Made for each other An arranged marriage, Joseph DePasquale's love affair with the vila has nonetheless produced a lifetime of magical moments.

November 05, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Joseph DePasquale picks up the viola with big blunt fingers and applies his bow strongly and steadily.

His instrument, its hourglass figure recognizably female, its body varnished to a dark gloss, sings wordlessly in a clear, dark voice, uncannily like a woman's.

"The viola must sound like a beautiful, deep-throated contralto," DePasquale has said.

He is 78. He's been carrying on this love affair with the viola for more than half a century.

DePasquale was principal viola for close to 50 years with two top American orchestras: the Boston Symphony (almost 18 years) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (32 years). In recognition of his long and distinguished career, the 25th International Viola Congress, held in June at the University of Texas, was dedicated to him. And the Peabody Conservatory, where he will play tonight, hired him last year to lend added prestige to its string faculty.

There are five DePasquale brothers. Their father, a violin teacher, wanted a string quartet.

So he started three of his sons on violin ("with the idea that one of us would occasionally play viola") and a fourth on cello. A fifth brother played string bass, but he chose a non-musical career -- the equivalent, in the DePasquale family, of trading his birthright for a mess of pottage.

Joe, the oldest son, played violin until he was 17 and applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in his native Philadelphia. "I was to be accepted as a violin student, but they intercepted me," he says.

He had big hands and thick fingers and an aggressive approach to his instrument. Also, "I was a fairly large fellow," he says. "And I've gotten larger," he adds, looking down at his comfortable girth.

All this made the string faculty at Curtis suggest that Joe might make a better player of the viola. The violin's alto cousin is larger, requiring bigger hands and a forceful bow to bring out its mellow voice. DePasquale had both.

So he switched to the viola. And he's never looked back.

The quartet

Joe, the first-born, was followed by Francis, who became the cellist in the family. Then there was John, the erstwhile bass player, who became an engineer. ("He didn't like to practice," says Joe.) Robert and William, who followed, are the violinists. There's a span of 15 years between the oldest and youngest of the brothers.

When they were boys, their father gave violin lessons for $1 an hour and took up cabinetmaking on the side. DePasquale still has a few of his pieces at his home in a northern Philadelphia suburb.

The DePasquale boys went their separate ways in professional music. When Joe DePasquale graduated from Curtis in 1942, he nTC went directly into the U.S. Marine Corps. Instead of the South Pacific, though, he went to the White House, as a member of the resident string quartet.

After playing for Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, followed by a year on radio's American Broadcasting Orchestra, he was named principal viola of the Boston Symphony. Meanwhile, Francis went to the Philadelphia Orchestra, Robert to the New York Philharmonic and William to the New Orleans Philharmonic.

Eugene Ormandy, longtime music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, made it possible for the DePasquale brothers to come home again. In 1964, he asked Joe to become principal viola of the orchestra -- a job he held until he retired in 1996. Francis already played in the cello section. Robert, who made the move at the same time as Joe, just retired as associate principal second violin. William came back to Philadelphia a little later; today the violinist is the orchestra's second concertmaster.

So there they were, a family again. In their spare time, they played together. "My father finally got the string quartet he wanted -- and lived to hear it, too," DePasquale says. Now resident ensemble at Villanova University, outside Philadelphia, it has remained a family ensemble. After Francis died in 1972, William's wife, Gloria, became the cellist.

DePasquale still teaches at the Curtis Institute, but on Sunday nights he takes the train to Baltimore and spends Mondays and Tuesdays at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he has seven private students -- about the same number as in Philadelphia -- and teaches an orchestral literature class. "I can be choosy in my life now," he says.

He also works here with pianist Angelin Chang, who is finishing her doctorate at Peabody. Chang is a graduate of the Paris Conservatory and Indiana University, where they met when DePasquale taught there in the early '90s.

DePasquale does not call her an accompanist. "She's a collaborator!" he says, with a flourish of his bow.

Musical history

He's so buoyant that it hardly seems possible that he's approaching his ninth decade, or that he represents so much musical history. When he began playing with the Boston Symphony, the great Serge Koussevitzky was its conductor. DePasquale married Koussevitzky's niece, Maria, and their eldest son is named Joseph Serge in the conductor's honor.

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