for the opportunity to perform!)

On his compositional inspirations: Atar grew up in Israel, and he describes the culture as an amalgamation of many other cultures. There were Europeans, people from Arab countries, Bedouins, people who, like his mother, came from a Ladino origin. (They were Jewish people who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century, but retained their musical heritage.) All of these cultures had their own language and own music. In the area in which he grew up, there was also a strong Bulgarian culture, and they had their own music, which he paid homage to in his sonata in the second movement, “Alla Bulgarese.” All of these types of music were what he grew up hearing, and all contribute to his compositional voice. As we were talking, I told him that I was going to have to resist the urge to use the (somewhat cliché) phrase, “melting pot” to describe what he was telling me and he said, “Why? That’s a perfect description of what it was.” He says he is definitely an American. Atar is a citizen, and his children grew up here. He thinks of himself politically and culturally an American, but despite that he still carries Israel around inside. His music is born of this nostalgia. He says “It’s in me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

On choosing the viola: Like many violists, Atar was first a violinist, and studied violin at the Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth under the patronage of the Queen of Belgium.  When he was a student, there was a group of people who wanted to form a quartet, but they didn’t have a violist. He told them he would play viola if someone would loan him an instrument. Luckily someone did have one, so he quickly took to learning alto clef. The first piece they chose to work on was Beethoven Op. 18 #5. He said, “The moment we played it was clear to me that I was a violist.” He loved the instrument, he loved the role of the viola in the quartet, and he loved the reactions of others when they heard it. Later he went to a music store and purchased all the music for viola that they had. He called his teacher and told him that the day school finished he was switching to viola. The teacher shouted at him, called him names ranging from idiot to stupid, and told Atar that he had great plans for his career and this would ruin everything, but Atar insisted that he was going to be a violist. Atar called his father who responded, “I’m not sure I like it.” Atar again insisted, saying, “I’m not asking, I’m just telling you.” Years later, after Atar had won competitions and had made recordings, his father said to him lovingly, “It turns out you might have been right, bastard!”

But he thinks that choosing the viola may go back even farther into his childhood. Atar shared a story about when he was a child he had an agreement with his parents that in order to keep receiving violin lessons, he had to practice for at least two hours after school. But sometimes there were soccer matches after school, and since he was a good soccer player he didn’t want to lose those matches to violin practice time. He had to find a way to be able to put off practice until after soccer, so he would take out his violin, and turn up the E-string, and keep turning it until it broke. Then he would call his father at work, and ask if he could please pick up an E-string on his way home, thereby putting off violin practice until after the soccer match. His father later told him that when he would go to the music shop, the shopkeeper would just hand him the E-string without even asking what he needed. Atar’s father also told him that he and his mother knew all along what Atar was up to, but they, too,  wanted him to play soccer, so they played this game with him. Atar adds laughingly, “Maybe becoming a violist is a punishment for cheating and breaking all these E strings!”

Love at first sight: Just as the first time he played the viola in the quartet he knew it was what he was meant to do, the first time he saw his Nicolo Amati viola in Jacques Francais shop he knew it was meant to be his viola. A couple of years ago there was a festival in Holland celebrating 500 years of Amati instruments, and he was asked to perform. He was asked to submit photographs of his Amati. Atar agreed and sent the photos, and since the festival promoter was a friend of his, he wrote the caption, “Nicolo Amati: The Arad” as a joke. Well, evidently the presenters didn’t quite get the joke, because in their program book the photos showed up listing the viola as “The Arad,” and then Strad magazine followed suit and also wrote it up as “The Arad.” With his classic humor Atar wonders if the viola’s new name will make its price go up or down?

Dylan and Schubert: After all the very serious talk about the process of composing we drifted on to more lighthearted conversation such as favorite books (Catch-22), favorite movies (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest) and one of his favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan. He said that everyone is astonished when they hear him say that Dylan is as important a songwriter as Schubert. (I couldn’t agree more!) But of course the singer/songwriter closest to his heart is Galia Arad, his daughter. They have even collaborated on one of her songs; he composed an introduction and ending for one of her songs, which is called “Will I be Loved (by you)” and is on her CD “Ooh, la, Baby.”  After he wrote the intro and played it for her, she immediately began giving him critique and notes about how to play it, with very precise instructions about where to glissando, how to make it sound like an old person singing it, and the like. However, he liked the melody so much that he used it in his Caprice #5 (Krzysztof.) Did I mention his daughter is a singer? And she has a website? Atar would very much like for you to check her out. (I took a listen this morning, and as someone who has very strong opinions about my singer/songwriters, I thought it was great, she has a beautiful voice! Check her out, I think you’ll like her! galiaarad.com)

Desert Island Recordings: I asked him about which recordings he would want with him if he were stranded on a desert island, he said,” Oh, please don’t ask me that. Every day is a new day to discover more music to enjoy. And anyway I don’t want to be stranded on a desert island, I like people too much!”

