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After 28 years with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, principal violist Randolph Kelly is pleased to report that his instrument of choice - the oft-misunderstood viola - has won some respect.
"People are just waking up to the fact that it makes a wonderful sound," Kelly said. "In the old days, if you couldn't play violin you'd play viola. But Mozart loved violas, and in fact, he wrote viola concertos but would play chamber music most of the time."
In Pittsburgh and across the world, Kelly's viola playing has attracted lots of attention. The orchestra is known as one of the best in the world and is considered to have, as former conductor André Previn said, "the best viola section of any orchestra in America."
"Kelly is in a class of his own," the German newspaper Passaver Neve once wrote. "He has a richness of tone such as one seldom hears."
It should be a rare treat then to hear Kelly play as part of the Sitka Summer Music Festival's annual Juneau date, 8 p.m. Saturday, June 26, at Northern Light United Church.
Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for youth and seniors and available at Hearthside Books. The Sitka Summer festival began June 4 and concludes June 25. The seven other musicians at the Juneau show are: Pamela Goldsmith, viola; Agnes Gottschewski, violin; Sungmi Im, piano; Mark Kosower, cello; Jee-Won Oh, piano; Paul Rosenthal, violin; and Jeffrew Solow, cello. For more information, visit www.sitkamusicfestival.org.
Saturday's program includes: Beethoven's "Piano Quarter in E Flat Major, Op. 16"; Don Freund's "Moment Musical (1980), Prelude '96 and Prelude '97"; Chopin's "Impromptu in G-flat Major No. 3, Op. 51" and "Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor, Op. 66"; and Mozart's "String Quintet in G Minor."
Festival founder Paul Rosenthal has been trying to bring Kelly to Southeast for years. This will be his first trip to Alaska, though he was born in Portland and had family in Seattle.
"Every musician is a new experience for me," Kelly said. "This is completely brand new."
Kelly joined the Pittsburgh Symphony when he was 24. Previn was the conductor.
"It was more a Steinberg sort of style," Kelly said. "There was not a lot of rhythmic discipline."
Previn was not a taskmaster, Kelly said, but he was great with the media. The symphony's series, "Previn and the Pittsburgh," was broadcast nationally on PBS and won the company international acclaim.
The symphony was transformed when Previn left and conductor Lorin Maazel entered. Many musicians left, but Maazel hired new players and instilled a sense of discipline.
"The rhythmic discipline and his precision over his tunes just heightened everything incredibly," Kelly said. "We hired 20 new people, and he brought a new European style of musicality. He talked a lot about the colors of sound, and he toned down the brass. He didn't want to play it in the Americanized way.
"We played eight or nine days in Lucerne, and they went crazy," he said. "The critics kept saying it was the most European-style orchestra that they knew of."
The symphony hired Mariss Jansons when Maazel left. Jansons is now gone, and the orchestra hopes to hire a conductor sometime in the next two years.
Kelly has performed as a guest artist at chamber music festivals in Japan, Australia, Europe, Russia and Taiwan. He has also recorded for the Albany, Naxos and Music Masters labels.
"On viola, the distinction between each player is noticeable," Kelly said. "I just did a concerto for three violins, and each sound was quite different. The timber of the sound was very different. The viola can be very interesting that way.
"Nowadays the quality of students coming out of conservatories is higher than what it was, especially with viola," he said. "There were some very good violists in my day and earlier, but there are even more now. I travel all over the world, and I've heard students in China and Europe. Even at the high school age, the level is outstanding."