Report from the 42nd International Viola Congress – Performing for the Future of Music

For five days in November the attention of the Viola world was drawn to Porto, Portugal where the young Portuguese Viola Society (established in 2008) hosted a programme of outstanding appeal.

In one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, world-class violists gave virtuosic performances and illuminating lectures on all things viola.  Porto was an excellent location for such a cultural celebration: the idyllic port and seaside town provided spectacular venues such as the Mosterio de Sao Bento da Vitoria of the 1500s; the RIBA award winning concert hall at the Casa da Musica, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhas; and the Art Deco Teatro Municipal Rivoli of the 1920s: a true marriage of spectacular architecture and music.

Entitled “Performing for the Future of Music”, the emphasis on the congress was a celebration of inclusion, opportunity and new music – featuring no fewer than 10 world premiers, and several Portuguese premieres.  Each day was programmed with solo and ensemble recitals, lectures, master classes and concluded with an evening orchestral concert.


Five recital slots were given to student performances.  The sixteen strong viola ensemble from the Eschola Superior de Musica, Artes e Espectaculo (ESMAE) in Porto premiered three pieces, and we heard more from members of the conservatoire in two additional atmospheric solo recitals by Portuguese Young Performers, in balanced programmes from Portuguese composers new and old.

The competition winners’ concert featured Timothy Ridout (UK), winner of this year’s inaugural Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Prize, and Ricardo Gaspa, (Portugal) winner of Premio Jovens Musicos 2012.

The Birmingham Conservatoire Ensemble, performed a programme of six pieces, starting with Sally Beamish’s Ariel for solo viola Each piece saw an  increasing number of performers, to end with a premiere of Robin Ireland’s sextet, the Deviant Jig.

Both pre-conservatoire and conservatoire students had the opportunity to learn from ten internationally acclaimed teachers who gave masterclasses, including Bruno Giuranna, Jerzy Kosmala, Atar Arad and Ivo van der Werff, who also performed during the week.

But the congress wasn’t just for students and music professionals. All violists were invited to join the Dutch Viola Society’s ensemble in performing a premiere performance of  “Secret Society” by Jeppe Moujin, composed especially for the congress, and the final day saw a record breaking number of violists congregating at the 8th Portuguese Viola Society meet, performing en mass, directed by Luis Carvalhoso.


Lectures covered pedagogic topics, as well as areas close to the lecturers’ hearts, such as  “the Viola in my life” given by composer Leo Samama; “Costa Rican Music for Solo viola”  – a search for cultural identity given by Orquidea Guandique; and the growing movement “Musethica”, which was initiated by Avri Levitan.

Bruno Giuranna gave one of the most memorable of the talks concentrating on left hand technique. He focused on the hand position and gave exercise examples  (fig. 1) to reinforce the muscle memory of finger spacing, as well as general left hand flexibility and strength.

His mastery was exemplified by a demonstration of finger independence with a double stopped 3rd being trilled in triples and duplet semiquavers simultaneously on the two strings.

Fig. 1: Exercises by Bruno Giuranna showing the changing semitone finger spacing. This example starts in 4th position, but should also be practiced starting in higher positions. 


Several recitals were scheduled for each day, and we heard a variety of music from Romantic Brahms and Schumann, to modern compositions including an immersive sound experience using electronics.

The expertly informed approach, technical brilliance, and virtuosity of the world renowned performers was inspiring, beyond compare.

Technical brilliance was showcased by Atar Arad, who performed his virtuosic composition Twelve Caprices for Viola, written in 2013 as a challenge to himself. Now published, he has laid down the gauntlet for all violists! Each Caprice was derived from a well known motif from viola repertoire, and named after the composer: Rebecca (Clarke); William (Walton); Bela (Bartok); George (Rochberg); Kryzysof (Penderecki) and so on.

American violist Michael Fernandez gave a noteworthy recital entitled “The art of transcription”, a collection of pieces transcribed by Vadim Borisovsky and William Primrose. The next generation of aspirational Primrose Competition candidates were inspired by Fernandez’s awe-inspiring virtuosic rendition of Sarasateana by Zimbalist, and of his own arrangement of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, which concluded the concert.

Orchestral Concerts

The orchestral concerts which concluded each day were a fantastic scheduling undertaking and an integral part of the outstanding success of the programming of the congress. Three core repertoire viola concertos were performed: Hoffmeister, Bartok and Walton, as well as a world premiere and new works, amongst others.

In the first orchestral concert we heard memorable and emotive playing of the Hoffmeister concerto by Bruno Giuranna; rich viola sounds in Hindemith’s somber Trauermusik and Howells’ Elegy performed by Helen Callus; plus a robust and engaging interpretation of the McLean Suite for Viola and orchestra by Roger Myers and virtuosity exemplified by Atar Arad with Paganini.

In the following days we were treated to a new transcription in G major of the well known Mozart A major Clarinet concerto K622, by Avri Levitan, and the colourful 2006 composition MEME for two violas and orchestra by Willem Jeths.

Tatjana Masurenko performed Walton’s Viola Concerto, which, despite a few memory lapses, saw a fine clarity of sound and invigorating performance that called for an energetically wild encore of Hindemith’s Sonata Op. 25/1 (movements three and four).

The overall highlight of the week however, had to be the Bartok Viola Concerto performed by Nobuko Imai and the Orqestra Sinfonica do Porto Casa da Musica, whose youthful energy and deep powerful sound captivated the full auditorium in an intense silence.

An encore of Bach transcended the hall: an otherworldly experience.

Martha Evans, December 2014