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.