Sunday, March 28, 2021
On WCRB In Concert with Rockport Music, acclaimed violist Paul Laraia joins the Aizuri Quartet and friends for chamber pieces by Mozart, Dvorák, Bruch, and Brahms, on demand.
Paul Laraia, viola
Barry Shiffman, violin
Danny Koo, violin
Kevin Ahfat, piano
Hear Part 1:
Hear Part 2:
On the program:
MOZART Duo in B-flat for violin and viola
BRUCH Romanze for viola and piano
BRAHMS String Quintet No. 1
Recorded on June 29, 2019 at Rockport Music
Violist Paul Laraia previews the concert and describes the artistic challenges and opportunites that come with life as a concert violist:
Brian McCreath (BMcC) I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB and I'm at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport with Paul Laraia, the violist who is featured on a Rockport Chamber Music Festival concert. Paul, thank you for taking a few minutes to talk with me today. I appreciate it.
Paul Laraia (PL) Thank you. It's my pleasure.
BMcC So you've just finished rehearsal and so you have a sense of this hall. I know you've been in this hall before with a different ensemble, but maybe that was a little while ago. What's your sense of this hall now coming back here, especially, as you know, the featured centerpiece soloist of this concert?
PL Well, the hall is just so beautiful, not only visually, but acoustically. It's a really excellent hall to play viola in in particular, because the size is not too sort of scary and it's not something you have to feel like you have to overly project in. It's, you get an immediate response. I don't know if you can hear it now, but it's just a lovely space to feel the music in, and also, but it still retains an element of intimacy with the audience, which is really, I think, violists especially appreciate that.
BMcC Yeah. Yeah. Well, and the viola having that ability to soar when it needs to, but really have some deep resonance. It seems like you would have a way as a violist of maybe even experiencing more aspects of this hall than some other instrumentalists would.
PL Yeah, exactly. I think that's perfectly true. I mean, a lot of our colors are in the sort of, like people like to say, the human voice range. And it's kind of like we're able to have a dialog with the hall. The sound comes right back and it feels sometimes if you want to use a certain... get into the string, you just fill the hall up with this sort of more smoky kind of sound. But then you can also focus the sound and project it. It's absolutely lovely. Not to mention the view.
BMcC The view is spectacular as well. That's true. We'll get into the specifics of the program in a bit. But but this program does sort of begin with just two instruments and progresses, adding sort of instruments as you go or adding resonance. And so I guess that changes your experience of the sound in the hall as well.
PL Yes, I would like to think so. And besides that, there's sort of a little bit of trajectory in terms of the complexity of the music. I shouldn't say complexity, but sort of, in the sort of intensity of the music, I think is a better way of saying it. Starting with the Mozart is certainly a really super complex, ingenious piece, the way that he's able to play just two single voices off of each other in sort of almost in contest with each other, but then also in unison, like it's just like a beautiful, like, ballet dance or something.
BMcC And is that Mozart, this is one of the duos that he wrote basically for Michael Haydn. That's kind of the funny part of the story behind it, that he was stepping in for Michael Haydn to complete something when Haydn was sick or hungover or some such thing. But is this music something that you kind of have under your fingers all the time? Is this pretty much straight ahead viola material that you could pull up when you need to almost any time?
PL In a way, it is, because you know, we don't have, I mean, Mozart really loved the viola and he was the the violist in his string quartet when he used to play string quartets with Papa Haydn and I believe with Boccherini or Dittersdorf. And he always gives the viola the best parts. And because we don't have solo sonatas in our repertoire, we only really have the one Sinfonia Concertante as our concerto vehicle, I would say this is one of our greatest chances to, like, play the master of Mozart and in his unique voice had to give to the viola. So in a way, yes, I would say, even if I don't always perform this piece, I do always read it with friends. It's kind of like one of those pieces that you just enjoy, you enjoy all the time.
