On Stage at Juilliard: Concerto Competition

by Matthew Lipman, 3rd-year Violist

On December 13, 2012, I had the amazing opportunity to perform the Walton Viola Concerto as soloist at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with the Juilliard Orchestra and Maestro Edward Gardner. It was such an honor to be able to work and perform with friends and colleagues, for an audience that was also full of friends and colleagues, and the feeling was truly indescribable.

Each season, the school holds several competitions for specific concertos with orchestra that have already been programmed. The competitions are open to all degree levels and are a great way not only to learn a new piece, but to have the opportunity to perform it with orchestra. Although instruments like piano and violin might have two or three competitions in a given season, some of the more rare concerto instruments only have such an opportunity once every four years. Luckily, and despite having a relatively small concerto repertoire, violists have the chance to compete annually. Since I know and love the Walton Concerto, I decided that this year, my third year of undergrad, would be a good time to enter the competition. In the first of two rounds that both take place in Paul Recital Hall, one must play excerpts from the concerto with a pianist (often the most demanding passages) for a jury that consists of Juilliard faculty. In the final round, on the other hand, one gets to perform the whole piece for an audience and a jury of non-faculty. I was overwhelmed with joy when they announced that I had won, and I could not wait to call home and tell my parents. After excitedly giving my mother the good news, it turned out that she had also received important news that day: she would be having major surgery near the date of the concert and would not be able to travel to New York to see it. Although the win seemed bittersweet at the time, and although I would not get to see her smiling in the audience, the surgery wound up saving her life.

Before rehearsals with the orchestra started, I was able to play through the concerto with piano for Maestro Gardner. We immediately started working on the piece, with me showing him how I wanted to play certain passages and him suggesting ways for me to better convey them. His enthusiasm and knowledge about the piece was instantly inspiring–like Walton, he is British–and I couldn’t wait to begin rehearsals. At the first rehearsal, I realized that many of my friends were in the orchestra this cycle, and I couldn’t help but grin whenever there was an orchestral tutti. It also became apparent that playing the Walton with a 100-piece orchestra was much different than playing it with piano. Because the viola is an instrument that has difficulty projecting, it was clear that I would need to play almost as loud as possible nearly all the time, and although that may seem limiting, the vast range of an orchestral accompaniment made my color possibilities all the more varied. It was in the rehearsals that I really got to know the piece. From its melancholic duets with woodwinds to its machine-like, percussive drive, I began to form a new interpretation with Maestro Gardner and the orchestra, and I became increasingly anxious to perform it.

I had performed the Walton with orchestra a few times before in high school, but somehow this performance seemed different. Something about being on home turf at Juilliard, having friends and teachers in the audience, and performing at Alice Tully Hall with the possibility of being reviewed made this performance all the more thrilling yet totally nerve racking. As the concert approached, doubts about my ability and preparation started creeping in, and for days I had butterflies in my stomach. In the hours leading up to the performance, my nerves became so overwhelming that they put me in a daze and I felt I wasn’t able to focus. As the orchestra was tuning on stage, Maestro Gardner and I exchanged words about how much we enjoyed working with each other and he tried to convince me that this performance, however terrifying, would also be fun. The stage door opened, the full audience started applauding, and I instantly realized he was right. As soon as I walked out, my friends in the audience already cheering, every last nerve I had disappeared, and all insecurities that had developed recently were lifted. What an opportunity to perform a concerto with the Juilliard Orchestra in New York City, and I was going to make the best of it! I also knew that, although she was not in attendance, I would be playing to my mother in this performance. The orchestra began playing, and it was clear they were revved-up as well. There was a new level of interplay between the orchestra, conductor, and me that kept the performance lively and spontaneous. I was so in the zone–I actually don’t think I’ve ever been so focused in my life–that the performance felt like it was moving in slow motion, yet in retrospect, the 25 minutes on stage felt like only a few moments. The concerto ended, and while Maestro Gardner and I were taking our bows, I finally got to look into the audience; it is an amazing feeling to see friends, colleagues, and teachers who you respect so much clapping and smiling for you. In the greenroom afterwards, I was so touched, not only by friends who showed me love and support, but by the many people who said they were there for my mother, that I began tearing up. The opportunity I had to perform the Walton Viola Concerto with the Juilliard Orchestra proved to be the most amazing and fulfilling opportunity I’ve ever had, and it will be one I will surely remember forever.