Violist Josip Kvetek ’18MM, on being a soloist with an orchestra of his peers

Josip Kvetek ’18MM

When violist Josip Kvetek ’18MM played Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola on a recital here at YSM last year, it wasn’t with an eye on performing the piece with the Yale Philharmonia, which he’ll do on Friday, Jan. 26. “It’s not very serious music,” Kvetek said, explaining that the Paganini sonata is a fun piece of music, a quirky sonata that just happens to be, in the words of principal conductor Peter Oundjian, “probably the most difficult piece ever written for viola.” After Kvetek’s recital performance last year, his teacher, Ettore Causa, suggested that he enter the Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition, which Kvetek won in April 2017.

The sonata, Kvetek said, is “not standard repertoire for viola.” Paganini, he explained, “commissioned a piece from Berlioz” to be played on a five-string viola. Berlioz, in response, composed Harold in Italy, an orchestral piece with viola solos. “Paganini didn’t like the first draft of the piece,” Kvetek said, “so he decided to write his own piece.” The result is “a sonata for solo instrument and orchestra, which is very odd.”

Kvetek will perform the piece on a standard viola, an instrument without an added E string, which means “I have to play with an improvised thumb position” to execute passages in the instrument’s upper register. In terms of interpretation, Kvetek said, “it’s very simple, harmonically and melodically. It’s just simple from every angle.” Still, it’s a piece that can easily feel like blocks of virtuoso passages arranged without much cohesion. “It starts becoming 50 little tasks,” Kvetek said, “and not one, coherent story. The part that helps with that is it’s very operatic. It’s much easier if you let go of the classical way of thinking.”

Now in the second year of YSM’s master of music degree program, studying with Causa, and with Steven Tenenbom while Causa is on sabbatical, Kvetek has done his share of playing with the Yale Philharmonia as a member of the orchestra’s viola section. On Jan. 26, he’ll be out front, next to guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who’ll lead a program that also includes Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version) and Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Performing as the soloist with an orchestra of his peers is “a little bit more stressful,” Kvetek said, “because you do know all the people. The benefit is that they’re very supportive and very helpful in the process. Everybody is hoping or cheering that you play the best you can. It becomes much easier to play in that environment.” The stress, he said, comes from wanting “to present yourself well” in front of one’s peers.

Given the operatic nature of the Paganini sonata, Kvetek said, “The majority of it is on me to deliver a performance that other people can follow.” Part of that responsibility, to be sure, falls on Solzhenitsyn, with whom Kvetek hasn’t worked. Basing his impressions on YouTube videos, Kvetek described Solzhenitsyn as an expressive conductor, which “will help me connect with the orchestra and will help bring this piece together.” Because there’s no “prescribed way of how you perform” the Paganini, Kvetek said, “It’s up to me to play it just the way I want to play it.”

On Friday, Jan. 26, guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program that includes Stravinsky’s spellbinding Firebird Suite (1919 version), Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s inventive and affecting Symphony in D minor.

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Published January 18, 2018
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Ignat Solzhenitsyn, on “Firebird” and working with young musicians

Ignat Solzhenitsyn

Principal conductor Peter Oundjian has said that guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who’ll lead the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version, from the composer’s ballet score) on Friday, Jan. 26, “particularly wanted to do this piece with our students.” Solzhenitsyn recently pointed out that it’s “one of the very, very greatest orchestral paintings in our repertoire and a piece that, of course, is predicated upon the limitlessness of imagination.” Imagination, Solzhenitsyn said, is most fertile and open to influence during one’s youth. The Firebird Suite “is really a piece that, more than anything, is for young people,” he said. “It will showcase the Yale Philharmonia to beautiful effect.” The orchestra, in turn, will provide a capable vehicle for the stuff of Stravinsky’s imagination — and for the Russian legend that the composer explored — which will no doubt inspire the Woolsey Hall audience, just as it has long captivated audiences around the world.

With Solzhenitsyn, who serves as principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the Yale Philharmonia will also perform Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Kvetek recently said that the Paganini is “not standard repertoire for the viola,” and that while it’s “very simple, harmonically and melodically,” it’s not a piece that on its own tells “one coherent story.”

“The part that helps with that,” Kvetek said, “is it’s very operatic.” Kvetek “nailed it,” Solzhenitsyn agreed, saying the Paganini is a show piece, one that’s very difficult for the soloist. What makes it fun, Solzhenitsyn said, is the very notion that Paganini, a virtuoso violinist, produced such a piece for the viola. “Charm, wit, teasing, easy grace — those kind of words inform this work,” he said.

Asked about the Franck being a piece that’s gone in and out of favor with orchestras, Solzhenitsyn bristled. “It’s a concept I still have trouble wrapping my head around,” he said, pointing to the obvious fact that “the intrinsic worth of ‘X’ has nothing to do with if it’s popular or not, or has very little to do with it.” He’s among those who don’t understand why the Franck symphony is not performed more frequently, give that it is, undeniably, a “touchstone of the Romantic symphonic repertoire.”

“The beauty, the power, the innocence, the honesty of this music, I think, speaks for itself,” Solzhenitsyn said.

Seeing Solzhenitsyn on the podium will be a new experience for members of the Philharmonia. And working with Yale students, for Solzhenitsyn, will present a different opportunity than the experiences he’s had leading ensembles of more seasoned musicians. A collective sense of wonder and discovery that is at times diminished in a professional ensemble, he said, is right there, in all its glory, for everyone to see in a young ensemble.

On Friday, Jan. 26, guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program that includes Stravinsky’s spellbinding Firebird Suite (1919 version), Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s inventive and affecting Symphony in D minor.

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Published January 17, 2018
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Winners of 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition Announced

The 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition took place on Saturday, April 8. This year’s competition yielded three winners: violist Josip Kvetek ’18MM, performing Niccolo Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola; violinist Laura Park ’18MM, performing William Walton’s Violin Concerto; and percussion duo Georgi Videnov ’17MMA and Sam Um ’17MM, performing Martin Bresnick’s Grace, concerto in three movements for two marimbas and orchestra.

As winners, these Yale School of Music students will perform with the Yale Philharmonia during the 2017-18 season. The judges noted that they were very impressed with the high level of talent that was demonstrated by all performers. Violinist Rachel Ostler ’18MMA was selected as an alternate, and honorable mentions were given to hornist Scott Leger ’18MM, mezzo-soprano Anne Maguire ’17MM, and violinist Diomedes Saraza Jr ’17MMA.

The judges were flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, who serves on the faculties of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music, Bard College Conservatory of Music, and Manhattan School of Music, Jonathan Yates, music director of the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra, and cellist Robert Martin, the director of faculty and a professor at the Bard Conservatory of Music.

Published April 11, 2017
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