Violist Robert Levine’s new trick
MSO management wanted to a bit of an edge to this weekend’s concerts at the Basilica of St. Josaphat.
They got it largely in Derek Bermel’s Soul Garden, a sophisticated take on blues idioms. All those blue notes we’re so used to hearing as bent notes from, say, B.B. King’s guitar? Bermel notated them precisely, down to quarter-tone inflections, for the viola.
That sort of thing isn’t native to the instrument, as Robert Levine would attest. Levine, the Milwaukee Symphony’s long-time principal violist, will play the solo role in this 12-minute work for viola and string orchestra.
“I didn’t know about this piece and was maybe a tad skeptical,” Levine said, over breakfast at Alterra on Humboldt Thursday.
“I started working on it — and whoa,” Levine said. “I really didn’t get it at first. It’s really different.”
The Yale-trained Bermel is a virtuoso clarinetist in addition to being an A-list international composer. He’s won just about every composition prize a younger composer can aspire to. African-American music has been a big influence. As Levine pointed out, Bermel taking up blues/gospel and making it his own, in a way, differs little in principle from Liszt adopting gypsy music or Dvorak putting his own stamp on Slavonic dances.
This excerpt from the original program notes reveals some of the composer’s thinking: “The solo viola solo is made to resemble a burnished alto gospel singer; the cello a rumbling church baritone.
The work exploits the tension stemming from what Bermel calls the rub, the juxtaposition of the African pentatonic and European diatonic scales. Melodically and harmonically rooted at first, Soul Garden slowly moves away from its tonal center. By the viola cadenza, the glue holding the piece together is gesture, an element common to all of Bermel’s works; yet each of these gestures can be traced back to the viola’s opening motive. Bermel thus pays tribute to the Beethovenian ideal of generating the entire motivic content of a movement from an initial melodic seed.”
“The blues is a vocal form,” Levine said. “Bermel is a first-class clarinetist, and I can see that a lot of stuff in Soul Garden comes from the jazz vocal and wind tradition. That’s one of the reasons I’ve had to wrestle with it. As vocal as string instruments are said to be, they’re really not. In the voice and in wind instruments, vibrato changes both pitch and amplitude. In string instruments, it changes only pitch. I envy the clarinet’s closeness to the vocal mechanism.”
Bermel composed the piece in 2000, for Paul Neubauer on a commission from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The original version was for viola and string quintet (with an extra cello). The MSO will play it with a full string section, with resident conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong on the podium. Levine thinks that makes a tough piece even tougher, because more players makes it harder to put an edge on Bermel’s complicated rhythms.
Levine counts the solo part as among the toughest he’s ever tackled. For example: Unless you’re fully committed and clear about those quarter-tones, the casual listener will think you’re just playing out of tune.
“It’s very easy in this business, especially playing in an orchestra, to get set in your ways. Soul Garden has been an adventure, and I’ve come to like it. Even if I never do it again, it’s been useful to have my mind pried open.”
Program Credits: Conductor, Francesco Lecce-Chong. Also on the program: Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, for chamber ensemble; John Rutter The Sprig of Thyme, featuring Lee Erickson’s Milwaukee Symphony Chorus; and Arnold Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht, Opus 4 (1943 revision).
Concert Info: 7:30 p.m. (note, 30 minutes earliers than usual MSO concerts) Friday and Saturday, March 30-31, at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, 2333 S. 6th St. (At Lincoln Ave.) Tickets are $28 and $48; call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605, or visit the MSO website.
Display image: Blue viola by Merano Musical Instruments.