Violist  Marcus  Thompson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Marcus Thompson (born May 4, 1946) is a distinguished performer both on viola and viola d'amore. A multi-faceted artist, he is equally esteemed as recitalist, orchestral soloist, chamber musician, recording artist and educator.

Born in New York's South Bronx, he began violin studies at the age of six in a private studio, and at fourteen attended The Juilliard School Pre-College where he studied with Louise Behrend. After completing seven years of viola and viola d'amore studies with Walter Trampler, he received his Bachelors and Master's degrees, and Juilliard's first doctorate in viola performance.

Since his New York debut at Carnegie Hall in the Young Concert Artists Series, Mr. Thompson has been widely hailed as a master of his instruments. He has presented recitals at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and at numerous colleges and universities. To mark the Hindemith Centenary, Mr. Thompson performed a recital of the complete sonatas with piano for viola and viola d'amore in Boston's Jordan Hall with pianist Judith Gordon.

Highlights of his solo career include a performance of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a performance of Hindemith's viola d'amore concerto, Kammermusik 6 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. He has also appeared as soloist with the National Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, The Cleveland Orchestra under Jah Jah Ling, with the Atlanta Symphony under Yoel Levi in a performance of Keith Jarrett's Bridge of Light, in the west coast premiere of Harbison Viola Concerto with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under John Harbison, with the Saint Louis Symphony and the Boston Pops. He has appeared in concert and recordings with conductor Paul Freeman and three of his orchestras: the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Slovenian Radio Orchestra and the Czech National Symphony.

A much sought-after chamber musician, Mr. Thompson has appeared as the guest of the Audubon, Borromeo, Cleveland, Emerson, Miami, Muir, Orion, Shanghai, and Vermeer Quartets. He has also collaborated with the Fine Arts, Endellion, St. Petersburg, Biava, Jupiter, Vogler, and Oregon Quartets. He has participated in chamber music festivals in Rockport (MA and ME), Chestnut Hill (CT), Sitka (AK), Anchorage, Seattle, Northwest (OR), Los Angeles, Okinawa, Santa Fe, Vail, Dubrovnik, Spoleto, Montreal, and Rio de Janeiro. Among his career highlights are performances with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a 'Live from Lincoln Center' broadcast and at a Presidential Inaugural Concert at the Kennedy Center. He has also appeared with the Chamber Music Society of Amsterdam in Holland, and with the Boston Chamber Music Society of which he is an Artist Member.

In addition to his busy performing career, Mr. Thompson serves as a member of the Viola Faculty at New England Conservatory of Music, and as the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he founded performance programs in private studies and chamber music. He has been recognized for extraordinary teaching at MIT with an appointment as a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow. He has previously taught at The Juilliard School Pre-College Division, Oakwood College (AL), Mt. Holyoke College (MA), and Wesleyan University (CT).

A frequent guest presenter of viola and chamber music master classes, he has presented these at the University of Oregon School of Music, Williams College Music Department, Boston Conservatory (String Seminar), and for Project STEP at Symphony Hall, Boston. Mr. Thompson serves on the Board of Project STEP, is a member of Chamber Music America, and the American String Teachers Association. He is also a member of the Viola d'Amore Society, and of the American Viola Society. Mr. Thompson served as host director for the 1985 American Viola Society Congress XIII held at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

His recorded works include the standard and the unusual, including concertos by Bartok and Bloch, Hindemith, and of Anthony Newman, commissioned by Mr. Thompson for the International Viola Congress. He has also recorded a work by Barry Vercoe called Synapse for Viola and Computer, which is included in a disc entitled "Computer Generations," and the premiere recording of Frank Martin's Sonata da Chiesa for Viola d'Amore and Strings. Another recording with Paul Freeman and the Czech National Symphony, contains rarely heard works by Jongen, Francaix and Serly. His recordings with the Boston Chamber Music Society include Octets by Enesco and Mendelssohn, Trios with clarinet and piano by Mozart and Schumann, Sextets by Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg, and works by Brahms.

--  Biography from the MIT website (slightly edited)  
--  Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Marcus Thompson was in Chicago in February of 1998 to perform with Paul Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta.  He graciously agreed to spend a few minutes with me, and I used a portion of the interview that evening on WNIB, Classical 97, to promote the concert.

thompson Here is the entire encounter . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re a violist.  Are you a violinist turned violist, or are you originally a violist?

Marcus Thompson:   No, I started on the violin.  Like a number of people, I was six when I started playing the violin.

BD:   Why did you want to shift to viola?

