Principal Violist Cynthia Phelps Celebrates 25 Years with the NY Phil

By Laurence Vittes

The New York Philharmonic may be going through a few changes—with Alan Gilbert’s planned departure, president Matthew VanBesien’s unexpected resignation, and Lincoln Center’s redevelopment—but some things remain unchanged. And one of these things is the occupant of the Mr. and Mrs. Frederick P. Rose chair—a seat that principal violist Cynthia Phelps has called home for 25 years. To celebrate the milestone anniversary, the NY Phil and the League of American Orchestras co-commissioned a dazzling, edgy new viola concerto by Julia Adophe.

The 20-minute long concerto had its world premiere on July 16, 2016, in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the Eastern Music Festival, under the baton of Gerard Schwarz with the Festival Orchestra. Adolphe says of the terse, kaleidoscopic score, “journeys through shifting relationships between the viola and the orchestra . . . taking on the entire orchestra single-handedly, hovering in a distant sonic landscape . . .”

The New York premiere, November 17–19, was conducted by Jaap van Zweden, who takes the baton from Alan Gilbert officially during the 2018–19 season. The performances served as his debut in his role as music director. The program consisted of the New York premiere of Unearth, Release, sandwiched between music by Wagner and Tchaikovsky.

I caught up by phone with Phelps before the New York performance in mid-August, at her New Jersey home across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.

Cynthia Phelps
Photo by Richard Bowditch

How will you handle being in New York’s intense classical-music spotlight on Maestro Van Zweden’s first night as music director?

Simple. I’ll wear the greatest gown ever.

Does the media scrutiny make you nervous?
I grew up in Hollywood, and felt at ease with the New York press. After a while, between the [New York] Philharmonic and Live from Lincoln Center, I felt that I couldn’t play anywhere without the New York Times reviewers, and a lot of other critics, being there.

How did it feel to receive a commission from Julia Adolphe? 

I was so lucky. She’s wonderful and young—it was great that she was awarded such a big project. Throughout the composing process, she was open to talking about everything, even “This doesn’t work on a string instrument.” And she always wanted to know why.


What did you want from Julia Adolphe?

I wanted something other violists would like to play: lyrical, virtuosic, shimmery, with many different colors. I wanted it to be all over the viola, and important like the Bartok and Walton concertos.

Were you in touch with Julia during the commissioning process?

She had a great network of support and feedback from Steven Stucky, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and other composers. We checked in with Julia regularly.

When did you find time to practice Unearth, Release?
I practiced it a bit in early summer, while playing chamber-music festivals at a pretty rapid pace, from Bridgehampton on Long Island to La Jolla, California, and then back to Connecticut.

Who heard it first?

After our working rehearsals, we tried out a truncated version of the first movement at a private awards ceremony. Everybody said “Wow!” which made me feel really good. I knew the piece had great bone structure, but I still had no idea what it would sound like with the orchestra. I still needed to hear the orchestra part.

What did it sound like with the orchestra?

It was great. When we did the local premiere at the Eastern Music Festival, Julia felt it was finished, needing only a few tweaks. The audience really liked it, and the musicians in the orchestra liked it a lot.


How difficult is the viola part?

Difficult. It takes a lot of drill work, especially the second movement, which goes very high—the soloist has to have a tremendous amount of security.

What was involved in putting the Greensboro premiere together?

We had two rehearsals: an initial rehearsal and then a dress, the same as in New York in September. It was pretty scary in Greensboro. In fact, I was terrified. But it was better to be terrified during the summer at a festival than in front of the New York Philharmonic and our audience in the fall.

What drives you to do so much away from the New York Philharmonic?

Orchestral viola parts don’t challenge you. You don’t get out of first and third position and, when you do, if you haven’t been practicing in the higher positions, you’re going to be really stuck. You won’t be able to throw it together at the last minute. So, viola players have to do something else than all those supportive roles. In all my orchestra-repertoire classes, and with my private pupils, I say they need to be teaching, challenging themselves, maintaining a large and active repertoire, and remaining a strong instrumentalist.


How can students best do that while they’re still at school?

Look for programs at the bigger and smaller summer orchestral festivals, and overseas programs, too, that allow string players to be in ensembles a lot of the time. They will still need weekly lessons and work with different teachers, of course. Also learn how to form contacts with colleagues; they can last for the rest of your life. For me, it’s been so great to have formed 30-year bonds with people. My life will always be informed by these memories. Nurture your musical relationships now.

What role is the internet playing in your students’ musical lives?

Students are more sophisticated today, even though they are still evolving young teens. When they use the internet to observe other people’s performances, I think it helps them figure out who they are, and where they can fit into society. It lets them know that the possibilities are endless.

Is it true that you are another violist who started out on the violin?
Yes, it’s true. I couldn’t stand violin, which I started when I was four. I was the fourth of five girls, and two already played the violin. I practiced next to the sister who played the cello because I loved the sound. I switched to viola at 11.

And your wonderful viola is . . .?

My viola is still a Gaspar da Salo made between 1560 and 1580, and owned by the New York Philharmonic. It has a big, very specific sound that I love. It’s strung with Jargar A and D, and Pirastro’s Evah Pirazzi C and G. I’m so lucky to play on it.