Around the turn of the last century (or the next to the last century, since we are referring to around 1900), a glorious solo literature gave masters of most established instruments a wide selection of pieces where they could flaunt their skills and insights. Violinists, cellists, pianists, clarinetists, horn players, bassoonists, flutists, oboists, and trumpeters could choose among classical and romantic concertos where a virtuoso single instrument interacted with an entire orchestra. The viola, however, was a neglected star.
Not that talented violists never had a chance to shine. English violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) established an international reputation and dazzled audiences by performing the Mendelssohn violin concerto at pitch, an impressive accomplishment since the viola’s normal range is more than half an octave below that of the violin.
Although he could handle his instrument at stratospheric pitches, Tertis longed for material written specifically for the viola. He transcribed works for the instrument and commissioned pieces that have become the core of present-day solo viola literature. Violist Roger Chase, two musical generations removed from Tertis, says in a telephone interview from Chicago, “Tertis begged, borrowed, and even stole anything that could be played on the viola. He persuaded anybody he could to write for viola. Without him, I don’t think any of us would be playing viola now.”
Chase is in the direct musical lineage of Tertis pedagogically. Tertis taught Bernard Shore (1896-1985), who was Chase’s teacher at London’s Royal College of Music starting in the 1960s. Indeed, Shore brought Chase to play for Tertis, by then retired, when Tertis was in his 90s and Chase was 13.
Moreover, Tertis’s 1717 Montagnana instrument came down to Chase, paralleling the musical lineage. Tertis sold the viola with which he built his worldwide renown to Shore, and Chase eventually acquired the instrument. Shore called the instrument “the Monty.”
“I wrote Bernard, ‘Please tell me if you ever feel like selling the viola,’” Chase says. “I felt like a vulture. Here’s an instrument you first meet when you’re 11. And there’s your love for somebody important in your life. Finally, Bernard said he was ready to sell the Monty. I couldn’t raise the money. The viola was bought by a dealer in London with the caveat that he would like me to be the person who played it. Over the next dozen years I finally raised the money to buy it.”
In a two-concert series, “The Tertis Project,” on Thursday and Friday, November 15 and 16, in Alexander Hall’s Richardson Auditorium, Chase uses the Monty to play music associated with Tertis. The works played over the two-day period are by Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, Rebecca Clarke, Clara Schumann, Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, and Johannes Brahms. Chase’s collaborator at the piano is Michiko Otaki. The two inaugurated the Tertis Project concerts in February at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“The Tertis Project began with my wanting to spend as much time as I could revisiting the pieces taught to me as a teenager by Bernard Shore at London’s Royal College of Music,” Chase says. “It’s the sort of music you fall in love with when you’re young, and then again when you’re middle aged. It came from a golden age of compositional creativity in Britain. Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, Arnold Bax, and Arthur Bliss were all composing for Tertis. They were cutting-edge composers but they wrote melodies. Their music is extremely chromatic. But what they wrote were heart-on-sleeve, passionate, compelling, cantabile utterances. [Paul] Hindemith [who was a violist, as well as a composer] seems dry in comparison.”
Chase was born in London in 1953. “I grew up very poor,” he says. “My mother was Cockney and not musical. I tried to teach her recorder and piano when I was seven. My father grew up in London’s East End, in the Isle of Dogs, the port, the slums. It was the most heavily-targeted area in World War II. He was a visual artist, an electrical designer, and a draftsman. I have a Bakelite record of him playing violin at age 16. The thing that held his life together and his brother’s was music. My father and uncle got lessons from someone who went to the schools to teach music. They knew she was posh because she wore shoes. Through music they escaped the Isle of Dogs.
“There was always music in our house,” Chase says. His sister, a talented cellist, is 20 months older than he is. “We’d go to bed every night with music downstairs,” Chase says.