MT:   The radio listeners won’t be able to see how large my hands are and how long my arms are, and that usually determines who becomes violists and who remains violinist.  [The photos on this page show how comfortable Thompson looks with his viola.]

BD:   Why not cello or double bass?

MT:   That would have involved learning a whole different technique of playing, and violin and viola are easily switched back and forth by some people.

BD:   Do you still switch back and forth?

MT:   No, not really.  I will play violin to demonstrate something for a student in a chamber music class, but I don’t really play it in public.  I keep thinking I want to, but I never have the time.  I always have enough to do on the viola that I never get around to it.

BD:   Are there pieces for one player to play both instruments in alternating movements.

MT:   Yes.  The only one I can think of off-hand is Pierrot Lunaire of Schoenberg.  

Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 ("Moonstruck Pierrot" or "Pierrot in the Moonlight"), is a melodrama by Arnold Schoenberg. It is a setting of 21 selected poems from Otto Erich Hartleben's German translation of the Belgian poet Albert Giraud's cycle of French poems of the same name. The première of the work, which is between 35 and 40 minutes in length, was at the Berlin Choralion-Saal on October 16, 1912.

The narrator (voice-type unspecified in the score, but traditionally performed by a soprano) delivers the poems in the Sprechstimme style. Schoenberg had previously used a combination of spoken text with instrumental accompaniment, called "melodrama", in the Summer-wind narrative of Gurre-Lieder, which was a fashionable musical style popular at the end of the nineteenth century. The melodrama is in atonal form, yet does not use Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique.

Pierrot Lunaire is among Schoenberg's most celebrated and frequently performed works. The instrumentation of the piece, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (with standard doublings and in this case with the addition of a vocalist), has subsequently been named after Schoenberg's composition and is now referred to as a Pierrot Ensemble.

The quintet of instruments used in Pierrot Lunaire became the core ensemble for many contemporary-music ensembles of the twentieth century, such as The Fires of London, who formed in 1965 as "The Pierrot Players", and continued to concertize with a varied classical and contemporary repertory. This group (and others like it) began to perform works arranged for these instruments, and commissioned new works especially to take advantage of this ensemble's instrumental colors.

While many professional chamber ensembles (such as string quartets and piano trios) continued to focus on musical literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Pierrot ensemble became one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music of the 20th century, and continues to be popular with composers and performers today. Among the works for this instrumentation are Concertante for Five Players, op. 22 by Elisabeth Lutyens, Chamber Concerto No. 2 by Thea Musgrave, and Three for Six by Ralph Shapey.

Doublings are often called for in music written for Pierrot ensemble. For example, in Pierrot Lunaire, the flutist is asked to play piccolo, the clarinetist is asked to play bass clarinet (as in Earle Brown's Tracking Pierrot), or saxophone, and (much more unusually) the violinist is asked to play viola. Other common doublings might include E-flat clarinet (as in Carter's Triple Duo), alto flute, or even harpsichord (as in Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King).

Researching the idea of violin/viola doubling in a single work, one also finds Claude Bolling's Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano, (one of the more well-known pieces, written for Pinchas Zukerman, which explains the dual instruments), and a recent work by Jake Heggie titled Orcas Island Ferry for Violin/Viola and Piano (written for Aloysia Friedmann). Other works include Like Water, for Violin/viola, percussion, and piano by Bun-Ching Lam, and Common Tones, for violin/viola, horn, and piano by Kenji Bunch.

[Continuing]  I also play the viola d’amore [shown in photo at right].

BD:   Is there a lot of technique difference, or is it just the sound difference?

thompson MT:   The instrument is quite different.  It’s got fourteen strings instead of four.

BD:   S
ome of the them sympathetic?

MT:   Seven are sympathetic, seven are bowed, and it’s one of those instruments where you can’t even see half the strings because of the way the bridge curves.  You can only see half of them from the player’s vantage point.  It’s, of course, a baroque instrument, but I’ve played lots of twentieth-century music on it, including music by Frank Martin, and the Hindemith concerto, Kammermusik No 6 [Op. 46, #1 (1927)].  I played it during the Hindemith anniversary year, and I’ve played the sonata he wrote for viola d
amore with piano [Op. 25, #2 (1922)].

BD:   Do you encourage more people to write for the viola d’amore, not just the viola?

MT:   I haven’t really encouraged people.  If they hear me, they think it’s sort of interesting.  I certainly played it enough.  I played a lot of Vivaldi and Telemann concertos.

BD:   How do you divide your career?  You play chamber music, solo recitals, orchestral concerti...?

