By Greg Cahill | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Like many string players, Brett Deubner made the most of the Covid-19 lockdown while sequestered at his Manhattan home. “The pandemic provided me with a real opportunity to work on my own playing skills, learn numerous new compositions written for me, and prepare for upcoming recordings and performances,” says the 54-year-old recording artist and concert violist. “In some ways, this was a positive and productive time, not only for my performing life, but also for my role as an educator, through online lessons for my viola students at the Aaron Copland School of Music in New York, as well as in the master class format online.”
The lockdown also afforded Deubner, a devoted champion of the instrument who is widely regarded as one of the world’s best violists, the time to pick up his 2018 Alejandro Bacelar viola and record five new works for unaccompanied viola by five contemporary composers: Polina Nazaykinskaya, Judith Markovich, Andrew List, Maurizio Bignone, and Tommie Haglund. The result is Hope: Music for Solo Viola (Birs), a spellbinding collection of new music that deftly explores the emotional and technical range of the viola.
Deubner’s own appreciation of the instrument began as a violinist during his freshman year at the Eastman School of Music. “I was a participant in the Cleveland Quartet Seminar,” he says. “Our violist played on a beautiful small viola, and I asked if I could try playing it. It was such a visceral reaction. The sound was so enveloping and my whole body relaxed. From that moment forward, I knew I would play the viola. Many people are drawn to the dark and somber timbre of the viola, but for me it was the rich variety of colors and the virtuosity this amazing instrument presented. It seemed limitless. To play with a rich and deep tone like the cello, as well as the ability to soar very high like a violin, was very attractive to me.”
He had studied violin with pupils of Ivan Galamian and studied viola with Martha Katz and John Graham. “I had a good ‘violin foundation’ and this helped me on the viola,” he says. “I also have always been interested in new music, and I felt the viola was the perfect instrument to explore the vast array of colors I encountered in new music.”
The album, Deubner adds, reflects that sentiment. “I made this very personal album with the hope that people feel a connection to the music, the composers, the performer, and perhaps to the world,” he says. “As a storyteller, the goal is to transport the listener, perhaps even to challenge the listener.”
How does Hope fit in with your considerable recorded oeuvre?
I’ve recorded over 15 albums, including seven concertos and numerous chamber music albums, as well as sonata collaborations. This is my first “purely” solo viola album. I’ve had dozens of amazing works written for me for solo viola, but I chose these five works because they all have great intensity and virtuosity that really shows the total range and potential of the viola. During the pandemic, I made five albums, including a jazz album. This was a time of real productivity for me. Being able to practice more due to a drastically shortened concert season made it possible to learn new works and also make recordings I’ve wanted to do for a while.
The viola lacks a significant solo repertoire, relative to the violin and cello—the title track itself is a transcription of a violin work. Why do you think that is?
Historically the viola was considered a texture instrument, but throughout history some amazing solo works have been written for the viola. Of course, in the quartet literature, the viola is very prominent and even the Classical and Romantic symphonic repertoire features the viola section to great effect. I think, like all instruments, our level of playing has improved, so I’m not surprised that many composers are now writing for this amazing instrument.
What drew you to these five contemporary composers?
I wanted this album to flow from piece to piece as if it was a concert performance. These works were all written for me or arranged by the composer for me, so they all have special meaning. I feel incredibly fortunate to have such close working relationships with so many amazing composers. Even though all the compositions on this album are quite different—of the five works, four of the composers are from countries other than the United States—the qualities that drew me to these works were very similar. All of the pieces are passionate and filled with an intensity that I identify with as a performer. There is also a great sense of searching found in these works, a sense of the human struggle. Perhaps the times we live in also contributed to the choices I made for this album. In some ways this album has an almost autobiographical feel to it, reflecting the struggles and evolution I have gone through as a musician and how we relate to one another in a very fractured world.
You have noted that these works represent a larger theme of resilience, optimism, and hope in the face of adversity. How so?
All of these works touch upon the subject of the human condition and our place in the world. Our job as artists is to connect with people and tell a story. Not simply to entertain. The pandemic created much suffering but also brought many people together. Music also has the power to do this.
You have also said that the project has a strong community connection. Why was that important?
All of the works were written for me during the pandemic—some were transcriptions that were reworked for me also during the lockdown—so in a way the composers and I were creating an album together. We were all affected by the lockdown, and I was privileged to be able to record these works, but it was a group effort. I would play the works for the composers online, and it was a natural process. As performers, it is all about community connection. Connecting to our audiences, inviting them into the process is key. Without a listener, we are just practicing. So there were many levels of community represented in this album.
How rewarding was this project for you?
Incredibly rewarding. I am never satisfied with my playing—it is a never-ending process. But I enjoyed bringing these incredible works to the public, and I hope listeners are transported when they experience these wonderful works.
What is a common misconception people have about the viola as a solo instrument that you hope to dispel?
I would say the biggest misconception I’ve noticed is the persistent presumption that the viola is a lesser instrument than other stringed instruments, such as the violin. The viola is being played at such a high level these days. More and more students are beginning on the viola. I teach at the Round Top Festival [in Texas], and every year I am amazed at the high quality of students. I am a “glass half full” kind of person, so rather than thinking of the viola as an inferior instrument that can’t play as fast and high as a violin or as deep as a cello, I prefer to celebrate the fact that the viola can do anything!