I had such a great time catching up with Professor Arad, and I can’t wait for you all to get to know him, too.

Thank you to Dr. Claudine Bigelow for organizing, and to BYU for sponsoring the Primrose Memorial Concert and all its events, and thank you to the University of Utah for co-sponsoring the Masterclass at the University of Utah.

  • January 23, 4-6pm, Dumke Recital Hall. Masterclass sponsored by the University of Utah and the Utah Viola Society
  • January 24, 10am, Masterclass to be held at the home of David Dalton.  939 North 1550 West, Provo, UT
  • January 24, 7:30pm, Primrose Memorial Recital, Madsen Recital Hall, BYU.

For more listening fun check out Atar Arad’s youtube channel, where you can get a glimpse of his Caprices, hear his amazing Amati viola “The Arad,” and listen to his vintage recordings of the Paganini Sonata and Hoffmeister Concerto, with his legendary cadenzas.





Utah Jazz vs. LA CLippers vs. VIOLA???


Wait, what? What does a basketball game have to do with Viola???

I’m so excited to tell you that the viola section of the Utah Symphony will be performing the National Anthem for the Jazz game on January 28!!!!  Come see the alto clef rock the Energy Solutions Arena!

This might be the best viola month ever! First, Atar Arad is coming for the Primrose Memorial Concert. Then Roberto Diaz is coming for the GMS Winter Concert, and we round out the month with the Utah Symphony viola section rocking the Star Spangled Banner at a Jazz Game! We shoot, we score!!!

Upcoming viola events-Save the Date(s)!

Dear Utah Violists,

There are lots of viola events coming up this month that you can mark on your calendar.
The first is the Primrose Memorial Concert and Masterclasses with celebrated violist and composer Atar Arad.  Here’s the breakdown:

  • Friday, January 23 from 4-6pm, Masterclass in Dumke Hall at the University of Utah
  • Saturday, January 24 from 10-12, Masterclass at the home of David Dalton in Provo, UT.
  • Saturday January 24 at 7:30pm  at the Madsen Recital Hall at BYU. All these events are free and open to the public!

The Gifted Music School will be presenting Curtis Institute of Music President and world-renowned violist Roberto Diaz in a masterclass and concert on January 31. Here are the details:

  • Saturday, January 31, 10-12pm, Salt Lake Recital Hall, Masterclass with Roberto Diaz
  • Saturday, January 31, 5pm Winter Concert with Roberto Diaz
These events are free but do require tickets, so get yours in advance so you don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity to hear Roberto Diaz teach and perform.
And finally, mark your calendars and Save the Date! the Utah Viola Society is presenting a Member’s Recital on February 22, 3pm. I can’t share all the details, but you will not want to miss it!
Winter Concert with Roberto Diaz

If you love music, the rest will follow: Reflections on studying with Atar Arad

Atar in his studio working with a student, circa 1995ish

Atar in his studio working with a student, circa 1995ish

Bloomington, Indiana, circa 1992. I was in the midst of a lesson with Atar Arad, pestering him about the details of HOW to do a specific technical passage, “But Atar, how do I move my thumb, what fingerings should I use, HOW do I do this technique, do I put my finger down like this, or like THIS?” He replied to me, likely exasperated by the minutiae of my questions, “Julie, you could play it with your nose and it won’t matter as long as it sounds good!” This is the essence of what it was like to study with Atar Arad, he asked you to look beyond your own playing and focus on the reason you were playing: to make music.

I am personally honored and excited that Professor Arad is this year’s Primrose Memorial Concert guest at BYU, and that the University of Utah and the Utah Viola Society are honored to present him in a masterclass.

In getting ready for his arrival in Utah, I’ve been going through some old photos that I took sometime probably around 1994 or 1995. Steeped in nostalgia I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was like studying with one of the world’s best violists and musicians.

Prior to Professor Arad’s arrival at IU, I had been in a constant state of filling out paperwork to transfer to University of Minnesota. I hated the weather in Bloomington, the endless corn fields were…well, endless. I missed my South Dakota friends, and I wanted to live in the Twin Cities. (In the early 90s there was no place cooler than the Cities. The Seattle scene hadn’t erupted yet and the Cities were home to a music scene that included bands like The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum, legendary artists like Prince and legendary clubs like First Avenue, not to mention the two world-renowned orchestras of the Twin Cities: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and my dream job the Minnesota Orchestra.)

So I hadn’t been intending to stay at IU, but when I heard that Atar Arad had been hired to replace the retiring Abe Skernik, I sent him a recording of my recent recital just on the off-chance that I decided to stay. I vividly remember his message on my answering machine telling me that he would accept me as a student at IU and that he thought we could “do some good work together.” That message sealed my fate, and needless to say I stayed in Bloomington, and stopped regularly filling out transfer paperwork for the University of Minnesota.

