Violist Samuel Rhodes was with the Juilliard String Quartet from 1969-2013 and has been chairman of the school’s viola department since 2002. It must have been rewarding for him to hear whoops and hollers from the student-heavy audience at his concert the other night at Juilliard’s Paul Recital Hall. The program, part of the Daniel Saidenberg Faculty Recital Series, featured music both familiar and unfamiliar, old, new, and newly adapted.
It began with the String Trio No. 1 for Two Violas and Violoncello by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837). Either there’s been a bit of a Hummel revival in recent years, or I just happen to have heard more of his music lately in concert and on classical music radio. In any case Rhodes, fellow violist Misha Amory, and cellist Joel Krosnick gave a fine reading of this sophisticated work.
Without a violin in the ensemble, one must adjust one’s listening brain to a narrower range. One has to lean in a bit more to follow the lead viola, especially when the melody is out of the instrument’s high register. The benefit is that one gets a closer appreciation of the warm middle tones of the string instruments. Hummel creates beautiful harmonic textures in the first movement, along with a Mozartian feeling of ease. The trio’s magnificent performance made the most of this.
The musicians created the illusion of four or even five instruments in the second movement’s beautiful tone clusters in motion. The third “Menuetto” movement fared not quite as well; perhaps it was the sharply defined accents that produced a bit of rhythmic awkwardness. But the finale possessed the appropriate mix of joviality and grandiosity. Altogether this music speaks exceedingly well for Hummel, who obviously absorbed something of value from the two years he spent as a child studying with Mozart.
The Sonata for Viola and Piano by John Harbison (2018), like much new concert music, grew on me as it progressed. Rhodes and pianist Robert McDonald presented the New York premiere of the piece. Its six movements grow progressively more concise. The first asserts itself with forceful syncopations that felt a little gimmicky – until I recalled how often Beethoven did the same thing. Frequent tempo changes keep the listener alert while unison passages provide grounding. The piece is labeled “Resolution” – an intentionally strange choice for an opening movement.
The second, simply called “Passage,” introduces sweet melodies which develop interesting oddball dissonances. And if the third movement is, as designated, a “Night Piece,” it’s an active evening, with jazzy rhythms and piano glissandos. The fourth embodies its title, “Certainties, Uncertainties,” with thoughtful hesitations. Beautiful piano writing characterize it as well as the following movement (“Questions”), with descending chords that lead to no conclusions.
Something decisive does arrive in the final, briefest movement, “Answers,” with a bold three-note theme, a sequence of lurching statements, and a decisive finish with dissonant tone clusters.
There’s much lovely writing for the viola throughout the work, especially in its high register, in which Rhodes achieved a bright, singing, dare I say violin-like tone. The audience responded enthusiastically to this very recent work from the clearly still vital Harbison.
Rhodes and McDonald then presented Rhodes’ new arrangement for viola and piano of Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 334. It should prove a valued addition to the viola repertoire. The piano part is written artfully; I didn’t miss the string section much, or the horns. Rhodes played the “violin” leads in the first movement with nimble grace, making it a high-spirited delight.
The two-instrument setting helps to stress the second movement’s spaciousness and its pathos. The result was an effective sense of starkness, even as the musicians expressed many different flavors through the theme and variations. My own favorite moments of this Divertimento occur in this movement, and there was nothing lacking in Rhodes’ stripped-down arrangement. After the “Menuetto” ran lightly by, he and McDonald played the finale – Mozart at his most basic and bare-faced – with the requisite brio, though with slight tuning problems.
A welcome encore of the slow movement from Hindemith’s Sonata Op. 25, No. 4 ended the concert on a sad and spooky note. Rhodes has long been associated with the avant-garde Hindemith, who was also a violist, and whose music always strikes a chord with me, for reasons I can’t always define. This performance was no exception. Samuel Rhodes remains as vital as the music he loves and the often overlooked instrument he champions.