Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, the instruments that produce the middle voices of the orchestra, such as the viola, “don’t get no respect.” With an imaginative and wide-ranging program heard March 18, violist Scott Rawls and pianist Philip Bush made a strong argument for the world to sit up and take notice. The concert was given in the intimate confines of the Organ Hall, located in the neo-Medieval keep I call “the silo,” in the west end of UNC-Greensboro’s fine School of Music building.

According to the New Grove II article on the viola, by David D. Boyden and Ann Woodward, “To replicate the acoustical results of the violin…, the viola would require a body half [again] as long … as the violin’s, whose length is standardized at an average of 35.5 cm,” but human arm lengths vary, and the instrument’s size, which can range from 38 to more than 48 cm, has never been standardized. Moreover, the viola’s ability to project its “voice” varies widely from instrument to instrument. Rawls’ viola, made by Ferrucio Varagnola in 1914, has the darkest, warmest, and richest tone of any that I regularly hear in the state. A generous but tasteful application of vibrato adds to the fullness of its timbre.

For this concert, the piano lid was kept on its short stick. Since I crave every nuance of color and tone from a well-tuned keyboard, I usually take umbrage at such muzzling, but Bush is the only pianist I can recall who can impart most of the palette or spectrum one expects from a fully-opened instrument. He demonstrated refined control of dynamics and precise articulation of complex rhythms.

Three Bagatelles for Viola and Piano (1968) by Don Freund (b.1947) were delights from beginning to end. At times, the fast Toccata’s viola part reminded me of Shostakovich, while the piano’s repeated figure seemed a little like Prokofiev. The full range of the viola is exploited in the slower Arioso, in which a long, rich melody alternates with a sad, high-pitched song. The piano part is complex and often percussive. High viola harmonics and the instrument’s opulent middle range are featured in the concluding Ballata, set against a tapestry of keyboard arpeggios.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sonata, Op. 147 (1975), is one of the masterpieces of the literature, and the artists’ interpretation was simply breathtaking. There was an extraordinary variety of pizzicatos and expressive use of dynamics and phrasing. To call the performance “soulful” would be an understatement. Rawls related another violist’s characterization of the valedictory third movement, Adagio, as “what happens after Death.” Shostakovich had been taught Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata by his mother, and throughout the movement, its well-known opening is frequently alluded to by the piano and even taken up by the viola.

An 8th-cntury Chinese poem by Tu Fu was the inspiration for Seven for the Flowers Near the River (1988) by the well-known and prolific composer Stephen Paulus. It was composed for Cynthia Phelps and Warren Jones. On his website, Paulus says, “My intent was to create something colorful and evocative, romantic and also technically challenging.” He has succeeded in spades. The short movements run the gamut – now lyrical, now playful, now somber and subdued, now an olympic workout. Rawls inverted the order of the fifth and sixth movements, playing the “Lament” with its trills, plush texture, and exposed high harmonics before the rapid-paced “Bergomask.”

Mark Kuss was a member of the first graduating class of doctoral candidates in Duke University’s composition program. CVNC has reviewed many of his works composed for Duke musicians such as the Ciompi Quartet and cellist Fred Raimi. Kuss’ Variations on “My Favorite Things” was at once fun and a wonder as Rawls and Bush limned the composer’s inventive and quirky “deconstructions and reconstructions” of the well-known song.

Most of the program is scheduled to be repeated at Duke on March 24. Admirers of inventive contemporary music and polished musicianship ought to make sure to attend. See our calendar for details.

A note on parking at UNCG: Along with comfortable performing spaces with fine acoustics, the delights of attending concerts at UNCG’s School of Music have included an enlightened policy of free parking in the nearby deck. In an era of dwindling and aging audiences, every amenity helps. Unlike Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, where many concerts are free, a nominal charge is made for most offerings at UNCG. Alas, free concert parking in the deck has now ended. Exact change is recommended, and patrons without parking cards should be prepared for long waits in line. Innovative technology could be brought to bear: discounted parking passes could be sold when concert tickets are purchased or – better yet – the fee could again be rescinded for music lovers visiting the campus.


Updated 4/3/05: Nothing fills us with more joy than to find that there has been NO CHANGE in the UNCG Music Department’s ENLIGHTENED CONCERT PARKING POLICY. There was a mix-up at the Rawls concert but the standing agreement is that a member of the presenting crew will be on hand to collect tickets and wave audience members through the gate. We thank Dean John J. Deal for his quick clarification.

 (Updated 4/3/05)