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Don Ehrlich brings a program of viola discoveries to his SFCM recital

The cover of Don Ehrlich's Bach album, showing his ergonomically corrected Pellegrina model viola
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Last night violist Don Ehrlich began his Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) with the announcement that the date was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 258th birthday. He then said that, in honor of the occasion, none of Mozart’s music would be performed. He did not remind us, however, that, when Mozart and Joseph Haydn got together with their colleagues to play string quartets in Vienna, Mozart was the one playing the viola. That would be enough to justify giving a viola recital on Mozart’s birthday.

Another interesting fact about the timing of this occasion was that all of the music on the program was performed no more than 100 years prior to the date. Indeed, the earliest work was the final selection, Rebecca Clarke’s sonata composed in 1919. The chronology then advanced to the period following the end of the Second World War with a divertimento by Ingolf Dahl (1948) and a sonata by Joseph Willcox Jenkins (1950). The remaining two works were world premieres.

Having written last week on my national site about a recent European recording of the Clarke sonata, I welcomed the opportunity to listen to it again in performance. I have Jodi Levitz to thank for introducing me to this sonata at a Faculty Artist Series recital she gave in December of 2009, from which one may assume that my memory of the sonata was rather vivid. It would be fair to say that Clarke was as dedicated to the viola as she was to the pursuit of composition. During her attendance at the Royal College of Music (RCM) from 1907 to 1910, she was one of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s first female composition students; but she also studied viola with Lionel Tertis, still remembered as one of the great violists of the early twentieth century.

Clarke’s sonata abounds with the lush rhetoric that was making its last stand in the face of the more abstract qualities of a rising modernism. The piano accompaniment (taken by SFCM Staff Pianist Miles Graber last night) is practically symphonic; and Ehrlich was not shy in serving up the richest of sonorities in the viola part. I found myself thinking of similar qualities in the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, which led me to recall that Vaughan Williams was another one of Stanford’s students. (Clarke also sang in a student ensemble at RCM directed by Vaughan Williams.)

Levitz was on hand to perform one of the two premieres of the evening, a viola duet recently completed by Rachel Matthews entitled “Double Helix.” Ehrlich had performed Matthews’ prize-winning “Dreams” in the Faculty Artist Series recital he had given in March of 2012. “Double Helix” is a four-movement duo with no apparent connotations of molecular biology. Rather, it seems that Matthews appropriated the technical term to describe the intertwining of the two viola parts, using each of the movements to explore this intimate relationship in a different rhetorical context. Because the rich sonorities of Levtiz’ performance matched Ehrich’s so well, the result was an experience that that drew the listener into the elegance of the texture woven by the two parts.

The second premiere was Ehrlich’s own composition, “In Memorium, Hana.” The work was a song for baritone (alumnus Ryan Bradford) accompanied by viola and bass (guest artist Andrei Gorbatenko). The text was a letter of a grieving father, addressed to the spirit of his ten-year-old daughter, who had just died. This was Ehrlich’s first venture into composition, and his focus on the lower register provided a heart-rending setting of this intensely emotional text.

The two post-War compositions were the results of Ehrlich taking advantage of his retirement from the San Francisco Symphony as an opportunity for discovery. The Jenkins sonata was written when the composer was studying at the Eastman School of Music, back when it was directed by its founder, Howard Hanson. It consists of a single ternary-form movement with a strongly contrasting middle section and a bold rhetoric that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced Hanson’s own compositions. True to its name, the Dahl divertimento was far more light-hearted. It was also the most prankish composition on the program, with a Coda tacked on at the moment when the listener thinks that the Finale movement has come to complete closure.

Taken as a whole, Ehrlich presented a program of diverse discoveries, making a strong case that the viola repertoire deserves more attention.

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