MT:   I ask myself that!  [Laughs]  I just try to leave enough time to prepare for all of them... and you left out that I teach at the New England Conservatory.  I have a bunch of violists there, and I teach at MIT.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Do you sleep at all?

MT:   Ummm... a little!  Not in class, of course.  Perish the thought!  

BD:   Let’s focus for a moment on your teaching.  What do you teach?

MT:   I teach chamber music at MIT, and I have seminar for solo performers who are studying with other people.  They do a kind of masterclass/seminar with me on a regular basis.

BD:   Is it difficult to get young people to think about a chamber career, rather than just being a great soloist of the world?

MT:   [Hesitates]  That’s an interesting question.  Everyone who studies an instrument is trained to be a soloist on that instrument, and you’re trained and encouraged to do that because that’s the literature of study.  You study the great solo literature; you don’t study the second violin part of a string quartet.  You study the concertos and the sonatas
the things where you have a chance to tell a storyto sharpen up your skill to the highest level.  What you do with that, and what you get out of that experience is your own business.  It just so happens I think the chamber music literature is the most engaging, and certainly the finest music and the finest use of music for instrumentalists.  A lot of people nowadays come to the chamber music literature after they’ve found out they can’t make it as a soloist.  More recently there have been people who have been chamber musicians because they knew from the beginning that it was the finest literature, so that’s where they expressed themselves.

BD:   Are you on a crusade for more chamber music?  

MT:   No, absolutely not.  Nobody who needs to be convinced about chamber music, ought to play it.  You should know that for yourself, and when you know it, you can do it, and you’re welcome to do it.  Along that score, I don’t teach chamber music anymore in a conservatory, so I’m not teaching people who are going to be professionals to play chamber music.  I teach people who have decided they are going into something else.  They go into science, or engineering, or economics, or something like that, but they also want to play chamber music.  For my class at MIT, I don’t advertise, and I’m overrun with people!

BD:   I would think this would almost be better, because these are the people who would maybe get together after work, still in their white lab coats, to play chamber music.

MT:   Oh, yes, they do!

BD:   That would last them all through their life, not just in school.  They could bring back the idea of Hausmusik.

MT:   Yes, exactly.  Believe it or not, even though am out doing things that you described earlier
playing here and therethe fact is that on a regular basis, I meet with people who are of that description.  One is a fine physician, another has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, and some others, and we just play.  We read through quartets, and it’s a wonderful experience.  The fact is that even if you have a large record collection, and you go to every subscription series for string quartets, there’s still only a limited amount of literature that you’ll get to hear.  But if you’re playing, you can play anything that you like.  In the evening we’ll take a piece we haven’t heard for a long time, or something we’ve never heard, and have a look at it.  We can spend an evening doing chamber music the way chamber music was intended to be donejust among intimate friends.

BD:   When you’re performing chamber music, do you ever feel that the audience is eavesdropping?

MT:   Oh, sure, absolutely!

BD:   Is that the best when you really have this warm feeling, and yet you are letting other people listen in?

MT:   It’s the best when there’s no audience there.  Unlike other media
where you are playing to the audiencein chamber music you play to one another, and then you can, as you say, allow the audience to eavesdrop.  For me, that’s the best.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made some recordings as a chamber musician, and also as concerto soloist.  Aside from the very obvious, what’s the difference between sitting amongst chamber musicians and being the soloist standing out front?

thompson MT:   There’s a difference on how you project your sound.  In chamber music you want to try and blend in, so you’re listening intently to the others.

BD:   [Surprised]  Do you not try to blend in as a soloist???

MT:   As a soloist, no.  You’re trying to send out your sound, and you’re trying to lead rather than follow.  Those are the differences right there.  As a soloist, you lead with your sound and lead with your gesture, but in chamber music you don’t do that unless you have a solo within the piece.

BD:   When getting the solo line to project in a concerto, how much responsibility is that of the composer, and how much of it is the performer?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with David Epstein.]

MT:   If the composer is writing a concerto for your instrument to feature you, hopefully you have most of the goods.  Occasionally you will get an accompaniment passage.  Every concerto does have some accompaniment where the soloist has exchanges with the orchestra, but that’s minimal compared to what happens in chamber music.

BD:   Are there are enough concertos written for the viola?

MT:   There are enough... but whether there are enough good ones is more to the point.  There are really scores of concertos, and lots of good pieces that aren’t heard very much.  Hopefully, obviously, people will be hearing one that isn’t heard much, but is very good.

