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.