Further exploring our season theme of “Games People Play”, Saturday’s ROCO Unchambered: Terzetto features a unique program of chamber works for strings and piano, carefully curated by co-principal violist Suzanne LeFevre.
In this ROCOInsider, learn how Suzanne crafted the concert, hear why the viola is like a secret sauce, and discover why this performance is truly “music among friends!”
How did you develop this diverse program? Did Dvořák’s Terzetto come first?
Yes, it did in fact! When Alecia Lawyer asked me last season to plan an Unchambered program, I immediately thought of this great piece by Dvořák. First – because of the instrumentation of viola and two violins, which would give me the chance to perform with my close friends, violinists Amy Thiaville and Rachel Jordan. I have known Amy and Rachel for so long. Amy and I went to school together at University of Wisconsin-Madison, then also at Yale University, and I met Rachel in New Orleans when I was principal viola of the Louisiana Philhamonic Orchestra. As well, this piece really fit the season theme, since Terzetto is a real game, dealing with matching trios of marbles. Then from there, I basically built the rest of the program around that piece as a starting point.
The four pieces featured display a wide range of styles, colors and moods, plus different groupings of instruments. How do they link?
There’s actually a wonderful chain of influence going on among these composers. Dvořák’s support was a big factor in Schulhoff becoming a composer – he heard the talented young musician at the age of 7, and recommended him to the Prague Conservatory to study music. So, he was definitely an influence for Schulhoff to later go into composition. And then Schulhoff dedicated his Five Pieces for String Quartet to Milhaud, his friend and contemporary.
Most works on the program are also influenced to some extent by dance rhythms and even jazz, in either subtle or more obvious ways, which makes it a lot of fun. I think it’s important to have a counterbalance of sound worlds in a program, and in programming I try to create a nice little trip – something that forces you to stop and think, to lay back, to be quiet for a while, and to think about just nothing but the music.
What do you love about these pieces? Any special elements should we be listening for?
In general, the whole program consists of short pieces and movements, fun miniatures really. I just love, love the music of Schulhoff, and especially his Five Pieces we are going to play. It’s such an interesting work – as it flashes back to the earlier idea of a combination of dance movements, a la Bach, with a neo-baroque style. So you’ve got five movements of different dance forms, but the way he treats each of these forms is really fascinating.
For instance, the first movement is a Viennese waltz (he spent time in Vienna and was influenced later by the Second Viennese School) – and a waltz is usually in a beat of 3, but here it is in 4/4 time, so it is a bit jarring and throws off how you would rhythmically play it – he plays a game on the musicians here!
And his Serenade movement is not your usual lovely and beautiful Serenade – it is quite ironic, and includes a Czech dance, a shine to Schulhoff’s own heritage.
Schulhoff himself was very fun-loving, there are stories that he loved to stay out all night dancing and was a jazz aficionado! The influence of his love of dance music shows in this piece, especially in the Tango and Tarantella. I really connect with his music, it has great rhythm.
You can also hear jazz rhythms in the work of Darius Milhaud – that’s what was happening then in the music world, jazz was making its way across the ocean, and then came into classical music.
Milhaud was an extremely fast and prolific writer, his Duo for Two Violins was written mostly during a dinner with violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Roman Totenberg, as they wanted to play a piece of his for fun. So he composed it on the spot!
The newest work on the program, by Elena Kats-Chernin, has an interesting story on how you discovered it – tell us about that, and how it relates to your work as a teacher?
I actually found this piece through my students! I teach at University of Houston where I am an Affiliate Artist of Viola, I have a viola studio there and also create and coach student chamber groups, and help them choose repertoire. Chamber music and programming is such a passion of mine, it’s been great working with younger musicians in this field.
Gypsy Ramble was programmed really from self-indulgence, I coached a chamber group in this piece, and knew then I wanted to learn and play it. This was a perfect opportunity.
This piece is based on an old baroque theme and structured like a theme and variations. But really, it’s all about the colors of each instrument – the composer hands the theme around, giving it different characters and tempos, showing off pyrotechnics for each player.
I love the colors and groove of this work, it’s really fun. I enjoy how Elena Kats-Chernin takes you off on adventures (“rambles”) in the piece, but always brings you back home – her writing is so creative.
Do you get a chance to perform recitals or chamber music often, and create your own programs?
I try to do a couple a year if possible. I really love the process of programming, that rabbit hole you go down when you start researching pieces, listening to and learning about so much repertoire.
In the past, I also have had a chance to do this as part of the staff of ROCO, working in artistic planning. I have been involved with the ensemble since the beginning in various capacities and have learned so much – with ROCO there has always been so much room for creativity, it’s been inspirational as a musician.
Any “bucket list” chamber works you wish you could perform, or a piece you wish you could have included in this program?
That’s tough! There is the Viola Suite by Kenji Bunch I would have liked to include, and some other great pieces that just didn’t fit logistically. For a “bucket list” piece – I’ve been lucky to perform a lot of the pieces that might be on that list, but what does come to mind are the late Beethoven string quartets. I wish I could do those, they are simply amazing.
Finally, the viola – what do you love about your instrument? When did you start playing? What should we know about how cool it is?
I loved the viola from the first moment I was introduced to it by my string teacher in school. I actually started directly on the viola – I didn’t want to play the violin, I found it too squeaky and loud, and was interested in cello but I had to walk to school and viola was easier to carry! But really, the viola was just my voice from the beginning, it was me – I like to kind of be in the back and watch, then put my two cents in.
What’s cool about the viola is: it’s like when you eat a great sandwich full of tasty ingredients, and there’s this “something extra” on it that you can’t figure out which makes it complete, like a secret sauce – that’s what the viola is like in an orchestra.
It’s that inner voice with the power to suddenly turn a chord, and often has lines that can really drive the orchestra and string section harmonically, rhythmically.
I personally love the subtlety and the warmth of the viola, but I like that every once in a while it has this important presence which can change the color and tone of the whole section.
That’s what I look for and enjoy when performing in an ensemble, those unique moments of discovery.
I’m really looking forward to this program and performing with these women – these ladies are my musical soulmates, and I can’t wait to perform this music together, it’s going to be so much fun.
Suzanne LeFevre features as violist and curator in ROCO Unchambered: Terzetto, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 5:00 pm, at MATCH. Tickets available at roco.org, or at the door.