BD:   Are we to the point where you really don’t have to play arrangements or adaptations for the viola of violin literature?

MT:   I know people who do, and they do because they just play that literature very well.  But there’s certainly plenty of the original viola music that one doesn’t have to do that.  I tend to not allow my students to play transcriptions since there’s so much literature that can fulfill that role.  No, we don’t play very much violin music.  I played a couple of Kreisler pieces for a recital, but I did that because I would otherwise not get to play Kreisler, and I like Kreisler!  He’s good, you know!  I’d love to enjoy hearing that.  I try to play the music that I’d like to go to a concert to hear, and if I want to hear Kreisler, I’ll try to play it.

BD:   I would think a lot of the showy pieces would work well on the viola.

MT:   Many of them do, yes.  

BD:   How much different is the sound from the violin to the viola?  I trust it’s not just the deeper instrument, it’s a different sound?

MT:   There isn’t a standard viola sound, just as there isn’t a standard viola size.  There are many different sounds of the viola.  There’s no standardized measurement as there is for the violin.  There are several different models of the violin.  Strad has long models and short models...

BD:   So, there’s more discrepancy amongst violas?

MT:   There’s much more discrepancy.  Violas can range in body size as from 15 ½ inches all the way up to 18 inches.

BD:   Because of the thickness and the depth of it?

MT:   Well, that too.  I don’t know exact numbers on that, but I do know that my instrument is considered shallow, almost the depth of the violin.

BD:   Does that give you a brighter sound?

MT:   In some cases, yes and in some cases, no.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  As long as the performer is not shallow...

MT:   [With a big smile]  We try to limit our shallowness!  [Both laugh]  No, there’s a wide range of viola sounds, and if you’re going to play concertos that require you play up very high and very fast, you’re going to want a viola that’s going to be more agile, one that you’re not going to break your back on trying to get around.  For that matter, if you’re going to spend your career playing a symphony, you’re not going to want to play an instrument that weighs so much that you’re going to be bent over by the time you get to the end.  So, people try to select things according to what they can handle over time.

thompson BD:   Do you have just one viola that you always play, or do you have several violas?

MT:   I have only one.

BD:   Plus, the viola d’amore?

MT:   Plus, the viola d’amore, so I have only two instruments.

BD:   Do you often listen to, or try out other instruments?

MT:   No!  Violinists are doing this all the time.  They’re always trying new instruments and looking for a little better or little this or a little that... if they have the money.  I don’t have the money.  I enjoy hearing my friends play great instruments, and then I’m content to see other people.  I hear other people play well on their instruments.  I’m not so much in a hurry to do that myself.

BD:   Isn’t there a society that puts great instruments in the hands of great players, even though they can’t afford them?

MT:   Oh, yes, there are several.  There’s one here in Chicago, and there’s one in California.

BD:   Is that just violins, or is it also the rest of the string family?  

MT:   I don’t know about the one here in Chicago, but the ones in other cities do lend out all different kinds of instruments.  

BD:   When was yours built?

MT:   1798 in Cremona.

BD:   What makes an instrument so special that came from there
is it the glue?  Is it the wood?  What is it?

MT:   If I knew, I’d be so rich!  [Both laugh]  I would be making them, turning them out hand-made myself!  No, I don’t think anybody knows, and people have tried everything.  You would think that two hundred years after these instruments were made that someone would know, because people have tried every possible variable.  They’ve tried making the plates so that they’re resonant; they’ve tried using aged wood; they’ve tried different kinds of glue; they’ve different kinds of varnish, and it’s still indefinable what that special quality was.  I believe it’s nice that there are still some mysteries in the world.

BD:   When you put this instrument under your chin and in your hands, I assume it’s going to sound different than if you put it under some else’s chin and in somebody else’s hands?

MT:   Yes.

BD:   Then how much of the sound is the wood and the glue, and how much is the performer?

MT:   People have tried experiments with that, too.  Some of the instrumental societies
like the Violin Society and the Viola Societyhave, from time to time, competitions where modern instruments are played behind a screen, and behind some kind of covering.  It’s always a surprise when a modern instrument leads over an old instrument, but that doesn’t happen as often as one might think.

BD:   Does that just mean we’ve hit on a really good modern instrument?

