This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
You might call the viola "the Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments." Despite a luscious contralto tone quality, the viola has had a tough time getting respect, and even became the butt of musical in-jokes, like this one:
Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola?
It saves time.
How do you get a violin to sound like a viola?.
Sit in the back and don't play.
Enough. The instrument known for filling in the harmonic gaps between violins and cello in a string quartet has its own allure. That was proven by William Primrose, the first person to become world-famous as a viola soloist, and who spent the final years of his life in Provo.
This week violists from around the world gather at Brigham Young University in Provo to honor the beauty and versatility of their instrument at a festival and competition named for Primrose. The International Primrose Viola Competition and the American Viola Society's Primrose Festival run Tuesday through Saturday.
The schedule includes competition rounds, lectures and master classes. Evening concerts feature acclaimed violists such as Nokuthula Ngwenyama, recognized as one of the foremost instrumentalists of her generation, and Daniel Foster, principal violist of the National Symphony Orchestra. Festivalgoers can also examine a unique resource that draws serious students of the viola to Provo.
Because Primrose left his magnificent collection of viola literature, instruments and personal correspondence to Brigham Young University, Provo is now the epicenter for viola research. The Primrose International Viola Archive has received other substantial donations of documents and musical scores, making it the world's largest repository of materials relating to the viola. Tours of the archive will be available to festival participants.
Claudine Bigelow, a viola professor at BYU and organizer of this week's events, said Primrose's connection with BYU arose from a friendship between Primrose and her predecessor at BYU, former viola professor David Dalton.
"Dalton was the impetus that helped Primrose write his memoirs, make a film and record the Bach suites, among other things," said Bigelow.
At the end of his life, when he was suffering from terminal cancer, Primrose moved to Provo to continue his work with Dalton, a viola scholar of international stature, said Bigelow. Together, Dalton and Primrose worked out a plan for Primrose's collection of viola materials to be housed at BYU.
Primrose was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1903 and studied violin there and at the Guildhall School of Music in London. According to Bigelow, Primrose became fascinated with viola as a boy, when he secretly played a viola kept in his father's closet at home.
Later, he brought the viola out of the closet for good with the encouragement of famed Belgian string musician Eugene Ysaye, who encouraged him to switch from violin to viola. Primrose's career - and the fortunes of violists everywhere - were never the same.
Primrose played in the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini and established a solo touring career in Europe and the United States. He became so well-known that he even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Because of Primrose's contributions, the viola archives at BYU now serve as a resource - almost a shrine - for the world's violists.
Utah Symphony violist Brant Bayless visited the archives shortly after coming to Utah as a member of the Arcata quartet about seven years ago.
"It is amazing being there with his correspondence to every musical figure of the 20th century," Bayless said, - "Toscanini, Piatagorsky, Heifetz . . . Now Joe Q. Public can go down there and look at this fabulous memorabilia from one of the giants, not just of the viola, but of music."
Bayless is one of the featured soloists in a series of public concerts given in honor of the Primrose legacy. Utah Symphony pianist Jason Hardink will accompany him in a Thursday evening program that includes works of Stravinsky, Brahms and Elliot Carter. Also on the program is a world premiere of a new composition by Utah Symphony bassist Corbin Johnston, "Viola and Piano (One Application)."
Bayless said the International Primrose Viola Competition is one of the world's most prestigious events for violists. He's glad that Utah is hosting a festival that honors his instrument, and he's not joking when he sings the viola's praises:
"For me, the viola has the ideal balance in chamber settings, where it is supportive and gives constant harmonic and rhythmic underpinning," said Bayless. "But when you hear it by itself in recital, you can hear the nuances possible on the instrument, everything from the sobbing melancholy associated with it to a bright, lyrical, soaring quality.
"What drew me to the viola is that versatility. That's what people don't get, until they hear one in recital."
What's a viola?
The viola is a stringed instrument slightly larger than a violin, tuned a fifth lower, and having a deeper, darker tone. A viola player holds a viola like a violin, under the chin.
Violas serve as the middle voice of the violin family, often filling out harmonies between the upper lines played by the violin and the lower lines played by the cello and double bass.
During the classical era of music history, the viola was used less often as a solo instrument than the violin and cello. Perhaps this is because the viola's sound is less brilliant than that of the violin and has less carrying power than the cello due to size ratios.
More recently, though, the mellow sonority of the viola has been seen as a virtue, and many fine composers have written solo literature for viola during the past 100 years. Solo violists also perform transcriptions of solos written for other instruments.
Competition at BYU
The International Primrose Viola Competition and
Festival of the American Viola Society and Utah
Viola Society is at Brigham Young University
Tuesday through Saturday. All events are on the
BYU campus in Provo unless otherwise stated:
9:30 a.m.: Viola recitalist Nokuthula Ngwenyama collaborates with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on its live television broadcast "Music and the Spoken Word," originating from the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City on KSL television and radio. Those attending the free broadcast in person must be in their seats by 9:15 a.m.
10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.: Preliminary rounds of the Primrose competition.
7:30 p.m.: Concert - Violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama and pianist Jennifer Lim in the Madsen Recital Hall.
Daytime events: Preliminary competition rounds continue, after which judges select semi-finalists. Lecture and exhibit.
7:30 p.m.: Concert - Violist Daniel Foster and pianist Jeffrey Shumway perform in the Madsen Recital Hall.
Daytime events: Lecture, master class and semi-final rounds of the competition.
7:30 p.m.: Concert with violist Brant Bayless and pianist Jason Hardink (both are members of the Utah Symphony) in the Madsen Recital Hall.
Daytime events: Semi-final round continues, after which finalists are selected. Lecture and master class.
7:30 p.m.: Concert - Violist Michael Fernandez and pianist Scott Holden in the Madsen Recital Hall.
Daytime events: Final round of competitions, performance and master class.
7:30 p.m.: Showcase Concert of Primrose Competition Winners and presentation of awards, Madsen Recital Hall.
Tours of the Primrose Viola Archives on the BYU
campus are also available during the week.
Admission to daytime events is by registration
for $100 for the week or $20 per day, available
online at http://www.americanviolasociety.org or
at the Madsen Recital Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center. A
more detailed schedule of the festival can be
viewed at this same site.
The four evening recitals and the Saturday
competition showcase are $10 ($8 with BYU or
student ID) on sale now at 801-378-4322 or online
at http://www.performances.byu.edu. For more
information, contact Claudine Bigelow at