From Vermont to Tuscany
Playing the Viola
Claudia Wolvington, member of the Congress Organizational Committee, was for many years the Assistant Principal Viola of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra in Florence.
“When I arrived in Italy for my audition in 1979, I knew nothing of Florence’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra. Those were the days before easy access to information on the Internet. But the orchestra had posted viola openings at the Manhattan School of Music where I was studying, and I decided to give it a try. What better way to gain the European experience I had always dreamed of -having up to that time, never been outside the US or Canada. I won the audition and upon moving to Florence, fell in love at first sight-both with Italy and my future husband. I never turned back!”
Claudia began playing the violin at 12 as part of the public school music program in Burlington, Vermont, switching to the viola only a few months later. After high school, she studied the viola with Lamar Alsop and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree (Magna Cum Laude) in Music Education at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, New York. After three years of teaching stringed instruments in the Long Island Public Schools and playing Principal Viola in the Long Island Symphony, she realized her true calling was more in performing than teaching. She quit her teaching job to enter the Manhattan School of Music studying viola with Raphael Bronstein and chamber music with Arthur Balsam, obtaining a Master’s Degree in Viola Performance (Summa Cum Laude). “Both Alsop and Bronstein were sources of great inspiration. Lamar Alsop, saw me through my transition from a late-starting, unsure musician into a serious, hard-working and confident violist. Raphael Bronstein, a student of Leopold Auer, helped me acquire the specific techniques necessary for bringing musical ideas to life, and was a particularly great inspiration in interpreting the music of Bach.”
For almost 30 years Claudia was Assistant Principal Viola in the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra, as well as frequent chamber musician as member of the Trio Beethoven, first viola in the Solisti Fiorentini Sextet, and Musica Ricercata Ensemble. Now retired, she plays in the Musica Ricercata String Quartet and generally enjoys life in the Chianti countryside.
Which musicians have made the greatest impression on you?
As an orchestral musician I was in the habit of judging conductors by whether or not they simply reiterated what was already on the page, or had fresh and inspiring ideas that they were able to communicate. Among those that made the greatest impression on me–Georges Pretres who transmitted his deeply felt and profound musicianship, Myung Whun Chung, with whom every rehearsal was a welcome lesson in the finest details of great music making, Zubin Mehta with his charisma and flawless stick technique. I must also mention my long-time stand partner, Igor Polesitsky, Principal Viola of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra, a fine musician and gifted teacher, who has an uncanny ability to decipher where the problem lies with virtually any technical difficulties one may have with the orchestral literature. I learned a great deal from him over the years.
How did the violistic environment in Italy compare with that of the United States?
To be honest, I found the violistic situation in Florence to be disconcerting when I first arrived in 1979. I had left a country (the USA) in which the competition for getting into a major orchestra was formidable. Hundreds of very good violists were applicants to virtually any audition, even after preliminary screening. When I arrived in Florence there was a desperate and ongoing search for almost any violist willing to take an orchestral job! As a result the level of viola playing in the orchestra was rather weak. It was incomprehensible for me to see that there were so many wonderful, even outstanding, young Italian violists that wouldn’t consider becoming orchestral musicians. I found this quite surprising and unfortunate!
How has the violistic environment in Italy evolved since your arrival?
The world of the viola and violists in Italy has changed drastically since I arrived in 1979. Italians musicians have always been impressively talented. Just look at the number of fine Italian violists well known the world over-Giuranna, Asciolla, Farulli, Coletti, De Pasquale, Causa among others. What has changed most, I believe, is the relative popularity of the instrument, the consequential increased level of skill in general among viola students and newfound appreciation of orchestral work as a career choice. Italian violists have become aware of just how rewarding orchestral playing can be, and these days, becoming a professional orchestral violist in Italy has become enormously more competitive.
How did you become involved in the organization of the 43rd International Viola Congress?
I was asked to become a volunteer by Dorotea Vismara, an ex-colleague from the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra, now the coordinator of the congress –who I must add has been amazing in both her skill and her dedication to this cause. Without her, I doubt this congress would have ever happened!
What has been your role in the organization of the Congress?
I have been deeply involved in many differing aspects of the organization, principally fundraising, but also helping with translating, program graphics, editing, letter-writing, record-keeping, etc. This has been an entirely new experience for me. I was initially intimidated at the idea of getting in “over my head” with activities for which I had no experience whatsoever. While humbled, and at times stressed by the experience of learning “on the job” with its many errors and drawbacks, I have enjoyed discovering at the same time, that I am capable of making a valid contribution to this huge undertaking. Now that the Congress is ever closer and the work is intensifying, we sometimes struggle to not feel overwhelmed –stay calm and concentrated, knowing that the end result will be a fine congress!
In conclusion: the Congress will begin within a few weeks…what are you expecting from it?
I’m hoping to be able to take a deep breath and enjoy some fine viola playing! To the violists participating I would say: Love what you are doing, give it the work, dedication and time it deserves and enjoy all viola player’s contributions to the musical world, at whatever level they offer it. We’re all in this together!