MT:   You’ve hit on a really good modern instrument, and usually it’s exceptional.  A number of makers have made careers off of having a few such instruments, but no one has had the success of those masters of the past who seemingly turned a gem out every instrument.  The Amati family, the Guarnarius family, all those families’ instruments were highly regarded in their own time.  They weren’t just instruments that improved with age.  They were great in their own time.  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re thinking about concertos or solo literature that you want to play, how do you decide what you’re going to spend your time working on, and getting into your fingers, and into your psychic?

thompson MT:   I’m a professional musician, and have been for a long time... thirty years, as a matter of fact.  This is the season in which I’m playing a recital in Boston to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of my debut recital in Boston, so I know how many years it is.  As a professional musician, very often you have to do things because they simply have been assigned to you, or they’re in the pipeline, and so you do them.

BD:   But you must have some choice, right?

MT:   Of course you’ve got some choice, but you can’t really tell whether a piece is good until you’re into working on it, and almost until you’re finished with it.  So, when you’ve finished working on it and you get up to perform, that’s the beginning of another kind of work because you want to be able to deliver it.  You want to try and polish the delivery, but beyond a certain point, I don’t know if it’s the role of the performer to determine what’s good and what isn’t.  We can’t have that distance to tell what’s going to survive and what’s going to make history.

BD:   You just have to make the best case for whatever’s on the stand?

MT:   You have to make the best case, and this is certainly borne out by the fact that someone, like Heifetz, would get up and play a concerto by Korngold, or by Miklós Rózsa, and everyone else would look at the music and say these are certainly great men in the medium that they worked in, but I don’t know that this great concert music.  Yet when you hear a great artist like Heifetz play these pieces, you’re convinced that it’s the greatest thing ever.  So, it’s the chemistry of vehicle and personality just coming together.  Now, at the same time, having said all that, there is another side to all this, and that is when you’re studying something, when you’re learning it, the music has to be an object of fascination all along.  If you get to a point that it doesn’t spark your interest anymore, doesn’t get your curiosity going, doesn’t make you wonder about it, doesn’t present you with a huge number of choices and ambiguities and contradictions and everything, once it doesn’t engage you, then you don’t really have the piece.  You can certainly make a judgment that it’s either not good, or not good for you.  Maybe it needs some other advocate.

BD:   Do you then pass it along to somebody else?

MT:   You pass it along to someone else.  One of the biggest disappointments I’ve had recently was with a piece that I just spent hours and hours and hours on, trying to understand the notation, trying to understand the essence.

BD:   Was it a difficult piece to work out?

MT:   No, it wasn’t difficult to play.  Things are not difficult to play, they’re difficult to read.  They’re difficult to understand what the notation means
how do you move, where do you breathe, where do you go forward, where do you hold back?  Sometimes these things are notated in the music, and that’s fine.  But sometimes the word-notations contradict the tone notations, and rhythmically it doesn’t make sense, because one’s sense of rhythm has to match the sense of rhythm of the piece.  What I discovered in this particular piece, what was such a big disappointment was that the composer didn’t trust the performer enough to allow certain things to be done.  Everything was micro-managed, and the notation required you to think about something else.  You almost have to have a code box to decipher it, in order to get through what he was saying.  So, the moment I realized that there was this barrier between me and the music, I just gave up.  I said I can’t do this!  I can’t stand up and play, trying to think about the music while having to think about how to think about the music.  So, I just gave that up.  

BD:   Is this part of your advice to composers
to write the piece and get out of the way, and let the performer do it?

MT:   My advice is the same advice that one gives to writers of words
that you try to write as simply as you can, and say what it is you want to say.  But there’s a whole school of very eccentric composers who want to make things more difficult, just as there is a whole school of poets who want to make things very obscure.  Fine, if that’s a game you’re into, but I’m not.

BD:   The composer, be alive or dead, has given you this piece of music.  Are you required to put some of yourself into it?

MT:   I put myself into it as far as trying to understand it, trying to get to the place where I can find out if I can do it.  But if I’d lose respect for what’s given to me, then I’m no longer the best person to play the music.

BD:   So, the first estimate’s you, and then you can convince everybody else?

MT:   Oh, sure!

Thompson presents world premiere of Viola Concerto by Wilson

Clarise Snyder
July 12, 2012

wilson Violist Marcus Thompson, Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music at MIT, presented the world premiere of the Viola Concerto by composer Olly Wilson with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on June 2. The performance, under the direction of Arild Remmereit at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater, was presented as part of the 40th International Viola Congress held at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Stuart Low, reviewer for The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, wrote: …“Olly Wilson’s Viola Concerto, dazzlingly performed by Boston soloist Marcus Thompson, was a more serious affair. Skillfully and innovatively written for the instrument, it often calls for hammered or vigorously scrubbed bow strokes that help the viola’s dark tone project. The concerto’s atonal lines tend to unfold in tight, chromatic steps — a great help to a violist zipping around this large instrument in quick runs. Wilson, a highly acclaimed Berkeley, Calif., composer, also takes advantage of the viola’s lyrical side in the concerto’s elegiac middle section. Searing and haunted by turns, it was eloquently delivered by Thompson.”

