Why there are no solo viola careers

The major function of Twitter appears to be enabling people to write things that, after 24 hours or so of reflection, they probably would rather not have written. Case in point is an outpouring of frustration on the part of the violist Jennifer Stumm, who wrote on her Twitter feed last week:

Bigwig last night: “why do we need viola soloists when there are violists in orchestras?” Why do we need pitchers when there’re 1st basemen?


Principal violists have come to expect all concerti as well. There is no way for a viola soloist choice not to be a hotbutton

As a principal violist myself, I found this of considerable interest. I can certainly understand her frustration at finding obstacles to building a solo viola career. She is a wonderful player who is definitely worth hearing. And, as unpolitic as it was for her to express herself so publicly, she is basically correct – as is the Bigwhig she quoted. But it’s worth exploring why.

There are several issues at play here. The first is that solo guest artists are, first and foremost, marketing tools to help sell tickets. That’s not only why their fees vary so much but why those fees aren’t always related to how well they play. The fees are far more closely correlated with how famous they are and consequently how many tickets they can enable the orchestra to sell.

Aspiring viola soloists face a tough problem here; how do you become famous if you’re not already famous? That problem is largely a function of the quantity of great music for solo viola and orchestra. To put it bluntly, there isn’t any.

There’s Harold in Italy, of course, but even its commissioner, Niccoló Paganini, infamously complained about Berlioz’s thoughtlessness in not providing anything spectacular for the violist to do. The Bartok concerto is basically a fragmentary remnant of a time when Bartok desperately needed to earn some cash; minor Bartok at best. The Walton concerto is inter-war romantic-tinged mournful English modernism; hardly a crowd-pleaser. And the Mozart, of course, is not a work for solo viola and orchestra.

So the lack of a suitable solo repertoire makes it impossible for a solo violist to build a career by playing warhouses more thrillingly than anyone ever has before, which is how most solo pianists and violinists get noticed. But it has another pernicious effect on the career prospects of solo violists; it means that people like me, who would like to play the odd concerto now and then with their orchestra, get precious few opportunities to do so either. It’s hardly surprising that those people mind when outsiders get those opportunities.

I am a very respectable principal violist (you’ll have to take my word for that unless you want to listen to this, which is me about 20 years ago playing a version for viola and tape of a concerto I helped commission). Since I came to Milwaukee in 1987, I’ve played Harold in Italy twice, Don Quixote (which is hardly a solo viola vehicle anyway) three times, and Mozart once. The only other solo viola appearances were made by Pinchas Zukerman, who played Bartok (on a concert he also conducted) and Mozart. From anecdotal data, this appears to be a pretty typical record for an American princpal violist.

Contrast this with the experience of the average concertmaster, who gets not only to play better pieces more often, but doesn’t corner the local market on violin soloists when he/she does play. Our concertmaster in Milwaukee, Frank Almond, plays a concerto or so every season. But we have lots of other violin soloists as well, because there are lots of marketable violin soloists and lots of great pieces for them to all share.

For all other orchestral instruments (with the possible exception of the cello), the aspiring solo violist or clarinetist or oboist is in direct competition both with the desire of the local principal to play the occasional solo work and the need of the orchestra to accommodate them for multiple reasons. Absent any compelling reason to hire someone like Jennifer Stumm other than the fact that they play really, really well, most orchestras will take the cheaper and safer route of using their own people for oddball instrument concerti.

Besides, if she really wants to have fun playing the viola, she ought to be playing in a quartet. Would any sane person prefer trying to make a silk purse out of the Bartok concerto (in any of its “completed by someone other than Barkok” versions) to playing the viola part to Op. 132 with a quartet that’s really clicking? Pick the right quartet and the pay is better too.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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