June 10th, 2017
Preeminent talent was on display this evening at a concert by the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra was not in its usual home, the Southern Theater in Columbus, Ohio. We were not even in the state of Ohio. We were performing in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, as part of the North Shore Chamber Music Festival. The highly acclaimed festival, now in its seventh season, is the joint effort of Vadim Gluzman and his wife, Angela Yoffe, the festival’s Artistic and Executive Directors respectively. This was a breakout affair for ProMusica. It was the first out-of-state performance in the ensemble’s 39-year history, in a concert series featuring world class talent. The venue, the Village Presbyterian Church, was sold out. Excitement was in the air and morale was high. We had reached the final piece of the program, Mozart’s Symphonie Concertante in Eb Major, one of the composer’s greatest works. The soloists were Vadim Gluzman, violin, and Paul Neubauer, viola.
The only thing out of the ordinary in the first movement was the novelty of an alternative cadenza. Mozart did not supply cadenzas for most of his concertos. But this one, being a double concerto, required more coordination between solo instruments, so he wrote it out. It is insightful because it provided a model for future cadenza writers as to the style, form and limits of a proper Classical era cadenza. The alternate cadenza was something written by the solo team of Spalding and Tertis in the early 20th C. It had a harmonic scheme hinting at Ravel at times and was notable for organ-like sonorities when the two instruments played sustained double stops together. Apart from this, everything proceeded smoothly until about midway through the second movement when suddenly there was a loud snap, not unlike a Bartok pizzicato. Immediately following there was a tink-tink sound, as a couple small pieces of wood skittered about. Neubauer’s bridge fell to the stage, while the lower half of his tailpiece went flying into the main aisle. Fortunately, it landed on the floor and not in someone’s hair-do! It was not immediately clear what had happened, but in the absence of the solo viola the orchestra wilted.
At no point did Neubauer exhibit the least degree of drama. He calmly assessed the situation, picked up his bridge, and politely accepted the broken half of tailpiece from an audience member. Any hope of a quick fix was not to be. After a moment, Neubauer calmly approached the viola section. It was a shopping expedition! He quietly inquired as to the sizes our instruments. His was 16 inches. This refers to body length. Violins have a standard body length of 14 inches, but viola body lengths vary anywhere from 15 to 17 inches. Mozart’s own viola, for which he wrote and performed the concerto, was a pea-shooter measuring 15 inches. And only those with a Michael Phelps-like physique (all arms) would be advised to manhandle the 17 inch models. The determining factor is the location of the shoulders on the instrument, and 16 inches indicates a length comfortable to Neubauer given his particular physique. There were four violas to choose from on stage. The closest match was Principal Mary Harris’ instrument - incidentally, a Chicago-made instrument by Tetsuo Matsuda. Hometown guy to the rescue! Neubauer took Mary’s viola and commenced tuning it. Meanwhile, Susan LeFevre, sitting fourth chair, offered up her viola to Mary, and Mary passed Paul’s wreckage to Susan who sat offstage the remainder of the concert.
Some things now happened that confirmed we were in the presence of an unusually high degree of talent. Neubauer wasn’t just checking the tuning. He had been playing the solo part in the original scordatura tuning Mozart intended. Mozart wrote the viola part in D Major, with instructions to tune all the string up half a step. It’s a well-established fact that the unique and endearing sound of the viola is easily absorbed by other instruments and Mozart sought to give it a slight advantage. The key of D Major is a brighter key for the viola than Eb Major. Now, conventional wisdom would say strings suddenly tuned up half a step would require some time to stabilize. Strings resist stretching. But this did not appear to be of any particular concern to Neubauer. Conventional wisdom would also say that it would be wise to calibrate one’s fingers to an unfamiliar string length. In addition to variations in body length, violas also vary in string length, the length of strings from nut to bridge. The longer the string length, the farther the fingers have to reach. Yet, I did not see Neubauer running his fingers up and down the fingerboard to adjust. Instead, he just quipped to the audience that we would begin again at the very beginning! But conductor David Danzmayr had already decided an appropriate resumption point, and off we went. In the remaining half of the concerto, at no point was there any evidence of a struggle with intonation. Not even the high Eb toward the end of the concerto was the least bit out-of-tune.
I have seen strings break. I have seen pegs pop. I have seen bows fail. I have seen a tailpiece come loose due to a frayed tailgut, the cord that holds it to the end button. But a tailpiece breaking in half? First time in my life-long career I have ever witnessed it. Neubauer recovered as if nothing happened, much to his credit.