When Tail Pieces Break and Other Minor Emergencies

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.

In Defense of the Viola

To the casual observer of a symphony orchestra in flight, it is plain the violas are doing something up there, but what exactly isn’t always obvious. The melody typically goes to treble instruments like the 1st Violins, flute or trumpet. The bass line is typically assigned to cellos, basses, bassoons or trombones. But the violas occupy the middle ground. And they perform a wide variety of functions there. Like the rhythm guitar of a rock band, the viola is often assigned the internal motor rhythm. It also frequently fills out the harmony. But do violas ever play melody?

The Concerto for English Horn and Viola (BWV 1060), by J. S. Bach

An arrangement for English Horn and Viola of Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin (BWV 1060). Like my previously released Concerto for Two Violas in A Minor (BWV 1043), this arrangement is modeled after Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. As with current day performances of Brandenburg No. 6, it has an accompanying ensemble consisting of Violas 1 & 2, Cello, Cembalo and Bass (no violins). Single or multiple instruments may be used on each part. This arrangement has the added flexibility of being a double viola concerto with an optional Solo Viola 2 taking the place of the English Horn.

Available in both ensemble and piano versions, this arrangement is suitable for both recital and formal concert stage performances. It makes an ideal stand-up concerto. It makes an excellent companion piece on programs that feature viola(s) or english horn.

This concerto arrangement represents a significant addition to solo viola and solo english horn repertoire from the Baroque period, for which there are scant choices. For that reason it is sure to be found of value to both the learner as well as to the seasoned soloist.

The Star of County Down

It is my pleasure to introduce a new and fun piece for viola and piano, an arrangement of the Irish traditional song, Star of County Down. This was written for the occasion of my niece’s wedding in May of 2014. It is celebratory in character, and a respectful nod to our family’s Irish roots.

The work consists of a cadenza-like introduction, followed by theme and variations. The two variations consist of elaborate descants over the theme. The second variation captures the spirit of Irish fiddling. It ends as it began with a cadenza-like coda. Duration: 3 mins 50 secs. An optional Dal Segno al Coda lengthens the piece by about 50 secs if desired.

The work resembles in its own way the miniatures for violin and piano written by Fritz Kreisler. That said, however, neither the viola nor piano part present any frightening technical challenges. It is suited to players of intermediate level or higher, student as well as advanced players. Supplemental material includes examples of how to embellish the melody, and lyrics to the song as left to us by Cathal McGarvey (1866-1927).

The Concerto for Two Violas (BWV 1043), by J. S. Bach

The Concerto for Two Violas (BWV 1043) is an arrangement of the famous “Bach Double” Violin Concerto. It makes an ideal stand-up concerto and is suitable for both recitals and the formal concert stage. It also fills an urgent need for Baroque concerto repertoire for the viola, for which there are few choices.

The new Bach Double for Viola is available in two formats: a full Ensemble Version, and a version for Two Violas and Piano. The Ensemble Version is scored for the combination of instruments commonly used to perform Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6: Solo Violas I & II, and a string ensemble consisting of Violas I & II, Cello, Double Bass and Cembalo (typically harpsichord). Single or multiple instrument may be used on ensemble parts.

The audio sample link below dates from 1999. The soloists are myself (Brett Allen), Solo Viola I, and the late David Schmookler, Solo Viola II. The concert featured the viola section of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and was part of the Sundays at Central series. David Schmookler was Principal Viola of the Columbus Symphony from 1986-2010.

Nativity Scenes, Suite for String Orchestra

Weaving Classical Music and Traditional Carols through the Biblical Narrative of Christmas.

    "I was deeply moved on hearing this work in performance for the first time. ... here comes a composer, American Brett L. Allen, to present the Christmas story in such a fresh context"

Written Lessons-and-Carols style, Nativity Scenes, Suite for String Orchestra is an excellent choice for Christmas programming. The suite consists of five movements, telling the story of the Nativity and relating well-familiar Christmas carols to their historical roots.

Live Recordings:

  1. Veni Emmanuel

  2. We Three Kings

  3. Christmas, Joy to the World

  4. Silent Night

  5. Good Christan Men Rejoice

The five movements may be excerpted.

Performance Details: Full compliments of strings recommended (minimum: 4-4-2-3-2). Duration 22 mins; 28 mins if narrated. Score includes optional Scriptural narration to be read between movements in the English Lessons and Carols tradition.

Ordering Information: Print-on-demand sheet music for “Nativity Scenes: Suite for String Orchestra,” published by Oxford University Press, is available for purchase from: Allegro Music, UK.

Sample parts may be perused at Scribd.com at the following links: Full Score, Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass, Narrator.

Also see:

4amici, Quartet for Bassoon, Violin, Viola Cello

An original work written for Betsey Sturdevant’s Amici Quartet, for the four-instrument combination Bassoon, Violin, Viola and Cello. Betsey Sturdevant is Principal Bassoon of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. The work was first performed in November of 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.

The work is theatrical in nature. I had in mind four buddies getting together for a jam session in a public space, not unlike the phenomena of the drum circle. There is an improvisatory feel to the music. Each participant offers up a musical idea. Before long we have a groove. Interruptions occur. There is a section that sounds like a war song from the old country. Later, the strings decide to cut the bassoon out and do their own thing. But the bassoonist won’t have it and crashes the party. And so it goes, on and on, each section spinning out a new section. Where it is headed and where it will end is anyone’s guess. Eventually the energy dissipates and everyone calls it a night.

Sample parts are available on Scribd.com.

Full Score, Bassoon, Violin 1, Viola, Cello.

Mixture of Threes

Mixture of Threes was written as a demonstration piece for young listeners. Ideally, it would be performed at the time many of them are considering taking up a musical instrument. It is an ideal way of introducing young audiences to instruments of three main instrumental groups - winds, strings and brass. It playfully incorporates three musical styles: Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Latin. The title, “Mixture of Threes” reflects the nature of the piece – three movements, three instruments, three instrumental families, three musical styles, and so on. Though designed for educational purposes, it is equally at home in formal concert settings.

Sample parts are available here.

Le Grand Tango Review in American String Teacher Magazine

The following review appeared in the February, 2013 issue of the American String Teacher Magazine. Many thanks to Blair Williams for a thoroughly positive assessment! Blair is a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, a brief bio is down below.

LE GRAND TANGO (va, pno). Astor Piazzolla, arr. Brett L. Alen. Berben/Theodore Presser, 1982, $29.95. Allen is assistant principal violist with the Columbus (OH) Symphony and performs with the ProMusic Chamber Orchestra. His arrangement of Le Grand Tango is challenging yet enticing to study. Allen adds octave doublings to the overflowing use of double stops commonly found in other arrangements of the work. Glissandos, harmonics, and use of the viola’s full range all add to the sultry style of this piece. Allen adds excellent suggestions for finger choreography, phrasing, precisely articulated style and voicing to encompass the colors Piazzolla intended. He offers the viola community a virtuosic piece to prove the viola’s versatility in all genres. A perfect recital closer for the artist-level violist! B.W.

Blair Williams (B.W.), Ph.D. student in String Music Education at Ohio State University conducts the OSU Community Orchestra and works with the Chamber Strings, an orchestra under the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestras. She also maintains a small violin and viola studio. She holds a BME from Baylor University and an MM from Kansas State University.

Le Grand Tango, for Viola, String Orchestra and Piano. Piazzola, arr. Brett L Allen.

© Brett L. Allen - Contact