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An Homeric Achievement:
2001 Viola Odyssey in Wellington


New Zealand knew that the middle-fiddlers had hit the capital when Kate Mead and John Campbell traded viola jokes on Campbell's Saturday morning Nation Radio show. And the banter continued throughout the five days at Wellington's Massey campus, although Ian Fraser came up with the sharpest quip early on by suggesting, from the Michael Fowler stage, that the ultimate joke was how violists were able to play a 'wonderful, sensuous instrument' that viola-deprived folk had no access to.

A luthier at 2001 Viola Odyssey demonstrates an unusual viola (Photograph: Dwight Pounds)

2001 Viola Odyssey, the 29th International Viola Congress offered a stimulating-perhaps over-stimulating-five days of concerts, masterclasses, lectures and play-alongs. It was the first time that the meeting had been held in the Southern Hemisphere, and the guest list included violists of the stature of Csaba ErdŽlyi, Donald McInnes and Atar Arad, to name but three. True, in performance, some of these stars didn't always glimmer as brightly as one might have expected-a jet-lagged McInnes' account of the Berlioz Harold in Italy in the opening orchestral concert was decidedly patchy-although when Erdelyi got up as soloist in his new edition of the Bart-k Viola Concerto (previewed with the Auckland Philharmonia a week earlier), one had the feeling that history was being made on the spot. This, one of the composer's most uncompromisingly emotional statements, was given an interpretation that did it justice.

It was in the masterclass situation that some of the visitors revealed their most persuasive artistry. Arad took the the Walton Concerto, and pointed out how essential it is to cope with the piquant sentimentality of the work, proffering such words of inspiration as 'Show how beautiful your C string is-that's something the violinists don't have!'. All showed their great concern for those listening. ErdŽlyi exhorted his players to 'love every stroke and then the audience will love it too'. Tutoring a young player who had chosen a movement from a solo Bach suite, the Hungarian took his viola and expertly dashed off the entire movement to demonstrate a point. 

Csaba Erdélyi in a masterclass

Donald McInnes exuded a suave charm, with what I suspect were well-rehearsed quips (such as describing middle-period Hindemith as being like going to the dentist and having cotton wool put in your mouth). But, having said that, he went on to demonstrate how the composer's Der Schwanendreher need not evoke such associations-and it certainly hadn't when Canadian Helen Callus gave a transcendent account of the work in one of the previous day's sessions. And it was McInnes who had one of the finest student performances when young Australian Robert Woodward distilled the purest of poetry from Britten's Lachrymae. 

In an international event such as this, one felt that first two concerts which had players sampling the music of their various countries, should have been amongst the most memorable. Yet there was too much dull playing with music to match, and one of the few violists that really engaged me was Swede Hendrik Frendin, who gave us a Polska with a really rustic swing to it. He also showed us that it was possible to dance and play a viola at the same time. For me, Frendin's tactics made a special connection with Grieg's Hardanger fiddle (last heard on Carter Burwell's soundtrack for Fargo) and the traditional Finnish fiddling of the group JPP. NZSO violist, Peter van Drimmelen valiantly took the cause of his original homeland, playing a bittersweet 'Cavatina' by the Dutch composer Henk Badings. 

Henrik Frendin (Photograph: Dwight Pounds)

The indubitably great moment of these two 'international' concerts was Timothy Deighton's account of Martin Lodge's Pacific Rock for viola solo. This immaculately structured score combines passion and clarity, its sweltering virtuosics surrounding poignant, waiata-like heart. Lodge claims that there are rock music elements intended as part of the punning title, but to my ears the energy is more Slavic in its associations, with sweeping glissando chords, fierce repeated notes and slap pizzicati. Deighton was in superlative form, as he was a day later when his gripping account of Anthony Watson's Sonata for solo viola, was an oasis in a rather thrown-together hour of New Zealand music.

I'm not casting aspersions on the quality of the music here-Roger Wilson and Peter Barber managed to make time stand still in the Lilburn Three Songs for Baritone and Viola and Barber sustained the inner poetry of John Rimmer's Mahurangi-but a properly annotated programme would not have been amiss for the international visitors.

The newer works featured in this selection, such as Oblique, a delightfully devious duet by Fritha Jamieson, would definitely have benefited if more background information had been supplied.

