Rare acclaim for a rare violist

William Primrose is the subject of a tribute

Stage: theater, music, dance

March 11, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

William Primrose just may be the most famous musician you've never heard of - and he has a tragic history to rival that of any rock star.

In fact, Primrose was a kind of rock star, or at least the first player ever to achieve stardom on the frequently - and unfairly - maligned viola. (He is the subject of a benefit concert in Columbia Sunday by his former student, Peter Minkler, a violist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.)

Although Primrose didn't die young like Kurt Cobain and so many others, he lost part of his hearing at the height of his powers and searched for decades, unsuccessfully, for a cure. Doctors speculated that the partial deafness stemmed from a fever that the violist suffered in 1946, when he would have been in his early 40s.

"He was in the prime of his career," Minkler said, "and he realized he could no longer hear certain pitches."

The blow may have seemed particularly acute because Primrose's gifts were so phenomenal.

He began playing violin at age 4. At 12, he began performing in public, and as a teen, began winning prestigious competitions - without practicing, and while skipping classes that he considered boring, such as musical theory and counterpoint. (Kids, don't try this at home.)

In his mid-20s, Primrose switched from the violin to the larger viola, an instrument whose deeper, richer sound he preferred.

Primrose performed first with the London String Quartet and later with the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini's leadership. He achieved international renown that eventually resulted in a flourishing solo career that was all the more remarkable because the viola had long been considered an instrument for the infirm and feeble. Partly, that was due to the instrument's physical peculiarities and partly because of the limited repertoire assigned to it.

"Because of Primrose's virtuosity, that perception began to change," Minkler said.

Gregarious and charming by nature, Primrose also was a sought-after teacher. Ironically, his very gifts made it difficult for him to impart as much knowledge as he would have desired. "Technique came so easily to him that he couldn't explain how he did it," Minkler said.

But Primrose excelled at helping students solve artistic problems.

Minkler studied with Primrose for six weeks in 1980 and was invited to became one of the master's private students - an immensely flattering invitation that the younger man unfortunately had to decline for financial reasons. But teacher and student corresponded sporadically until Primrose's death in 1982 from cancer.

Sunday's concert will include Ludwig van Beethoven's Notturno for Viola and Piano; Benjamin Britten's Lachrymae, Reflections on a Song of Dowling; Robert Schumann's Marchenbilder; Lillian Fuchs' Sonata Pastorale and Franz Schubert's `Arpeggione' Sonata in A Minor.

"It's a way to play the repertoire that I love, as well as honor his memory," Minkler said.

Concert

What: Violist Peter Minkler presents A Tribute to William Primrose

Where: Christ Epispocal Church, Oakland Mills and Dobbin roads, Columbia

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $15 adults; $10 full-time students unaccompanied by an adult; free for those 17 and younger accompanied by an adult

Information: 410-381-5773 or www.sundaysatthree.org.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 38.

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