There was a random quality to the choice of instruments that entered Chase’s life. “My first instrument was a Salvation Army cornet that somehow finished up in the house,” he says. “I was about two and a half. The cornet was too big, so they gave me a recorder. The story was that I could sight read on the recorder before I could talk. At five my father stuck a violin under my chin. At seven, I started piano.
“I started viola at nine. The idea was that nobody in their right mind would become a professional musician and that you would get to play more if you played an instrument that was in demand, like the viola. My father was my first teacher.”
Bernard Shore began teaching Chase when he was 11. “He took me to Tertis when Tertis was 90,” he says. “Tertis had a high voice and was very passionate. He was losing his eyesight, but not his hearing. When I was 13 I went to him three or four times.”
“How does a 90-year-old get a 13-year old to express music so it means something to the 90-year-old?” Chase muses. “When a 90-year-old says, ‘Sing,’ it doesn’t mean much to a 13-year-old. But a 13-year old remembers everything. I play the repertoire now that I first met then, the repertoire that Tertis developed. The music I played between the ages of 10 and 20 is my musical mother tongue. Some curious chemical time shift occurs where the 40 years in between disappear.”
Chase studied at the Royal College of Music from 1964 to 1974. He made his debut performance in 1979 with the English Chamber Orchestra and in 1987 appeared as a soloist at a Promenade Concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall. For 20 years he was a member of the Nash Ensemble.
Chase has recorded for a number of record labels, revealing the breadth of his musical interests by playing on an amplified viola with a folk group, as a soloist on a historical instrument, and as a performer of avant-garde music. He is currently involved in what he calls “a huge recording project” of music associated with Tertis. A CD to be released in February contains all the pieces Benjamin Dale wrote for Tertis.
After teaching at a number of conservatories in the United Kingdom, Chase came to the United States in 2001 as an associate professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. “I’ve learned that the most valuable lesson I can teach my students is to teach themselves,” he says. He is currently on the faculty of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Roosevelt is an urban, independent university committed to social justice. Students at the College of Performing Arts are encouraged to perform professionally while attending the school.
Chase, who wanted to be a dentist at age 10, reads the science magazine, Scientific American. He is fond of poetry. Were he not a musician, he would choose physical therapy as a profession, and would avoid being an investment analyst. Now single, he has a daughter who completed a Ph.D. in heart research at Bristol University, England.
“If you want to be involved with the arts, you’ve got to leave your state or your country,” Chase says. “Being an artist implies a long journey of growth, expansion, and exploration. Art has always come out of the ghetto.”
Chase is acutely conscious of the journey that the viola has made out of its own ghetto and into acceptance as a member of the musical family. “The viola used to be considered a necessary evil,” he says. “If you couldn’t do anything with a string player, you’d put him in the viola section.” Standards for violists were low, and non-violists had little respect for those who played the instrument. “The original viola joke is ‘Viola players are horn players who have lost their teeth.’”
Hoping to improve the situation, according to Chase, “Lionel Tertis once offered to have a go at the viola section of Beecham’s orchestra.” Thomas Beecham, who founded both the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Society, replied with disdain, Chase says. “Beecham answered, ‘Do whatever you like with them. You can boil them if you want.’”
Despite Beecham’s dismissal, “Tertis’ contribution to the reputation of the viola has had major consequences,” Chase says. “Besides increasing the repertoire, Tertis affected how people think of the viola, in general. It used to be the Cinderella of the string family. But since Tertis the viola role in orchestral playing, and in chamber music has changed. Since Tertis, violists have discovered that viola parts contain things worth bringing out and they have come to believe that their part is equal to other instrumental parts. They’re not second class citizens any more.
“Mercifully, the viola role has been corrected,” Chase says. “With the Tertis Project, I’m happy to put another piece into place.”
Roger Chase, viola, and Michiko Otaki, piano, Thursday and Friday, November 15, 8 p.m. Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Two programs of Brahms, Britten, Clarke, Bax, Dale, Vaughan Williams, and others. 609-258-5000.