Harold in Italy, Baker in Hampton Roads

A Virginia Symphony Orchestra concert that VSO Music Director JoAnn Falletta calls a “non-Italian, Italian night,” of music about Italy written by non-Italian composers, features the rarely heard Harold in Italy by the great 19th Century French composer Hector Berlioz, along with two pieces by the Russian Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Capriccio Italien and Francesca di Rimini (Nov. 11, 13 & 19).

Berlioz wrote music that was quite radical for its time. Harold, because it joins a solo viola (the larger, deeper cousin of the violin) to the orchestra, is one of his unconventional works.

In the Virginia Symphony concerts, that solo part will be played by Beverly Kane Baker, principal violist for the Symphony.

Harold in Italy is based on the great epic poem Child Harold‘s Pilgrimage, by George Gordon, Lord Byron. The solo viola represents Harold’s voice. After an introduction by the orchestra, the solo viola introduces Harold’s theme, which Berlioz recycled from his earlier Rob Roy Overture, and which appears, in different forms, in every movement. Beyond that, the music contains no specific references to any passages from the poem, and conductor Joann Falletta says, “I don’t really expect the audience to get small details of the work but more the sense of this artistic soul... if they try to hear too many specifics, they may lose the chance to use their own imagination.” She goes on to discuss how the sound of the viola’s lower register has the “brooding poet” feeling of the story. “The viola has a warmth to it,” she says. “[It] more closely approaches the pitch of the human voice.”

Despite the fact that the violin and viola are equally capable instruments, there are dozens of violin concertos for every viola concerto today; in the 19th century, there were hundreds, if not thousands. Harold in Italy, one of the few great viola pieces of that era, was commissioned in 1834 by the great violinist Nicolo Paganini.

Berlioz wrote: “Paganini came to see me. ‘I have a wonderful viola,’ he said, ‘which I would like to play in public. But I have no suitable music. Would you like to write a solo for viola? You are the only one I can trust for this task.’ ”

Berlioz replied: "Certainly, I am flattered ... but to rise to your expectations and to show off in, a work of this kind, a virtuoso such as yourself, one needs to be a viola player, which I am not. In my view you alone can solve this problem."

Paganini: "No, I insist, you will do a fine job."

Berlioz set out to write “a solo for viola, but one which involved the orchestra in such a way as not to reduce the effectiveness of the orchestral contribution.” He called the completed piece a “symphony for viola and orchestra,” since the orchestra is featured so prominently.

According to Berlioz, Paganini could not wait for the whole piece, but upon seeing the first movement, said, "This will not do; I am silent for too much of the time; I need to be playing continuously."

Berlioz’s reply, that only Paganini himself could write the “viola concerto” he wanted, prompted just such a composition (Sonata per la gran viola e orchestra), but Paganini never performed Harold in Italy. However, he did not claim that Harold was an inferior piece and was blown away when he heard it; he simply felt that he was the wrong person to play it.

Ms. Falletta clearly feels that Beverly Baker is the right person––the conductor says she’s been “trying for 20 years” to program Harold into the symphony season for her.

There are plenty of excellent musicians in the Virginia Symphony Orchestra––you don’t get in unless you play superbly––but they come from all over the country, and in some cases, the world. Mrs. Baker, who grew up in Hampton, is one of the few to have originated locally.

Her first music lessons were on violin, when she was six. At the age of nine, she first heard the Virginia Symphony, then called the Norfolk Symphony, and it was at that point that she realized that she wanted to play in an orchestra, but not that it would be the same one. (She’s now been with the Symphony for 29 years.)

There are two violin sections in a symphony orchestra, the first of which gets the melody more often. Unlike most violin students, Mrs. Baker preferred playing in the second section, saying that she liked the sound of the lower two strings. The viola is lower still, and violinists greatly outnumber violists, so at her teacher’s suggestion, she took up the viola in high school.

“I feel like Berlioz captures for me a subtle melody in the low range of the viola, which I love,” she says. “[Harold in Italy] definitely showcases the strengths of the instrument.”

Playing behind and along with their own principal violist will showcase the strengths of the orchestra as well, says Ms. Falletta. “We want to do our very best for her...it’s so important to us that we show our admiration for our extraordinary principal viola...a great [section] leader and great human being,” and a musician “with the highest standards.”

Virginia Symphony Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor
Beverly Baker, viola
Nov. 11, 8 p.m., Ferguson Center, New;ort News
Nov. 13, 2:30 p.m, Sandler Center, Virginia Beach
Nov. 19, 8 p.m., Chrysler Hall, Norfolk

Monte Gammon, a violist and violinist, studies music privately and at ODU. Montague Gammon III took interview notes for this article.

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