Versatility in Krakow: observations from the 41st International Viola Congress

Performance, and Performance Styles

While the majority of events were held at Krakow’s Academy of Music (pictured to left), the Congress featured two evenings at the Florianka Hall, a beautiful and resonant venue with intricate faces carved atop pillars looking down at performers and listeners from the high ceiling. In this venue Andra Darzins and Kim Kashkashian graced the first evening with a recital, and in the second evening, Darzins, Lech Bałaban, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama performed concertos with the Sinfonia Carcovia.

Thula Ngwenyama with Sinfonia Carcovia,  pictured to the right.
These were all received warmly by an audience comprising of both Congress attendees as well as members of the public.

Kashkashian’s performance (left) was undoubtedly the jewel of the Congress, with György Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages – a part of her Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental recording only earlier this year. While her viola playing was sublime, as one would expect, it was also the ‘big picture’ elements of her as a performer that garnered Kashkashian’s palpable sense of presence on the stage. She provided context to the work, not only in analysis and history, but also in personal anecdotes of working alongside the composer. This made some very detailed nuances, such as the four types of silences (“with resistance, with freedom, looking forwards, and looking backwards”) clear in the variety of their intents, and what could potentially been overly complex music instead quite accessible. Part of her versatility was in the vast palate of colours she displayed, reminding this reviewer of what she said in an interview with Stringsover a decade ago. When asked about the stereotype of the viola being a ‘sad’ instrument, she said: “”Sad? An instrument can’t be sad. An instrument can become anything, depending on the hands and the imagination of the person who’s using it.” In the Florianka Hall, Kim Kashkashian certainly displayed what an imagination could do, in an evening culminating in the award of this year’s Silver Alto Clef.


Kim Kashkashian receiving IVS Silver Alto Clef from IVS President Carlos Maria Solare, pictured below


The wide array of repertoire ranged from a Klezmer ensemble led by a violist, to a contemporary music evening that featured the use of electronics. There were several new works, including Donald Maurice’s première of Boris Pigovat’s viola sonata, Emile Cantor’s arrangements of movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and seven Paganini caprices arranged for two violas by Elias Goldstein and performed with Sally Chisholm, without any discounts from the requisite level of virtuosity. Additionally, Stefan Kamasa premiered his transcription of Lutosławski’s Bukoliki alongside Congress host Bogusława Hubisz-Sielska.

A variety of performance styles graced the concert stage: the exclusion of a chin rest by Ewa Guzowska, and Elżbieta Mrożek’s unusual bowhold, being well away from the frog but nonetheless maintaining a solid tone in her execution of the Shostakovich viola sonata.

Boguslava H-Sielska and Stephan Kamasa, pictured left



Partnerships with other instruments included the Ditterdorf viola-double bass duo, and several violin-viola combinations, the most notable being that of violist Krzysztof Tymendorf with violinist Arnaud Kaminski, whose performance displayed vibrancy, precision, and a natural connection, even on the level of similar physical gestures. Jutta Puchhammer-Sédillot provided a recital of two early 20th-century works, which displayed a commanding presence, and a firm tone accentuated at times by clear consonant starts to bow strokes.

To the left are Christine Rutledge and Marek Kalinowski   

      To the right is Jutta Puchhammer-Sedillot



Research and Performance

Versatility at the Congress was further demonstrated with performers who are deeply engaged in research. In some cases research and performance remain independent pursuits, as with Błażej Maliszewski’s (pictured to  left) translation of Poniatowski’s book Viola. Art and Heritage and his skilful performance of his arrangements of Bacewicz. In discussions following the lecture, it was mentioned by a delegate that the translation had the potential to expand knowledge that up to now has been the sole purview of Russian speakers.

It is hard to think of a project that would have more international connections than that of the presentation by Claudine Bigelow and Donald Maurice on their recording of Bela Bartók’s 44 duos, entitled Voices from the Past. The project brought Bigelow to New Zealand under a Fulbright fellowship, and dealt with Hungarian and Slovakian sources for the composer’s wax cylinder recordings, followed by text analysis of the lyrics, as well as musical analysis of the inflections and nuances of the folk songs. They performed half a dozen of the duos, which were presented alongside the field recordings and lyrics.

Pictured below are Claudine Bigelow and Donald Maurice

Some international research was connected to the host country, most notably Carlos María Solare’s research on selected works of Telemann that had a particular stylistic influence of Polish music. Others served to showcase the continually expanding connections of the International Viola Society, including Orquidea Guandique’s research on the viola concerto of Costa Rican composer Benjamin Gutiérrez within the wider context of the country’s economy and its effects on the development of the orchestral scene. American Danny Keasler represented the Thai Viola Society, and presented perspectives on the melodic capabilities of etudes by Austrian musician Alfred Uhl, vis-à-vis its technical functions.


To the left is Orquidea Guandique

To the right is Danny Keasler




Performance and Pedagogy

The traditional connection of performance and pedagogy was certainly present at the Congress. In some cases they proved to be a useful preview of events to come, such as Jerzy Kosmala working with a student on Penderecki’s Cadenza, which was a component of an upcoming recital. In the contrasting case of Andra Darzins’s masterclass, it was interesting to have a further appreciation of the performance philosophy seen on stage earlier in the week. Both of these events had interesting insights. Kosmala emphasized that while avoiding stiffness in the wrist, there were drawbacks in having an overly flexible wrist at the expense of the value of natural movement of the right arm. He used the simple act of turning a page on the music-stand as a model of this wrist-arm relationship. Darzins proposed a most unusual approach of having weight on the right leg – with the left leg practically suspended from the ground – in order to adjust the balance of the left and right arms. She also placed an emphasis on avoiding counterproductive movements of the scroll and provided general advice on finding angles on the stage that provided more contact to the audience. These were aspects of being a performer, beyond the specifics of playing the viola.

To the left is Andra Darzins   

  To the right is Jerzy Kosmala

Both Darzins and Kosmala displayed versatility not just with being on the concert stage, but with Kosmala playing his own transcriptions, and with Darzins playing in both recital and concert formats, including Britten’s Lachrymae, in a nod towards the centennial anniversary of the composer.

Concluding Comments

Perhaps the clearest sign of the multi-faceted role of the violist today could be seen in the range of repertoire performed, researched, and celebrated: from Max Savisangas’s exposition of extended techniques, to Anna Śliwa’s fascinating recital that featured the fidel, lira da braccio, viola d’amore, and baroque viola, expertly accompanied by Andrzej Zawiska on harpsichord. While there were some issues of scheduling, and sounds from practice rooms at times broaching the Academy’s concert hall, the event as a whole was a success. This is particularly when one considers that the Polish Viola Society is only four years old. With lectures, recitals, concerts, and masterclasses, the 41st International Viola Congress served to fuel new ideas, provide new perspectives on works and performance styles, and provide the meeting of minds of violists from all corners of the globe.



Andrew Filmer presented research on Bach’s fifth cello suite at the 41st Congress, and launched the Comus edition of the suite co-edited with Donald Maurice. He was a New Zealand International Doctoral Scholar at the University of Otago, and is due to graduate with a PhD in musicology this December. Andrew holds a Master’s degree in viola performance from Indiana University.