BMcC Sort of symbolic of Mozart's own friendship with Michael Haydn, I guess, then. Yeah. So then the Dvoràk miniatures that you're doing, now, I should say at this point, you inherited this program basically. So tell me about that, and what it was like to get this call and say, "Look, we've got this program and our original artist can't make it, but we know you're a great violist. Can you take this on?" Was there any part of this program that made you stop and wonder? I know you did replace the one piece, but other than that, did you sort of have to give a little bit more thought to one thing or another about the program and whether you wanted to do that?
PL Well, I would say Mozart would be the one thing that, like, automatically on my list because it is such pristine music. I was immediately hit the practice room right away. But the Dvoràk, I have been thinking about that piece a little bit lately, even before I got the call from Barry, because I was thinking about programing a version where the viola takes a lot of the melodic material, because I'll be playing a Wigmore Hall recital in February as a prize for a competition that I did a couple of months ago. And so I've sort of been like listening to recordings, and so it was really kind of a funny coincidence that I was asked to play this piece. And the viola part kind of takes on the role of the cello in this one. So that's a fun role to play.
BMcC And what is the sort of character of these pieces? I guess Dvoràk kind of wrote them thinking of them more as chamber music, again, among friends. So tell me a little bit more about what the audience experiences when they hear these pieces for three instruments.
PL Well, the best way I can put it is that they're just extremely charming. They just go right to your heart. They're the kind of music that just doesn't have any pretense and it's just song, you know, song at his best, almost like Schubert. But this is Dvoràk's version of song in its most simple and beautiful form.
BMcC You decided instead of Prokofiev to do the Bruch Romanze. And what is it about that piece that made you think, "OK, I'll do this concert, but I really want to do this Bruch, rather than the Prokofiev?" What is it, what are the qualities of the Bruch that you really wanted to bring to the stage here?
PL Right. Well, the Bruch is just a fabulous piece, and it kind of helps that I've played this one a lot. Like I've played this one with many, I've soloed with many orchestras with this piece. And so I kind of know the piece in its original context, which is as sort of a concerto in the similar Romance style to the Beethoven Romances for violin. But I've also played it in recital and just the intimacy that you can get out of it when you're playing with piano. And I'm really, really fortunate to be playing with Kevin, who's a phenomenal chamber musician. I think we're going to have a really good time tonight bringing out all the little colors and nuances that you kind of have to, like, overly project when you're playing in a big hall, that you're going to hear a lot of-- hopefully you'll be hearing a lot of soft special colors from us tonight. And it's just that sort of high Romantic era music that we violists don't have a huge wealth of repertoire in. And this is just, this is our piece for that. And I hope that people will love it as much as I do.
BMcC Excellent. The Brahms String Quintet that you're doing, I wonder if it's sort of common experience as a violist to sort of be that person that steps in with a quartet, a preformed quartet, as you're doing with the Aizuri Quartet on this performance, and what this is, what this piece demands of you in terms of chemistry, I mean, I think there probably are a lot of situations like this where you've got to lock into a group that's already pretty locked in. Tell me about that.
PL Yeah, exactly. And sort of the role of a of a concert violist these days is definitely that of jumping in to these great masterworks on festivals and such. And a couple of months ago, I jumped in for a Mendelssohn Octet, which you really have to be fitting in really well, because when the number goes to eight, it can be kind of cacophonous if everybody's trying to do their own, play their own version of musicality, you know, you have to be really humble in that situation. And I'm lucky that I play in a string quartet also full time, the Catalyst Quartet. And so normally I would be playing the first viola part on this, but I'm joining in with my friends on the second viola part. And what's really cool about that is that it is very much like a quartet viola part in that it's very, very much in the part of the text, it's in the textures. It's right up in there. Like I feel like I have a lot of dialog with the cello, just like I would if I was playing in the string quartet and a lot of dialog with the second violin. And it's really nice to play with with a preformed quartet. And the Aizuri Quartet are phenomenal musicians and I'm feeling really good about this one. I'm feeling like the rehearsals were great and we're going to make Brahms proud on this one.
