You’ve recorded composers such as Ralph Shapey, Donald Martino and Luigi Nono, but you embrace a wide range of repertoire. What qualities draw you to a piece and compel you to commit to its realization?
I'm basically looking for vividness and some quality that is very strong. That sounds general but I am open to different aesthetics. I just want the piece to create its own world and suggest something that makes me feel something very strongly emotionally or want to try to understand it more fully. A piece might take you through a compelling progression of moods, a structure that's somehow meaningful, it could be remarkably static or slow, it could offer astonishing sounds, or provoke surprising emotions. I do like technical challenges and to explore what my instrument can do, but if the piece is just a collection of sounds or tricks, I get bored with it after a little while and want to do something else.
What is classical music to you?
I think at this point it comes down to intention and the framing of the music as a defined work of art. There are no templates of form or harmony or anything anymore, every parameter has been challenged and upended, and it doesn't even have to be notated in the conventional way, it could even be just verbal instructions. But the piece has to have a clear intention as a distinct work of music, and a concept about how it is put together, whether in time or content.
I like to think/hope that even people who have upended those parameters still put their work in the context of classical music's history. The term "classical music" as we've known it has referred mainly to Western, European-derived culture. Its origins are seen as coming from medieval chant through to the music of European Baroque and Classical/Romantic eras, which was exported to America and the rest of the world. But as the world has gotten smaller, classical music has become less European per se and more inclusive of anything, in the best American sense of embracing all origins and ethnicities.
You play both violin and viola. Can you speak about your approach to both?
I've played the violin much of my life and I took up the viola about six years ago. I just love the expanded sound possibilities of playing both and adapting my playing style to each. It's comparable to wind players, who often play the full range of registers of their instruments: flute goes from piccolo to C flute to alto to bass, clarinet has the E-flat, A, B-flat and bass clarinets, etc. There are players who double on violin/viola but it's not as usual a thing for string players.
I relish the upper and lower extremes—the high E string of the violin, which can be soaring and radiant or delicate and whispery or even charmingly squeaky, and the low C string of the viola, which can be rich or dusky and velvety. In the middle range which the instruments share, I'm always intrigued by the difference in tone color—the viola has its grainier sound, almost reedy, which I find particularly beautiful quiet in the upper positions, and the violin has its own kind of warmth but tends to be more focused and direct, and with a more nimble response to quick motions of the bow.
People often ask how it is to switch between violin and viola on a program. I've found the physical adjustment is pretty simple—your kinesthetic memory as a player becomes quite intuitive with years of playing and I get a physical sense of the viola quickly. The approach to sound production is certainly different—with the viola, it's more effort to draw the tone. When I go from viola back to violin, the violin feels like a toy instrument, it seems so small and light! Of course there's the matter of reading the viola alto clef—I occasionally still second-guess myself!
Besides viola and violin, I'm also going to be featuring a sort of hybrid instrument, because Nina Young's piece is for scordatura (de-tuned) violin. The lowest string is tuned down a fourth so it has a sound color all its own!