Utah Viola Society’s guest blogger this week is the fabulous violist James Dunham. (Many of you will remember that UVS President Brad Ottesen studied with Mr. Dunham, and he was our distinguished guest for Viola Day!!! 2015!) Mr. Dunham is Professor of Viola at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. He worked with Alan de Veritch later in his viola studies, and considers him a dear friend and mentor. You’ll have an opportunity to see Mr. Dunham pass on the knowledge that he learned from Mr. de Veritch as part of the Primrose Memorial Concert/Alan de Veritch Tribute events September 22-23, 2017 at Brigham Young University!
“The path I took to studying with Alan de Veritch was not the usual one. As described in his just published autobiography “Malibu Man”, Alan was “the very first young virtuoso of the viola while still a teenager.” Unlike Alan, I was no young virtuoso of the viola nor, for that matter, of the violin! I was just a guy from a musical family who played violin with some success. It wasn’t until the viola discovered me that my thoughts turned to music as a lifetime profession!
Once that decision was made, the result of a most wonderful summer at Tanglewood as a full Fellowship violist following my freshman year of Liberal Arts study, I made a seemingly surprise decision. I opted to transfer to the just-opening California Institute of the Arts, founded by Walt Disney on property north of Los Angeles in Valencia, California! I actually went out to study with the well known Curtis trained violist David Schwartz, longtime Professor of Viola at Yale University and violist of the Yale String Quartet. As I soon discovered, Mr. Schwartz was also one of the main violists in the New York free-lance scene, and his eyes were on Hollywood! I had 3 very successful years with Mr. Schwartz, from my Junior year of undergrad study through the first year of Masters work. By this time, David (as I was then allowed to call him, as per Southern California informality) had built his career into that of first-call violist in the flourishing L.A. studio scene of the 1970s. He left Cal-Arts, and my fellow students and I needed a teacher!
Alan to the rescue. Young, charismatic, prize-winning, co-principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic: what could be more perfect? He also lived IN Valencia, just down the hill from our school: ideal! So my final year of Masters study was with Alan de Veritch, just a few years older than I, but with a lifetime of difference in experience as a violist, performer and musician. And let’s not forget: pilot, flight instructor, businessman and real-estate expert!
What changes did I encounter at the beginning of this relationship that soon grew into friendship? Interestingly, after receiving many years of very “correct” teaching, it was a big surprise to encounter someone with tremendous facility and the great imagination to look for solutions in surprising places. Colors, timings, and especially fingerings that need not be about convenience, but were all about character, quality, charm and, not infrequently: daring! It was a great and wonderful invitation, and of course, these were things I took to heart, learned to love and seek out, and continue to use and pursue today!
As expected, I graduated on time after this final single year of “official” study, yet Alan continued to look after and mentor me. His dear friend (and later mine) Jan Hlinka, the elder co-principal in the Philharmonic, became ill and was out on sick leave for a month. Thanks to Alan, I was invited to fill out the back of the section for those four weeks. Talk about eye-opening! I had certainly played plenty of large orchestra in my life: two summers at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan plus two academic years at the Interlochen Arts Academy, and even two summers at Tanglewood. But this was very different, with multiple programs per week, truly limited rehearsal schedules, not to mention a busy life in every spare moment!
By this time, the Sequoia String Quartet, of which I was founding violist, was well established, and we even had started a limited residency at Cal-Arts. I was also principal violist of Henri Temianka’s California Chamber Symphony and a section member of Neville Marriner’s L.A. Chamber Orchestra, with steady studio work coming my way, too. Even so, I still felt in need of “something.” Enter Alan again: William Primrose, his teacher and mentor, came to L.A. for a masterclass. As I was no longer a student, I was therefore ineligible to perform, so I pleaded for a private lesson with Mr. Primrose, which was granted. It lasted almost two hours and was life changing for me. Each question Mr. Primrose asked – “Can you do this?” – was followed by my reply: “Why…yes I can!” with a simultaneous and enormous “AHA” moment for me! At the end of our time together, Mr. Primrose suddenly looked startled and said: “I have told you too much at one time!” I protested, and he then instructed me to go home, write everything down, and come to Alan’s house that very evening so that he could confirm that I heard him correctly and understood all that he had shared. I still have these notes, and consult them on a regular basis!
In the years to follow, Alan and I remained in touch on many levels: he as mentor to me, I occasionally as flying “partner” to him if he had to get in some hours flying around Southern California, or to Catalina Island and back. We even incorporated musical topics!
As the years proceeded, I left California to join the Cleveland Quartet at the Eastman School of Music. Alan’s attention also moved eastward when he accepted the Professorship once belonging to William Primrose at the Indiana University School of Music. Still keeping me in the back of his mind, when IU sponsored the 1995 Viola Congress (just as the Cleveland Quartet made the difficult decision to disband) Alan called me and said I should really stay visible in the world of violists: “You must come to the Congress!” And he offered me several prominent roles to keep me front and center!
Well, now many years later, he’s continuing his thoughtful caring for his former students, notably Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Paul Neubauer and me. On the surface, the upcoming event at the Primrose Archives at Brigham Young University is all about Alan, his career and legacy. But leave it to Alan to include us, both to shine some light on his pedagogical impact, and at the same time to salute the achievements of three of his protégés.
If I may, in keeping with this time-line of history, I am also delighted to be returning to the Primrose Archives that I visited not long ago with my own former student, Bradley Ottesen. Now Associate Professor at Utah State University and violist of the Fry Street String Quartet, Brad is also President of the Utah Viola Society! So much to be proud of on all sides.
I eagerly look forward to the festivities at BYU in September. See you there!!