After hearing David Marschall play Shostakovich's Viola Sonata in Carswell Recital Hall on May 19 - splendidly partnered by pianist Frank Pittman, of Meredith College and beyond - I am thinking that I need to make a pilgrimage to Rome, there to beg forgiveness for all those viola jokes* I've been telling for years. Violas are, of course, easy to hate, and they - and some of the people who play them - seem almost to invite adverse treatment, but we are blessed with some outstanding practitioners here - by position alone, Marschall, who is Acting Assistant Principal Viola of the NCS, is "bettered" only by the veteran Hugh Partridge - and it is a fact that when the chemistry is right, the viola can truly sing. This is true in Berlioz, and it was true, too, in the Shostakovich sonata that formed the musical and emotional core of the Carswell program. The concert was not well advertised, but the artists spread the word themselves, and the turnout was amazing - there was a bit of a traffic jam, and parking was at a premium. The place was crawling with musicians, making the critical confraternity seem tiny, indeed. And it was evident throughout the concert that the musicians who were listening were pretty much blown away by what they heard.
The evening began with the first group from Vaughan Williams' attractive Suite for viola and piano. Pittman played with the lid wide open but there was at no point any problem with balance. We've had the pleasure of seeing and hearing the pianist grow up, having reviewed him as a student at UNC. He is among the best keyboardists in our neck of the woods, whether he is working solo or in ensembles or accompanying. Marschall played beautifully, projecting radiant tone; some inconsequential unsteadiness, early on, passed quickly. The music is typical Vaughan Williams, rich in melodies that sound familiar (the numbers played were a prelude, a carol, and a Christmas dance) because no one in Great Britain knew folksongs - or carols - better than RVW.
The last score completed by Shostakovich - he didn't live to hear it played, Marschall's fine notes reminded us - is one of the great works of the 20th century, but that doesn't mean it is well known or easy to comprehend. A Melodiya Lp (featuring, as I recall, the people who premiered it) and several other recordings (two involve Bashmet and Richter) have allowed viola fans to become familiar with the piece. (I worked through some of the available recordings in a prior life, when I was writing for Fanfare and reviewed a CD by Michael Zaretsky and Xak Bjerken, which I recommend to those who might want to revisit the music.) With that background, then..., Marschall's performance was far and away the most inspired and convincing reading I have yet heard. He crawled into the composer's skin and revealed the sometimes-evident torment he must have felt at the end of his life. Pittman was with Marschall at every step. The finale, which is, in effect, DSCH's ode to Beethoven, was heart wrenching. You could have heard a pin drop in the hall. During intermission, many people expressed amazement and wonder at what they had heard.
(Speaking of DSCH - a common abbreviation of Shostakovich's name - there is an online discussion group; for details, search "dsch-l" in Google. And since we've mentioned recordings, it may be worth adding that Marschall's tone color is as impressive, in its way, as that of Kathleen Ferrier, whose live recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde has recently been in the news and about whom I found myself thinking in the wake of this Meredith performance. The sound was not dissimilar to that of the great English contralto, and the emotion the violist conveyed was every bit as palpable.)
The program ended with a fine reading of Schumann's Third String Quartet by an ad hoc group of local artists, several of whom have links - direct or indirect - to the NCS. They were violinists Carol Chung and Lyda Cruden, Marschall, and cellist Gerald Nelson. We learned that the ensemble had been through six rehearsals, which may sound like a lot but is in fact just a beginning for a string quartet. We hope they'll stick with it. The opening movements were a bit tentative, but the piece took off in the second half; the Adagio molto was powerfully interpreted and handsomely played, and the finale was a delight - or as much of a delight as Schumann can be. It was a happy stroke of yet another coincidence that this performance came on the heels of the previous day's NCS reading of Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale. We are very fortunate to have in our midst artists who reach out to the community and who enrich our musical lives by playing concerts like the one presented at Meredith on this occasion.
Since this was basically Marschall's show, it may be worth noting that he is among the most active players in the NCS. CVNC has been in business for less than two years, but a search of our archives revealed a lot of "hits" that led to a lot of reviews of chamber music played by Marschall here and there, with various partners. He's been involved with the Mallarmé Chamber Players, with several other concerts at Meredith, in events at Peace, put on by the NCS, and - believe it or not! - he played a piece by Frances White during NCSU's stunning computer music festival a while back (which may have made mainstreamers question his sanity, but it was very effective). There's little question that this sort of work keeps orchestral players fresh and engaged, even when sawing away in high school gyms. Bravo!
*For those who are unfamiliar with the genre... (there are such unfortunates...), see http://www.mit.edu/~jcb/jokes/viola.html . Readers are cautioned NOT to look for any jokes about critics !