Lamont Violist’s New CD Explores Often Overlooked Russian Sonatas

This article appears in the winter issue of University of Denver magazine. Visit the magazine’s website for bonus content and to read the article in its original format.

Compared to its brothers and sisters in the violin family – the small violin on the one hand and the voluptuous cello on the other – the viola does not have enough opportunities to shine.

Enter Basil Vendryes of the Lamont School of Music. Last fall, he released the first of three CDs featuring little-known viola gems. The CD, recorded with pianist William David and titled “Three C’sentries of Russian sonatas for viola”, was released in October by the Toccata Music Group, which specializes in “forgotten music by great composers and great music by forgotten composers”.

Vendryes, who directs the viola program at Lamont and is the longtime principal violist of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, has championed the virtues of the viola – and coaxed the sweet harmonies of his own instrument – for nearly four decades. “As part of the orchestra, we support the string section,” he says. “We’re the glue that holds a lot of things together, that lets the melodies fly.”

The melodies are certainly soaring on his new CD, which features pieces from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and from one well-known and three lesser-known composers: Mikhail Glinka, Revol Bunin, Vissarion Shebalin and the ever-prolific Ivan Sokolov. . Glinka’s sonata has been recorded many times, but Vendryes offers the first digital recordings of the Bunin and Shebalin sonatas. Sokolov’s Sonata, on the other hand, has only been recorded once before. “I represent the second opinion on this piece,” he says.

As diverse as the compositions are, he adds, they are rooted in Russian tradition. “There is a simplicity [to them]he says of the compositions. “Much of Russian music is derived from folk song. It’s very ingrained in the culture. Moreover, much like the ever-popular Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, composers all demand what Vendryes calls “rich, fluid, dense harmony.”

Vendryes hopes his new CD will draw attention to these works and inspire other violists to perform them and scour the repertoire for additional pieces worthy of attention.

Former Lamont student and accomplished violist Christina Ebersohl (MM ’21) once set her sights on learning Shebalin, which is now considered “one of my all-time favorites.”

As a Vendryes student and self-proclaimed “viola nerd,” she awaited the CD with geeky glee, in part, she says, because “viola soloists aren’t as common as violin soloists. and cello. I was really excited that he [Vendryes] didn’t stick to the basic sonatas that everyone knows and loves. Some of these sonatas are really unknown.

Bringing unknown works to life appeals to Vendryes’ sense of musical adventure.

“When the idea of ​​making a [CD] came together, there were a number of possible projects that came to mind: a record of encore works or short works. But I wanted to look for something that was a bit unique to the catalog. I would love to record Brahms sonatas, but there are 25, 30 versions [already]. [I wanted] something interesting but not just archival.

Without the pandemic, the project could still languish on Vendryes’ to-do list. When the country shut down due to the coronavirus, he recalls, “almost everything went dark and the opportunities to perform became fewer and fewer. But there were opportunities to work on projects that had been on the back burner for many, many years.

Although he suddenly had time to record and refine, he wasn’t quite sure how to finance an obscure music CD. Fortunately, Ebersohl came to the rescue. She introduced Vendryes to the power of a GoFundMe site. “He was telling me he wasn’t 100% sure. [the CD] was going to happen because of the funding aspect. I was like, ‘No, that can’t be a thing.’

“I was very reluctant,” recalls Vendryes. “I don’t consider myself a particularly good self-promoter or advocate. I have always lived in the world of the orchestra and the university where there is no need to have this kind of self-promotion. Corn [Ebersohl] press a button and that’s it.

Finding a publisher for the project proved almost as difficult as perfecting the record. Given his penchant for forgotten music, Toccata seemed a natural fit, but, Vendryes says, “usually they’re composer-centric, so when they take on a project it’s usually all music by one composer. .” But even if his project brought together several composers, it nevertheless offered Toccata a coherent concept: sonatas from the same musical tradition.

Vendryes sees the three-disc project as more than a tribute to great works that are too rarely performed. It is also a legacy project. The next CD will feature works by Russian composer Paul Juon, and the third is expected to feature American or British masters of the 20th and 21st centuries. By the time the set is complete, Vendryes will have a work to bequeath to viola nerds and perhaps even the unconverted.

“I’m not getting any younger,” he said, “[and] I try to share something that has a little sense of permanence with the world.

Jack L. Goldstein