The viola takes a bow in our November concert ‘Free Spirit’, and Amber Read talks with composer Anthony Ritchie and APO’s Robert Ashworth about this remarkable composition and instrument.
The viola doesn’t often have the chance to shine, but this November the APO’s principal viola player, Robert Ashworth, brings it to the centre stage with a concerto by New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie. As a solo instrument, the viola has a unique sound, Ashworth says: “It’s this wonderful colour range that doesn’t exist in other instruments… it’s very versatile. It can sound like a violin, it can sound like cello, and there’s the true viola sound in the middle; I think this concerto represents all of those aspects and in particular the way Anthony structured it highlights that true viola range…. I think more than anything what we enjoy listening to with the viola is that lyrical side, that warmth and richness of tone.”
Composer Anthony Ritchie was drawn to the mix of intimacy and virtuosity the viola offers. “The viola represents a more personal voice for me,” he says, “an open, honest, voice with integrity.” Ritchie’s wife plays the viola and the concerto was also partly inspired by her.
Balancing the viola sound against the orchestra can be a challenge, says Ritchie, but it’s one he’s succeeded at. “The way he has written for viola is very clear and audible,” says Ashworth. “It’s not a battle to try and be heard.”
“I think that the Ritchie Viola Concerto is an example of a great viola concerto for many reasons, and it’s been so popular that he has made it into a sonata version too,” says Ashworth. The concerto has been played in New Zealand and overseas since its 1995 premiere by the (then) Dunedin Sinfonia with Donald Maurice as soloist, but this is an excellent opportunity for Auckland audiences to hear this emerging classic.
Ashworth says the concerto is structured to make it easy for the soloist to contribute their own interpretation: “I am able to bring my own characteristics and personality through [the music] very easily. I think there’s a lot of room in there for exploration of character and you should be able to hear my own personality coming through, even though it was originally written for Donald Maurice.”
“I really look forward to different interpretations of my music,” says Ritchie. “Nothing is set in stone for compositions; they can change, so it will be really interesting to hear what interpretation Robert brings and how he and the orchestra put it together.”
When choosing a concerto, Ashworth wanted to present a concerto that would appeal to a wide cross-section of listeners. He rejected the more established/standard Hindemith concerto: “I love it dearly,” he says, “but it can be difficult to listen to… it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted people to take away with them.” The Ritchie concerto, by contrast, “includes lots of different genres that are relevant today for a lot of people, such as bluegrass and jazz. I want people to go away saying ‘I really enjoyed listening to that!’”
Ashworth’s excitement about new music is infectious. As a soloist, he’s premiered solo works by Ross Harris with the APO, and as a chamber musician, many more New Zealand composers with the Jade String Quartet. “The whole world needs new music coming through and we can’t rely on the great music of the past to continue to carry us,” he says, “we need to discover the great music that exists today.”