Wilson’s Viola Concerto was commissioned by the National Endowment of the Arts and written for, and dedicated to, Marcus Thompson. Wilson is professor of music at University of California at Berkeley. He has received numerous honors and awards from the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships. His works have been performed by major American orchestras and international ensembles.

BD:   Have you worked collaboratively with a composer on a piece for you?

MT:   I have, but that’s not usually a very good idea.  It’s better for me to get the finished product.  Let him do his work, and then I’ll do mine.  Inevitably there’ll be questions that’ll come up.  There will be misunderstandings on my part, there’ll be things that I need to be taught, and things that need to be learned, and things that need to be explained to me.  Then we go from there, but I can’t get into the creative process.  I understand and respect a lot of things about composition, but I’m not enough of a composer.  Even if I were, I wouldn’t interfere with another composer.  That’s the wrong thing to do.  The best you can do is to tell them what sort of thing you’re looking for
a concerto, or a recital piece, or a piece for a certain occasionbut don’t say you want it so many minutes, or not to go above the staff.

thompson BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want to play on the bridge???

MT:   [Laughs]  I don’t, no.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music in general, and of viola pieces in particular?

MT:   I am!  I’m quite optimistic because a lot of people think that there really isn’t very much viola music, or that it’s not very good.  There’s not a lot of music available, that’s true, but at the same time, there’s a huge amount of viola music that simply has not been played.  I say that with first-hand knowledge of a gentleman named Franz Zeyringer (1920-2009), who, in 1985, published a catalogue under the auspices of the International Viola Society and the American Viola Society.  It
s now in its second or third edition.

BD:   It’s a catalogue of every viola piece in the world?

MT:   Every viola piece that they could find out about, and that they had seen published.  These were works that he and others had found, that had been given to him or had been given notations about.  So, he catalogued it all, and of course this is an ongoing work.  When it was released in 1985 [thirteen years prior to this interview], the catalogue had 14,000 works.

BD:   Of course some of them are little encore pieces?

MT:   Some of them are little encore pieces, but a lot of them are concertos, or unaccompanied pieces, all kinds of things.  

BD:   [With mock seriousness]  Then I guess you’d better get busy!

MT:   [Laughs]  You know what I’d really like to do?  My dream has always been to have a big enough viola class, and to assign people to just work their way through the catalogue, to play all these things so that we get to find out what’s good.  Some of it may be good and some of it may not be, and occasionally you’ll find something that’s really gorgeous and worthwhile.  Today, as a matter of fact, I was told by the other soloist with the orchestra this week, Caio Pagano, that he played a viola piece by Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993) earlier in his career with Milton Thomas, who’s a violist on the west coast.  He’d asked me if I had ever heard of it, and said he thought it was a very great sonata, one of his greatest works.  I said, no, I’d never heard of the composer and I didn’t know about the piece, so there’s something I’m sure I’ll go home and look up in the catalogue, and it’ll be right there, listed among everything else.  On the page, in black and white, it doesn’t look any more attractive than any other piece, but one has to simply get to it and decide.

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BD:   Is the music that you play for everyone?

MT:   No, I’ve never claimed that my music is for everyone.  I’ve never claimed that classical music is for everyone.  It never started out that way, and probably some of the troubles that we’re in now is that we struggle under the myth that it is for everyone.  More people go to football, or the Promise Keepers rally than to a concert, and [laughs] you tend to feel depressed about it.

BD:   Should we try to get some of the football fans and Promise Keepers into the concert hall?

MT:   I’m sure we have some already!

BD:   But we should we try to get more?

thompson MT:    I don’t think we should stop trying, but we should realize that the audiences started out being very limited because the music was intended for a very small, even self-selected group of peoplenot select in the way music has been marketed to people who drive BMWs and buy Brooks Brothers suitsbut by people who either play the music or sang the music, or wanted to hear people more skilled than themselves play.  These are some of the reasons for audience-development outside of the home in the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century.

BD:   Does this give you a particular joy to be able to play with the Chicago Sinfonietta, that goes out for a more diverse audience, and at lower prices so that you can bring more people into the concert hall?

MT:   Absolutely.  Any effort that can be made is helpful, but any effort is a personal worthwhile effort, sure.

