The viola and those who play it have been the source of ridicule and the subject of countless jokes for centuries.
The low esteem in which violists have found themselves can be traced back to Johann Joachim Quantz in the 18th century. Remembered today principally as the author of the definitive treatise on flute playing, Quantz also had some terse comments regarding violists. Among his (in)famous observations, he said that the viola is of little musical consequence and that it is played by those who, in effect, are second-rate violinists.
Even though Quantz's remarks had no basis in truth, they nevertheless tainted the way the instrument was perceived by others. This, despite the fact that a musician of J.S. Bach's stature, who was a master of several instruments, preferred the viola whenever he played in string ensembles.
Well into the 20th century, the viola was relegated to a secondary role. In the 18th and 19th centuries, only a handful of works were written in which the viola figured as a solo instrument. Most notable of these is Hector Berlioz's "Harold in Italy," written for Niccolo Paganini, who desired to emulate his fabled violin artistry with the viola. But aside from Paganini, there weren't any viola virtuosos of note during this period.
It wasn't until the 20th century that composers began taking notice of the instrument. This period also saw the rise of the first true virtuosos.
William Primrose is among the first and certainly the most significant of the pioneers of virtuoso violists. He more than anyone else brought the instrument to its full glory and raised it to the level of the violin in terms of technical artistry.
Primrose also commissioned numerous composers to write works for him, among them Benjamin Britten, Darius Milhaud, George Rochberg and Bela Bartok, whose Concerto for Viola Primrose premiered in 1949.
Born in 1904 in Scotland, Primrose toured the world as a soloist. He performed in various chamber ensembles as well, and for a few years in the late 1930s and early '40s, he was also principal viola of the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini.
After suffering a heart attack in 1963, Primrose devoted most of his time and energy to teaching. In 1979, he moved to Provo, where he taught at Brigham Young University until his death three years later.
One of Primrose's greatest legacies is his vast library of music, which he bequeathed to BYU. The Primrose International Viola Archive, which numbers over 6,000 scores, is the world's most important repository of viola literature, attracting musicians and scholars from every corner of the globe.
With this background, it's fitting that the school will be hosting this year's Primrose Viola Competition and Festival. The biannual international event begins Monday and runs through Saturday. Claudine Bigelow, head of viola studies and chamber music at BYU, has been spending the past several months fund-raising for the competition and organizing it.
Bigelow admitted that at first she didn't want to be in charge of the festival. "But I love my instrument so much, I want to promote it. And this is really an important event."
The competition has drawn participants from throughout the world. "We have people from Curtis and Juilliard, and a lot from Korea and China. And we have someone from Israel who studied with (Pinchas) Zukerman," Bigelow said.
The level of playing at the competition will be high. "The quality of the performances will denounce the Quantz myth," she promised.
There will be three rounds of competition, each of which is open to the public. After the final round, judges will determine the top three prize-winning performers, who will give a recital Saturday evening and be presented with their medals.
The winners will be guaranteed a number of performances. "There will be solo appearances with orchestras and recitals," Bigelow said. "The New York Viola Society will host the first-place winner, and I'm currently negotiating a performance with a Canadian orchestra."
Among the judges will be two past Primrose competition winners Daniel Foster, the current principal viola of the National Symphony, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama, one of the rising stars among the younger generation of violists.
Some of the judges will also be featured in recitals throughout the week. These are also open to the public.
On Thursday evening, the spotlight will be on two local artists, violist Brant Bayless and pianist Jason Hardink, both members of the Utah Symphony. The competition rounds and recitals take place in Madsen Recital Hall in the Harris Fine Arts Center.Bigelow said that she is elated that the competition has finally come to Provo. "Strad magazine calls BYU a viola mecca, and it's a natural place to have this. It's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, although my colleagues want me to host it again."
If you go . . .
What: Primrose Viola Competition and Festival
Where: Madsen Recital Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, Brigham Young University, Provo
When: Monday-Saturday, various times
How much: $50 for members of the American Viola Society, $100 for non-members; per recital, $10 general, $8 students
E-mail: [email protected]