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Studying with Professor Arad wasn’t always easy. He was demanding, and his expectations were very high. He could be intimidating, though he was fond of saying with a wink and a smile, “Julie, haven’t you figured out yet that I’m a nice guy?” I cried on more than one occasion in lessons, and if you know me you know that I’m not a crier. (That Kreuzter #8 haunts me to this day!) Those early lessons were difficult; I found him hard to read and I was uncertain if he even liked me or my playing. I went to speak to him one afternoon. I asked him why he always sat with his hand covering his face during my lessons. I told him that it made me feel like he just hated what he was hearing, and that I just crumbled inside when I looked over to him and saw him hiding behind his hand. Was he cringing? Frowning? CRYING?? He said, “Ah, Julie, what you don’t know is that behind my hand I am really SLEEPING!”

As tough as he could be sometimes, he was also funny, and found humor in all the right things. (After those early lessons I certainly laughed more than cried in lessons!) He enjoyed the individualities of his student’s personalities and their unique qualities as players and people. He likes to tell stories about them, and some of the stories have extremely long lives. (I hear from current students that he still retells a story about my contemporary Michael Fernandez asking if it was ok with Professor Arad could he play a particular passage down-bow staccato, and then asking HOW to play down-bow staccato.) My very favorite thing about studying with him, and I think it’s one of my favorite things in the world, is that none of his students sounded alike. When you studied with Atar, you were taught how to be a musician and an artist, you were never molded and pressed into a player that you weren’t in the first place. We all had different techniques, different set-ups, different bow-holds, and different sounds. We all retained our individuality and developed our own musical personalities. He never taught you how to play like him; he taught you how to play like yourself, only better.

Atar is a very honest musician and teacher. Sometimes that honesty stung a little bit. But you could always trust him because he never lied to you to make you feel better, and there’s something very reassuring about that. It means that when he pays you a compliment it is worth a lot and really means something special. And most importantly you know he’s telling you the truth.

He likes to tell a story about me, about how I asked him about getting a good orchestra job, and if he could help me do that. He laughs about that, and I think he tells the story to illustrate a point: that it’s more important to become a well-rounded musician than to be only focused on taking auditions and getting a job. But in the end he DID help me get a good orchestra job, though not the way I thought back then, and every day I continue to work on becoming a well-rounded musician.

I’ve been honored to be able to send two wonderful students to him. I’m grateful to be able to send him students that play better than I did when he encountered me, and happy to know that their individuality and unique-ness as violists and human beings was preserved and nurtured. And I can rest easy because I know that they are well-rounded musicians and beautiful players and will have wonderfully fulfilling lives playing the viola and making music.

In honor of his propensity for story-telling, I will share a couple of my favorite stories about Atar.

The first lesson we had on the Bartok concerto was a lesson on the difficulties presented in the Serly edition. He explained that the concerto was unfinished at the time of Bartok’s death, and that Atar had an opportunity to look at the original score and wrote his essay “The Thirteen Pages: notes from a violist’s first encounter with the much debated manuscript of the Viola Concerto by Bela Bartok” based on what he learned from viewing the manuscript. (Atar’s essay and experience seeing the manuscript pre-dates the Peter Bartok publication of the manuscript.) We spoke at length about the responsibility one has as a performer to the intentions of the composer, and as I left the studio that day he called after me, “Ask not what your Bartok concerto can do for you, ask what you can do for your Bartok!”

After I told him that I had put his recording with the Cleveland Quartet of the Mendelssohn Quartet as my outgoing message on my answering machine, he called me and left a message saying “Out of tune, out of tune!”

And finally, when I was yet again pestering him about how to get a good orchestra job, he replied, “Don’t worry about getting a job! If you love music, the rest will follow!”



Primrose Memorial Concert and Bonus Masterclass with Atar Arad!

Dear Utah Violists,

January is going to be an amazing month for us alto clef lovers, stay tuned to this station for more information!

The first event is the annual Primrose Memorial Concert at BYU, which is an annual event that celebrates the life and career of William Primrose. This year’s distinguished violist is one that is near and dear to my heart, Atar Arad. Thanks to BYU and Dr. Claudine Bigelow for bringing Atar Arad out to Utah.

Atar Arad is not only one of the world’s most renowned violists, but he’s also a composer and will be performing his own compositions and arrangements at this year’s Primrose Recital. He will be performing his Solo Sonata, his set of Caprices, and his own arrangement of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy, which you can listen to on the youtubes.

The Utah Viola Society and University of Utah are pleased that Professor Arad will be taking time out of his busy Primrose activities to offer a masterclass at the University of Utah on Friday, January 23 at 4pm.

Here’s the breakdown of events:

Friday, January 23, 4-6pm: Masterclass at the University of Utah
Saturday, January 24, 10:00a-12:00p: Masterclass at the home of David Dalton in Provo. 939 North, 1550 West, Provo, UT.
Saturday, January 24, 7:30pm: Primrose Memorial Recital, Madsen Recital Hall, BYU

The best part is that these events are all FREE and open to the public! You don’t even have to play viola to get in! Anyone can come!

Here’s a little taste of Professor Arad’s Caprices: