If you’re not meant to operate heavy machinery, how about playing the viola?

From our quartet diarist, Anthea Kreston:

Cologne, Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna – big halls, big repertoire, big expectations. Now that the news of the quartet going different directions is out in the open, I can feel a different kind of vibe from the audience, a mix of nostalgia, scrutiny, and tremendous support. Standing ovations before intermission kind of thing, and long hugs at the after-parties. Lots of questions – from presenters, audience, and in my email box. It’s hard to dance around these pointed questions, but the truth of the immediate music-making is clear. Four musicians at their prime, fully committed to the moment, even as off-stage, our minds and lives race with the myriad possibilities of the future.

Exhausted from tour, I was looking forward to seeing my family and hosting a birthday party. When I walked in, Jason was in the backyard, burying clues for a treasure hunt with a miniature yellow shovel. He called into the house with final instructions just as people began to arrive for the party. I put down my backpack and violin, and was stuffing the gift bags as I noticed my phone screen lighting up – how had 17 messages appeared in the last 20 minutes?

As I greeted the gaggle of little girls, I scrolled through the messages. The Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra was in a pickle. Their principal violist was in the hospital for emergency surgery, and my dear friends, power couple cellist/conductor Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt and violinist Indira Koch needed a hand. Starting first thing the next morning. Of course I said yes – we musicians stick together! I said count on me – if you can’t find anyone. After many more updates, by the girls’ bedtime it was clear that I was going to be pulling double-duty this week – learning and daily rehearsing the next round of repertoire for Artemis, then running across town to prepare for the Metamorphosen concert in the Gendarmenmarkt Konzerthaus this week before heading out to Latvia and Brussels for the next quartet engagements.

At 10 pm, I was knocking on the door of my friend Walter Küssner, a Curtis-trained violist in the Berlin Philharmonic – he had a viola for me. It was a big one, he warned me, but it was clean and sounded good – good enough to have won the principal viola audition for Berlin Phil (did it used to belong to Amihai or Máté?). I noticed the extra hole in the scroll – at one point it must have been strung as a 5-string. I didn’t have a moment to try it out – I was sick with a cold, and had to try to get a decent night sleep before sight-reading the rehearsal on an unfamiliar viola. That night, I had that kind of sleep, when your head is bursting – mine with not only a cold, but with all the things I had to juggle in these coming weeks. Touring, learning the new set of quartet repertoire, piano trio concert in Brussels, and somehow preparing for my Oslo Concertmaster audition. Well, that last one was going to have to sit on the shelf for the rest of the week – there are other, more pressing matters.

That night I had that “first day of a cold” kind-of sleep. Nose running like water, you tip your head at a 45% angle towards the ground, so it runs out, not back to your throat, and then you have to shove your little home-art-project toilet-paper plugs into your nostrils, and breath through your mouth, but then you drool so much you have to put Kleenex down by your mouth and then it gets to dry and you wake up coughing and your tongue feels like a dehydrated piece of broccoli scraping against a welcome mat. And then, you have to repeat the whole process, starting with new nose plugs. A series of 7 minute naps.

I arrived at the rehearsal, and my first attempt through the Elgar I sounded like a bewildered hedgehog. I couldn’t quite play the notes, and I was silly from my medication (the kind where you aren’t supposed to operate “heavy machinery”, which is the very definition of a viola). Wolfgang looked at me, clearly trying to override his panic with a sheen of optimism. But, by that time I had snapped to it, figured out how to play in tune on this huge monster, and remembered how to read the clef. All will be well!

So – I am just trying to make it through the week. It is a lot of fun playing with this orchestra – and to meet new and old friends. And, by this time next week, I will be in Greece on holiday with my family (of course practising furiously with my violin while there). Should be fun!

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  • Must you mention Curtis at each moment? I do not believe the violist you name attended. All the more flattering, I suppose, that he is such a marvelous musician

    • Hi Gerry –
      No – Walter is in Italy. He just loaned me a viola before he left. He is an amazing violist and very warm-hearted person. You are funny about Curtis. I also went to Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, but I flunked out of theory.

      • You seem to only mention “Curtis trained” but not “Juilliard trained” or “Royal Academy” trained, and so on. Alas, what is more interesant is that Mr Küssner himself does not mention Curtis in his biography; I wrote it seems he did not attend this institute (his bio does not say Curtis), and you wrote he is “in Italy.” In Italy or not, he is a wonderful musician (and students say an inspiring teacher) and I have always enjoyed his musical enthusiasm.

        • Good point. I suppose it is natural that one’s Alma Mater just naturally comes up. I rarely meet someone who went to Cleveland State University, but I do love to talk to people with whom I have some sort of connection. Thanks for the fact-checking on Walter. It was my understanding that he went to Curtis, and then had to return to Germany for some reason. It was impossible for him to re-register, so he followed his Curtis teacher to a different institution. Maybe it was Cleveland State University? Thanks for reading!

  • This is very interesting. About the viola which was once upon a time a five stringed instrument it would be useful to know,if possible,by whom,when and where it was made.
    I mention this because in the 1830s Paganini comissioned
    a five string viola from Francesco Borghi with a view to using it for his Sonata per La Gran Viola.
    However,what became of this instrument? My theory is that it was converted into a conventional viola and ‘got lost in the crowd’. Could this be the viola which you are currently using?

      • Hi Anthea,
        Thank you for your reply.
        About this particular instrument I cannot offer any further info. However,I can offer further info regarding Paganini’s ‘antics’ with the viola and,to boot,a few of your’s—and mine!
        In 1833 Paganini bought a Stradivari viola from the London dealer,Mr George Corsby for £300. Dirt cheap? Well,in today’s £ that is a little over £30,000. Still a bargain…. Oh yes? That sum would barely cover the insurance of that instrument today. What a life!
        Old Nicolo bought that viola with Harold in Italy in mind. However,he said that there were too many rests. Some years ago some wag suggested to me that Nicolo couldn’t count them! Who knows?
        BTW,you say that your present viola is rather large. I get it;after playing the fiddle for X amount of time it feels like you have boat under your chin. Don’t worry,I know exactly how you feel. I’ve been there,seen it and done it!
        I don’t like small violas,and they don’t like me!
        Always your humble servant,
        Simon

    • Wow – you are right. Jūrmala is like a fairytale – what a mix of time-warp and natural beauty, with a sprinkle of post-Soviet Union beach-town decay. Didn’t get to the pludmale yet – will hit that tomorrow morning. I wish I could post photos here!

  • Dear Anthea,

    You say that the viola ‘was a big one… I noticed the extra hole in the scroll – at one point it must have been strung as a 5-string.’

    I’m far from being a string instrument expert, but maybe the viola was originally a ‘viola da spalla’ or some intermediary instrument between it and the current viola.

    • Very interesting. I know that the owner told me it was very large, but he knew I could handle it. I already gave it back – I am back to violin and touring. I will try to get more information about it. I am always agog at how fascinating and endlessly intriguing classical music is. Never a dull moment!!

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