BD:   In the end is it worth it?

MT:   Performers need audiences.  The audiences will grow, but they’re not going to grow if the point is to make them realize that this is a spectacle.  This is not a spectacle in the sense that it was when Paganini played, or when Horowitz played.  There’s something else going on.  There’s a kind of spiritual aesthetic quality that’s going on that people are more easily connected to if it’s something they do themselves.  This means music in the schools; this means music instruction; this means singing and playing in the home and among friends.  From there you can build audiences, and not just by saying to people with absolutely no background that you’re welcome.  I would bet that people are few and far between who have absolutely no background of music who will come to a concert, and make it something they have to do for the rest of their lives.  I’d have a hard time with that.

BD:   You can’t go to a baseball game if you don’t know the difference between a foul ball and a double play!

MT:   Exactly!  There are little leagues and all kinds of other less-than-top professional efforts at playing games together, as well as being involved in the community.  These things are the fertile soil in which this seed has to take root before people go and enjoy the game.  There are all those things everybody else did, and when you really have a sense of how all that’s done, and you see somebody get up and do it better than anybody else, and it’s the reason to get up and cheer, even if you don’t do it anymore, and that’s the way it’s got to be with music, too.

BD:   We have The Three Tenors.  Should we get The Three Violists?  [Both laugh]  We should try to persuade you, and Yuri Bashmet, and Kim Kashkashian, and send you around the world.

MT:   [With a smirk]  Oh, that would be quite a spectacle, especially if we played the same pieces that the Tenors do, like O Sole Mio.  [Both continue laughing]  That would be a scream!

BD:   [Coming back to the topic]  Being an instrumentalist, is this phenomenon of The Three Tenors helping music, or is that just sort of off there in the distance?

MT:   That falls into the category of spectacle.  It’s just a great fun spectacle, and if high quality.  These guys are really sing well, you know, and everybody wants to hear them.  It reminds me a little bit of something that I witnessed years ago.  As a student, two of my favorite male singers were Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

BD:   They are both very lyric singers.

MT:   Yes, absolutely incredible, and even though they’re lyrical
one’s a tenor and the other’s a high baritonethey are very different.  Each of them sings absolutely beautifully, and you think of beauty as being this and not that.  It’s a very specific idea of what is beautiful.  Benjamin Britten wrote the War Requiem, and in the first recording with Galina Vishnevskaya singing soprano, you have these two men as soloists.  In these excerpts from a poem by Wilfred Owen, they’re singing the same phrases back and forth to one another, and I think that’s one of the worst things I’ve ever heard on a recording, because each of them sings so beautifully and so differently.  They don’t complement one another at all.  It’s the biggest dissonance, because I’m totally drawn into a certain idea of beauty in terms of one of them, and then I’m hit with the other.  It’s as different as anything can be, and it’s not a good contrast for real dissonance.  So, to me that’s a different kind of spectacle.  It’s like having all of your favorite foods on the same plate at the same timethe cherry and vanilla ice-cream, and the asparagus!  Sometimes it just doesn’t work to put chocolate sauce on asparagus, as someone used to say.  [Both laugh again]  But having the three tenors together, you just can’t find which one is the greatest.  You hear this one, and you think, “Yes!  That’s for me!  Then you hear the next one, and feel that’s for me, too!

BD:   I suppose the ideal would be a fan of all three.

MT:   I don’t know how you cannot be a fan of all three.  Hearing them all sing together becomes great fun.  It would be nice if somebody wrote real music for them...

BD:   Is playing the viola great fun?

MT:   Oh, yes!  Oh, it’s enormous fun.  When it’s in an ensemble, very often the spotlight is off of you, and so it goes back to what I was saying earlier about when you’re playing for yourself and not for an audience.  Y
ou’re really playing for the others.  You’re not playing to be seen and to be heard because you’re in the middle.  You’re not the foundation and you’re not the lead voice, and it really takes a sophisticated listener to search out all the subtleties that are going on in the middle.  So, you’re doing something that can be very, very secretive, and very supportive, and people are not really understanding how you’re doing.  You can do something that is really quite magical.

thompson BD:   People wouldn’t really appreciate you unless you’re missing.  Then they’d wonder what’s missing.

MT:   Yes, yes, exactly!  If they’re not aware that you’re there, you’re doing just right.

BD:   We’re glad that you’re there!

