Brochures and concert tickets trumpet “TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO. 5.” But those of us who treasure British music know there’s joy lurking in the smaller print: Rebekah Newman plays William Walton’s Viola Concerto Friday and Saturday night with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
At 27, the CSO’s principal violist is exactly as old as Walton was when he finished it in 1929. He brought the energy of the Jazz Age, the lyricism of earlier English composers and the spiky harmonies of Sergei Prokofiev (whose first violin concerto appeared just six years earlier) to this piece. Newman will dig into it with the gusto of a late convert – not just to Walton’s work, but to the viola itself.
She began with the smallest stringed instrument you’ll find: a Suzuki violin in Marquette, her home on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She was 12 when she decided “this is what I’m going to do forever.” In high school, she coaxed her mom into making a 12-hour round-trip drive to Chicago every two weeks for a 90-minute lesson with respected teacher Hilel Kagan.
But the classical world teems with gifted fiddlers.
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“I became a small fish very fast,” she says. “I had gone to college (Cleveland Institute of Music) thinking I’d play in a string quartet, but that’s a marriage of four people who are together all the time – not for me.
“I had auditioned for colleges on both violin and viola. My viola teacher, Mark Jackobs, was in the Cleveland Orchestra and showed me what it took to be an orchestral musician.”
New focus, more work
She found viola gigs aplenty after graduation: as a principal in orchestras in Erie, Pa., and Akron, Ohio, then as a section player under rising conductor Osmo Vanska in the Minnesota Orchestra, even on tour with the London Philharmonic. She was thinking of moving across the Atlantic when Jonathan Martin, then Charlotte’s executive director, rang her in 2011 after her Queen City audition.
Would she move to Charlotte? She would. Would she like to play a concerto in her second season? Oh, yeah.
She and music director Christopher Warren-Green, an advocate for British composers, settled on the Walton. It can be a bit thorny for traditionalists, so Warren-Green shrewdly sandwiched it between Ralph Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Tchaikovsky’s comfortable harmonies. (Newman will play in the fantasia but not the symphony: “I wanted to feel like a true soloist, who didn’t come back after the intermission.”)
In its early days, this concerto got little love. Walton asked Lionel Tertis to premiere it, but England’s foremost violist returned the score, grumbling about “modernist excesses” and “far-fetched” innovations.
Walton talked composer Paul Hindemith into playing the premiere in his London debut. Opening night was no triumph, partly because Hindemith used a small viola. (They come in sizes. Newman’s larger one produces warmer tones that carry better.) But after Tertis recanted and championed the work, it took off for good.
Looking for beauty
Walton wasn’t much of a viola player – or much of any kind of player, though he could deedle along on violin and piano – so the concerto “is awkward to play at times,” says Newman. “But it doesn’t sound awkward. My challenge is to make it sound like it works.
“The general feeling is lyrical. There are moments of dissonance, but they resolve. The viola has such a warm sound, and having dissonance blossom and resolve brings out the beauty of the instrument.”
Newman still keeps a hand on her fiddle – her Celtic fiddle, which she played in the rock band Brace Yourself Bridget in Cleveland. But her viola skills have earned her a teaching job at Winthrop University and a tour of China with the Verbier (Switzerland) Chamber Orchestra later in February.
She hopes to revive the Walton sometime: “When I started playing it, it fell under my fingers immediately.” She’d like to do the viola part in Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote,” her Charlotte audition piece. (A cello embodies the Don; the viola is waddling Sancho Panza.)
Mostly, Newman just wants to perform. “A lot of young musicians here feel that way,” she says. “We’d love to work a 42-week season instead of 37. We really want to play.”