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Interview: Busy Steven Dann no shrinking viola as he launches new solo album

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(Lucas Dann photo)
(Lucas Dann photo)

Toronto violist Steven Dann has a new album out and is performing with the ARC Ensemble tonight before they all fly to London for their Wigmore Hall début on Sunday. He’ll give master classes at the Royal Academy of Music on Thursday, and be working around his regular teaching schedule at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

It seems that the more Dann does, the more people want him back for more.

“Over the last 10 or 11 years I’ve put together a life I love very much,” says the highly respected musician who gave up the steady work and pay of being a principal viola in the orchestral world for a life of freelance adventure.

“I’m a collector of concerts and performances and recordings,” Dann chuckles. “Maybe being a freelancer, which I’ve been for the last 12 or 13 years or so, I’m kind of like a dog who doesn’t know when his next meal is going to come, so he eats everything in front of him.”

Dann divides his year roughly equally between teaching and performing.

That includes summer work with Toronto Summer Music, Domaine Forget in Quebec and the Banff Centre. Besides the ARC Ensemble, his regular performing partners include the Smithsonian Chamber Players in Washington, D.C. and the Zebra Trio in Europe. He also has an upcoming recording project with the New Orford Quartet.

Unlike violinists and cellists, of whom there are many prominent artists who work exclusively as soloists, Dann says he can’t think of a single violist with a solo career.

“The violist is the one who can do anything and is not pushed in one particular direction above all others,” Dann explains. “They also play chamber music and teach. We’re the inside people, I think.”

But when Dann does go outside — as in this new solo recording — it’s worth paying attention.

sonatasDann’s latest project, released by Montreal label ATMA Classique is a collection of three substantial works for viola and piano from early-20th century France. His partner on this wonderful CD is Toronto pianist Jamie Parker.

It’s surprising the viola gets so little solo credit, because it’s an instrument with an amazing expressive range, reaching from the soulful depths of a cello-like lower voice to an only slightlier duskier hue of a violin’s brilliance in high notes.

The full tonal and expressive range of the instrument is laid out in grand musical gestures by three composers: Perre de Bréville (1861-1949), Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) and Charles Tournemire (1870-1939).

The first two are sonatas — Koechlin’s an almost continuous four movements of developing musical motifs that alternately float and roil — the third, by Tournemire, is a rambling, three-part suite that allows the listener to soak in some rich harmonies.

As far as anyone involved with the recording project knows, this album marks the first-ever recording of the Bréville Sonata and the Tournemire Suite.

“Even for most violists, it’s off the radar,” says Dann of his choice of repertoire.

In the CD booklet, Dann thanks cellist Daniel Esser, “who opened these old French doors for me a long time ago,” with a gift of the score to the Bréville work.

The Koechlin piece had sat in a pile waiting for his attention for years. “It’s such a monster,” says Dann. And he wouldn’t even consider getting the recording process underway until he had found a suitable third work, which would match the others in era, mood and structure. When he was handed the music to the Tournemire Suite by the violist of the Alcan Quartet, he knew he was ready.

Toronto pianist Jamie Parker was the natural collaborator. “I had to look for a pianist who could handle that, who could match that kind of thing,” says Dann of the pieces’ many demands. “He just flowed through that music. It’s not something just anybody could play.”

Maybe it’s because Dann is so busy, but he doesn’t take on any projects lightly — especially not recordings.

“I’m not one who likes to record just to make discs. I want something that is of value and that I believe in,” he explains. “Being a musician, what I love most about [recording] is that just about everything I do disappears as soon as I do it. If I make a disc it’s not gone. I can come back to it. I can become like a painter or a sculptor and look at it again.”

It’s something that most listeners are going to do with the new album.

You can find all the details, including audio samples, here.

I find the Koechlin Viola Sonata particularly seductive.

Koechlin, the heir to an industrial fortune, studied with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré — influences that are pretty clear in this piece. He completed the Viola Sonata in 1915, dedicating it to Darius Milhaud.

The CD notes say that Koechlin, who worked as a nurse during World War I, let much of his despair about the war come through in the music, which could have been titled “La plainte humaine,” (the complaint of Man).

Here is the first movement of the Koechlin Sonata, so beautfiullly played by Dann and Parker, with permission from Dann and ATMA Classique:

John Terauds

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