MT:    Well, I’m glad I’m there, too.  Lillian Fuchs, the great violist, used to say that playing the viola in an ensemble, you have the best seat in the house because you’re right in the midst of everything, and you’re there to support all the nicest things going on at the top and on the bottom.  You’re assisting, and mediating, and blending in, and all that, and occasionally singing out.  Ensemble work is a noble profession.  Someone use to say that playing second viola in a Mozart Quintet is the way of the Lord.  It’s the way of service and sacrifice.  One could say that about the viola in general, and that’s fine with me.

BD:   Have you been a guest in those six quintets?

MT:   Yes, I have.  I’ve played them with a number of different string quartets
including the Audubon and the Emerson Quartet.

[At this point we stopped for a moment to take care of a few technical things, such as recording a Station Break.  I then asked him for his birthdate...]

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

MT:   That I want to be at this age?  I have to think about what that means.  I am this age, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  I don’t associate chronologically with the way I feel.  I think I’ve finally passed twenty.  I don’t know how many years I felt eighteen, and I think I’m over twenty now, but I don’t think I’m fifty-two!

BD:   What does fifty-two feel like?  What is it supposed to feel like?

MT:   Do you know that story?  Years ago, when Gloria Steinem turned to fifty, people were complementing her and telling her how wonderful she looked.  She said with great pride,
This is what fifty looks like!  So, when I turned fifty, I was saying that to everyone.  [Much laughter]

BD:   Does it bother you that it’s always viola jokes, and not bassoon jokes, or tambourine jokes?

MT:   Well, there are bassoon jokes, and there are conductor jokes, and there are tambourine jokes, and soprano jokes, 

BD:   But it seems like the most notorious are the ones about the viola.

MT:   I realize that, and no, it doesn’t bother me.  It’s good to be recognized and not ignored.  Viola jokes are a lot older than this century.  Not necessarily jokes, but disparaging remarks about violists were written as early as Johann Joachim Quantz in the eighteenth century.  So, it’s perennial, and some of them are true!

BD:   I’m an old bassoon player, so I have to be the clown of the orchestra.

MT:   The thing that makes viola jokes stick is that violists don’t think of themselves as being clowns.  They’re often deadly serious, and so someone pokes fun when someone is deadly serious.  That makes them even more serious than they already are.

BD:   Do you like making recordings?

MT:   [Thinks a moment]  In a way, yes, and what makes it fun is you can either think the recording is going to be a mirror which will show up all the blemishes, or you’re going to fool it and make people think that you actually play better than you do!  [Much laughter]  So, if you go into it that way, then you come out with something that’s fun.  But when you’re listening to it you suddenly realize,
Oh my God, there’s this thing wrong and that thing wrong.”  Of course I do have horror stories...

BD:   Tell me one juicy story.

MT:    [Laughs]  My recording horror story has to do with a concerto in a room that was about 60 degrees.  It was so cold that I was wearing a heavy jacket.  I couldn’t work without the jacket because it was just too cold to stand there.  But the jacket was cumbersome, and in order to hear the playback, I had to put on an overcoat, go outside, climb upstairs, walk across the roof in the snow to the recording booth, and then back.  So, I was outside in the winter, in the snow, in an overcoat, and then back in, climbing down the ladder with my hands into the room, take off the coat and go back to playing in a room that’s barely heated.  [Laughter all around]  There’s something that goes click in your brain at that moment.  You just think,
“What am I doing this for?  This is about as inconvenient as it can be.

BD:   Did it turn out to be one of your better recordings, though?

MT:   It did, but it’s not the kind of condition that people will think recordings are often made under.  [He then spoke about recent and upcoming recording projects, most of which became available and successful.]

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago.  I appreciate it, and hope you will return.

MT:   Yes, thank you.

As I have noted elsewhere, these interviews which I am posting on my website were often done two or three decades previously.  Many of my guests have now passed away, and I am pleased to help keep their thoughts and ideas alive on this comparatively new medium.  

Sometimes, we are fortunate to have the artists still alive and working, and in those cases I try to make contact to let them know of this additional exposure.  Most of these people write back and are very complimentary of my efforts.  

Here is what Marcus Thompson said (via e-mail) when looking over this page...

<<<What a thrilling 'blast from the past’ to hear from you, and to read an interview that could still be true today! It is a very telling snapshot of my thirtieth season, especially now, nearly twenty years later. My activities, attitudes and stories are still the same. [He then pointed out a few small, but important, corrections to be made in the text.]  Thanks again for your kind attention to my career and playing, and for all your efforts to support concert going and good music listening.>>>

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 7, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that day, and again in 1998; and on WNUR in 2007 and 2015.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.