New work puts viola in spotlight

January 09, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Richard Field has done a lot to make his musician mom proud of him. He's the principal violist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- violists everywhere in the country admire his work -- and he's helped to make the BSO's viola section one of the best in the orchestra.

But now Field's mother -- who retired two years ago after a long and distinguished career as a violinist in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra -- has done something for which her 44-year-old son is grateful and proud. Four years ago, Lorene Osborne commissioned Rochester composer Cary Ratliff to write a viola concerto for her son. The work will be given its international premiere tonight and Saturday in Rochester by the Rochester Philharmonic with Field as the soloist and Peter Bay conducting.

"This was my way of showing my faith in two young men -- Rick as a performer and Cary as a composer," she says. "I wanted something that would let the viola sing and and Cary's done it."

Indeed, a recording of the work with Field and Ratliff playing the orchestral part on the piano suggests that the work, which won a prestigious American Society of Composers and Publishers prize two years ago, is a real contribution to the viola literature. Its lyrical introspection beautifully suits this larger, darker cousin of the violin. And the viola is badly in need of such new works.

While Mozart loved the instrument -- his Sinfonia Concertante and his violin and viola duos are among the genuine masterpieces in the violist's repertory -- most great composers until the 20th century neglected it.

"Except for Berlioz' 'Harold in Italy,' most 19th century composers ignored the viola," Field says. "That may be because back then violists had a bad reputation -- they were often the retirement section for the violins."

That all began to change in the 20th century because of two great violists, Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. The viola and orchestra repertory now includes masterpieces by Hindemith, Walton, Bartok and Alfred Schnittke, whose concerto Field will play with the BSO next month.

"There are some important solo viola concertos, but we're still playing catch-up with other instruments," Field says. "It was important to me that something pretty be written for the viola and I'm grateful to my mother for helping to make it possible."

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