Michael Vidulich and William Dart in coffee-break mode

The New Zealanders could have learned much from Brisbane-based Patricia Pollett, who had already given marvellous performances of the Alfred Hill Concerto and Andrew Ford's The Unquiet Grave with the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, and then went on to present a neatly curated selection of Australian music, in which a Margaret Sutherland Sonata from 1949 showed a very Australian resourcefulness in tackling that most European of forms.

In the evening concerts, most of which were held in the charmless ambience of the Riley Centre, there was the chance to hear not one, but three concertos by New Zealand composers in amongst the those of Bart-k and Paganini. On Monday, a spirited Peter Barber tackled an attractive and modest concerto by Michael Vidulich. Described by its composer as being written in the 'Romantic style', this score is closer to Hill than Henze in its loyalties. After interval, Timothy Deighton gave Anthony Ritchie's Concerto a powerful work-over, and for the most part it is a beautifully finessed score, let down only by the crudely handled 'popular' elements in its final movement. 

Nigel Keay's Concerto was, with Jack Body's After Bach, the high point of the final concert. Keay, who is currently resident in France, uses a palette that is dense and rich-and a little too much so at times. Themes flow through the texture, sometimes phrase by phrase, often blending and intercutting with the background, instead of being permitted to reach full lyrical fruition. The second movement Larghissimo, which offered a real contrast between two outer movements that were perhaps too similar, also seemed reluctant to let the soloist break into unbridled song, although the viola's final statement had a nobility to it. Franck Chevalier, who had given us some rough Vieuxtemps a few days before, was a committed soloist, while Marc Decio Taddei and the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra did the score proud.

Two works were specially commissioned for the event. For Timothy Hurd's Notasonata, the middle-fiddlers were herded into the National War Memorial and then marched up the steps, alternating open-string motifs and 'freak outs'-which could either be 'short-term' (sfo) or 'the real thing' (MFO)-while the carillion pealed its merry little heart out. The piece ended in the Great Hall, where the violas buzzed away like a swarm of demented bees, while two actors sustained a fairly impenetrable dialogue with one another. 

Jack Body's After Bach was more substantial. Pairing massed violas up with the Victoria University Gamelan, Body probed the possibilities of the Prelude from Bach's First Cello Suite. Body's ingenuity in drawing fresh, tangy sounds from this unusual coupling and his almost cheeky delight in layering and sequencing away with no fear of admonishment, made this a superb opener for the final concert. And it was not all festive jollity-Body achieved moments of strange, memorable beauty, when the Western strings were set alongside the almost medievalish timbre of the Indonesian rebab. The good news is that interest has already been shown in this score from overseas viola groups . . . 

Massed violas in the final moments of Timothy Hurd's Notasonata

Looking back over these five days of intense activity, it is now the small things that bring back the sweetest memories. It was a real joy to hear composers who have been unjustly marginalised by current musical taste, but who are cherished by the viola community-Arnold Bax, whose rapturous Fantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp was performed by David Nalden and Yu Jin; and York Bowen, whose Fantasie for 12 Violas has obviously endeared him to the violists of the NZSO. Paul Hindemith was rightly feted, and one lunchtime concert alone featured the 1939 sonata for viola and piano, the solo sonata of Op 25 no1 and Der Schwanendreher. In his solo recital, Donald McInnes put forward an extremely convincing argument for Ernst Bloch's 1919 Suite.

Amongst the many fine performances, I must put in a special word for Bridget Douglas, Phillip Rose and Carolyn Mills who charmed us with Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and a stunning Brahms sonata apiece from Gillian Ansell with Bronwen Murray and Peter and Mary Barber. And let's not forget the mighty work from the various accompanists, with Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp having more than their share of notes-per-second in fearsome scores by Hindemith and Bloch.

And these five days were more than just the a catalogue of music and soloists. There was something here that made me look for words like 'collegial', 'communion' and 'communication'. One sensed it in the 8am basement play-alongs, in which amateur violists would come along with their instruments and taste the delights of Dido's Lament laid out in four parts. It was there in the touching presentation on William Primrose, by David Dalton and his wife, which gave us the chance to see rare footage of the English violist on screen and demonstrate, in a transcription of Schubert's 'Ave Maria', how the power of his C string might indeed by envied by mere fiddlers.

1. 'Middle-fiddle' was Percy Grainger's fabricated word for viola.

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