Concerto Night Up from the Middle

While officials at the Music Academy of the West would never admit it, they must have breathed a small sigh of relief to find out that Concerto Night has officially left the low road and returned to middle ground.

Or make that middle register.

Yes, one year after the annual Concerto Competition among the Academy Fellow (nee student) instrumentalists produced the lowest-pitched evening in the event’s history, what with a tuba player, double bassist and bassoonist – but nary a violinist, cellist or violist – making up three-fifths of the prize-winners and thus earning a coveted chance to perform concerti with the full Academy Festival Orchestra – things have returned to normal in 2008.

The violin and viola are back, joining the standard piano and only slightly oddball clarinet as the four instruments represented on Concert Night this Saturday, when Daniel Hege conducts the orchestra at the Lobero.

But make no mistake: in a summer institute as forward thinking as the Music Academy, the fellows aren’t exactly following the straight and narrow. While Christopher Schmitt will perform Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, one of the “big guns” in the business, the other winners have selected repertoire that while not entirely unfamiliar is a bit more out of left field than akin to blindly choosing an entrée from Column A in a Chinese restaurant.

Joshua Weilerstein will play Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, op. 99; John Stulz opted for William Walton’s Viola Concerto, and Laura Odegaard chose Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by and memorably played by jazz great Benny Goodman.

“It has an enormous amount of beauty, but also a lot playfulness,” Odegaard said of opting for the Copland over better-known fare such as Mozart’s concerto. “It has a huge variety of character, and I thought it would be a blast to play it both in front of the orchestra and for the audience here because it’s such a responsive group.”

Weilerstein said the somewhat modern Shostakovich is not only his pick of violin concerti but also one of his favorite compositions in classical music.

“It’s one of the most intense violin works ever written, and it’s very hard – not in the sense of the difficulty of the notes, but that you are playing essentially for 15 minutes straight, with virtually no breaks as a soloist. Getting the stamina and energy to keep going the whole way is definitely my biggest challenge.”

Meanwhile, Stulz said there are really only three reasonable options among viola concerti.

“The Hindemith is for viola and wind band, so there are no strings – which wouldn’t be so good here – and it’s kind of an ugly piece,” he said. “The other is by Bartok, but he died while he was writing it, so it’s incomplete. The Walton is absolutely beautiful. I love playing it.”

He should. Stulz also took second place with the piece in competition at USC last spring, earning a slot on stage with the school’s orchestra next February.

But this weekend will be all of the MAW winners’ first chance to perform these – or for that matter, any – works in front of a full orchestra, and the anticipation is both thrilling and daunting.

“It will be an amazing feeling,” Stulz said. “Violists don’t get a lot of opportunity to stand up in front of an orchestra. So I’m extremely excited.”

“It is amazing,” echoed Weilerstein. “There are so many (students) here who deserve it just as much. I’ve worked very hard at it, and it’s very cool to be able to play it with a great orchestra who are also my fiends and colleagues.”