BMcC That's good to hear. Well, you've referenced a few times here as we've talked some aspects of your life as a concert violist. You've mentioned the repertoire. I don't know if you prefer to think of it as limitations, but certainly the repertoire is a different landscape from violinists or even cellists. And you've referenced the idea that you're often sort of stepping in to these situations, as we just discussed with the Brahms. Tell me about your your sort of trajectory and when it became clear to you you wanted to pursue this path of concert violist. It's not something that a lot of people can really pull off, apparently, judging by the number of people who we think of doing this. What is it that sort of spurred you into this pursuit that you're doing?
PL Well, I think I would have to give the credit to my teacher at the New England Conservatory, who was the amazing Kim Kashkashian. And I just think it just, she was just such an inspiration on what it means to play music. I think I kind of accidentally stumbled on this path of... to be a concert violinist is not the same as to be, you know, a solo concert violinist and which means like, you know, like I'm playing with concertos all the time. What it basically means to me, at least, is that I don't want any limitations on the repertoire, on the situations in which I'm playing. And I want every note that comes out of my viola to be on purpose and with integrity. And so it's kind of just the path has kind of opened up in that way. I would say I didn't necessarily do it on purpose. It's just sort of a byproduct of trying to do the most at the highest level.
BMcC Yeah, sure. And I guess that the so-called limitation, I'll go back to that word, may lead you into some creative paths that the more, let's say, the violin, cello especially, or the wind instruments that are really popular, that they may not end up finding because they're already, they are so often just pursuing the next concerto that they've got to get into their repertoire. What are some of the more creative ways that you've found to be surprising in the last few years? What paths have opened up that you didn't really expect?
PL Well, for one thing, in my quartet, we actually have in a way, we have won a Grammy because we've played on an album with the fantastic, sensational jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. And we are, we're very fortunate to collaborate with her on her album, "Dreams and Daggers." And I would say that's sort of the most unique and but still fulfilling musical endeavor I've had in my recent memory. Also did some collaborations with dance at the highest level at the Vail dance, the Vail International Dance Festival. And I even played a Stravinsky solo piece, the Elegy, which Balanchine actually made a stunning choreography to, with just one single ballerina and I was on stage with a dramatic spotlight. So, I would say it's safe to say that viola does take you to those kind of places.
BMcC Yeah, yeah. No, those sound amazing. I don't know this Elegy that you're referencing. Yeah, I would love to see that dance. But yeah, I mean, if you are a concert violinist and you've like, "OK, I've knocked off the Tchaikovsky and the Brahms and a couple of the Mozarts," or whatever, you may only be pointing in that direction and these things come up in your life because of the variety. But here's what I want to ask you. If you get a call from an orchestra, or when you get a call, because I'm sure you do get calls from orchestras, what's the concerto you want to suggest first? What's the viola concerto or viola feature piece that you say, look, I want to do this?
PL Yeah, the one that feels best to me is the Bartók Concerto. Yeah, yeah. And it's just, it doesn't have any balance issues. It's just a really fun piece to play. I have it in my fingers and it's just, I mean. And Bartók happens to be my favorite composer and that's a very violist thing to say, but, and I wouldn't say he's my favorite composer because of the Viola Concerto, because actually his piano concertos and his violin concertos are, in my opinion, a little bit better. But I absolutely love his orchestral stuff. I love his operas. I love-- particularly his string quartets are just some of the genius of the 20th century.
BMcC Yeah. Yeah. Well, and the Bartók Viola Concerto is frankly one of my favorite concertos, too. And I'm not a viola player, by the way. I just love the concerto. I think it's a really, really cool, interesting piece.
PL Yeah. And it has a very unique character to it, in that it has this like, melancholy, bittersweet, but somehow it still has rapture. So it's a rapturous, and I mean, it was his swan song, too. So it's combining all those elements. If you can get into that, then it's extra fun to play.
BMcC Oh, that's great. Well, we'll look forward to that sometime in the future. But for now, this chamber music concert will be an amazing thing. So, and I'm glad you you mentioned Kim. She's one of our favorite people here in the Boston area. She's just a wonderful, wonderful person, an unbelievable asset for our area. So I'm glad that you were able to work with her and that that set you on this path. Paul Laraia, thanks so much for spending a little bit of time talking with me today. I appreciate it.
PL Thank you.