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Why there are no solo viola careers

0 Robert Levine

The major function of Twitter appears to be enabling people to write things that, after 24 hours or so of reflection, they probably would rather not have written. Case in point is an outpouring of frustration on the part of the violist Jennifer Stumm, who wrote on her Twitter feed last week:

Bigwig last night: “why do we need viola soloists when there are violists in orchestras?” Why do we need pitchers when there’re 1st basemen?

and

Principal violists have come to expect all concerti as well. There is no way for a viola soloist choice not to be a hotbutton

As a principal violist myself, I found this of considerable interest. I can certainly understand her frustration at finding obstacles to building a solo viola career. She is a wonderful player who is definitely worth hearing. And, as unpolitic as it was for her to express herself so publicly, she is basically correct – as is the Bigwhig she quoted. But it’s worth exploring why.

There are several issues at play here. The first is that solo guest artists are, first and foremost, marketing tools to help sell tickets. That’s not only why their fees vary so much but why those fees aren’t always related to how well they play. The fees are far more closely correlated with how famous they are and consequently how many tickets they can enable the orchestra to sell.

Aspiring viola soloists face a tough problem here; how do you become famous if you’re not already famous? That problem is largely a function of the quantity of great music for solo viola and orchestra. To put it bluntly, there isn’t any.

There’s Harold in Italy, of course, but even its commissioner, Niccoló Paganini, infamously complained about Berlioz’s thoughtlessness in not providing anything spectacular for the violist to do. The Bartok concerto is basically a fragmentary remnant of a time when Bartok desperately needed to earn some cash; minor Bartok at best. The Walton concerto is inter-war romantic-tinged mournful English modernism; hardly a crowd-pleaser. And the Mozart, of course, is not a work for solo viola and orchestra.

So the lack of a suitable solo repertoire makes it impossible for a solo violist to build a career by playing warhouses more thrillingly than anyone ever has before, which is how most solo pianists and violinists get noticed. But it has another pernicious effect on the career prospects of solo violists; it means that people like me, who would like to play the odd concerto now and then with their orchestra, get precious few opportunities to do so either. It’s hardly surprising that those people mind when outsiders get those opportunities.

I am a very respectable principal violist (you’ll have to take my word for that unless you want to listen to this, which is me about 20 years ago playing a version for viola and tape of a concerto I helped commission). Since I came to Milwaukee in 1987, I’ve played Harold in Italy twice, Don Quixote (which is hardly a solo viola vehicle anyway) three times, and Mozart once. The only other solo viola appearances were made by Pinchas Zukerman, who played Bartok (on a concert he also conducted) and Mozart. From anecdotal data, this appears to be a pretty typical record for an American princpal violist.

Contrast this with the experience of the average concertmaster, who gets not only to play better pieces more often, but doesn’t corner the local market on violin soloists when he/she does play. Our concertmaster in Milwaukee, Frank Almond, plays a concerto or so every season. But we have lots of other violin soloists as well, because there are lots of marketable violin soloists and lots of great pieces for them to all share.

For all other orchestral instruments (with the possible exception of the cello), the aspiring solo violist or clarinetist or oboist is in direct competition both with the desire of the local principal to play the occasional solo work and the need of the orchestra to accommodate them for multiple reasons. Absent any compelling reason to hire someone like Jennifer Stumm other than the fact that they play really, really well, most orchestras will take the cheaper and safer route of using their own people for oddball instrument concerti.

Besides, if she really wants to have fun playing the viola, she ought to be playing in a quartet. Would any sane person prefer trying to make a silk purse out of the Bartok concerto (in any of its “completed by someone other than Barkok” versions) to playing the viola part to Op. 132 with a quartet that’s really clicking? Pick the right quartet and the pay is better too.

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