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Violist Geraldine Walther: Quartet Friend

May 18, 2010

When, after only 29 years with the San Francisco Symphony, violist Geraldine Walther left to join the Takács Quartet, classical music fans around the Bay Area were torn between being happy for her as she moved on to an exciting opportunity both personally and professionally and being terribly sad to see her go. Fortunately, she does come back to the Bay Area periodically, both for concerts and to catch up with friends. She’s returning on June 6 for a performance at the Herbst Theatre, and she was willing to talk about the upcoming concert, as well her life as a performer and with the quartet.


You’re returning to San Francisco at a concert “with friends.” How long have you known the other members performing with you?

I’ve known Melissa Kleinbart since she first joined the orchestra. She is a wonderful violinist, a great partner in chamber music, and we’ve enjoyed playing together many times. Mark Wright, the double bassist, who is joining us for the “Trout” Quintet, is a wonderful colleague, as well.

Tanya Tomkins and Eric Zivian I have really gotten to know through these concerts, and they are wonderful musicians. They work together frequently as a team, so they bring that aspect along to any group they visit. I miss playing with them all very much and greatly enjoy this yearly reunion!

Tell me more about the Bach Suite for Unaccompanied Cello in C Minor (arranged for the viola).

For me it has always been a pleasure and a challenge to play the Bach Suites. With this concert, I’ve worked on five of them and hope to learn the sixth next year. It was just a personal goal I had, to perform them all before I kicked the bucket, so to speak!

 

Listen to the Music

Bach makes you really think about the harmonies and how one event leads you right to the next. And technically it’s a challenge, because the fifth suite doesn’t lie [under the hand] that well, unlike some of the kinder keys of the earlier suites, especially if you choose not to play with the A string tuned differently, the way Bach had in mind for the cello. You also need to think about character and being interesting so you don’t give a boring performance. Lots of things to think about at the same time, and that’s why it’s so challenging! But every musician has played at least one or two movements of these suites at one time or another, because the music is so universal. I have heard movements played on the trombone and tuba and they sounded absolutely beautiful.

 

What else you will be performing, in addition to Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet?

We are doing the Brahms Clarinet Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, and I will be playing the role of the clarinet — please forgive me, all my clarinetist colleagues! Tanya Tomkins suggested it some months ago, and my initial reaction was no; better leave it for the clarinetists. But then I heard a recording with Lawrence Powers, the English violist, and it sounded wonderful, so I thought if he’s doing it then it’s OK. Also, I think Brahms made the transcription himself, so it’s completely legitimate! Another first for me — I welcome the experience of playing this lovely piece with Tanya and Eric.

You lived in the Bay Area for years. What are you looking forward to on this trip back?

I look forward mostly, when visiting the Bay Area, to just relaxing and seeing old friends. We lived in Oakland for many years and have many great memories. As you know, there’s really no other place like it.

What differences have you found between performing in a quartet and performing in a symphony?

I’ve thought about this and I have to say that they are the same and they are different. They are the same because you are listening and reacting to your colleagues (and a conductor, in the orchestra) and expressing yourself and trying to be sensitive and appropriate in the moment. For me, that’s the same, and it’s spontaneous and in the moment.

In the quartet, one can get to know the quartets in depth, and that’s what I was most interested in doing. We just finished our Beethoven cycle and, again, it was just something I’ve always wanted to do for myself personally, to learn and perform them all. And if you have a quartet of folks you can play them all together with a few times, you get to know them and also each other better and get a better comfort level. They are quite challenging — very awkwardly written sometimes. [Beethoven] just didn’t care about the player’s comfort level at times when he was writing them. They are quite virtuosic for everyone at times, even though they might not sound that way.

Has it been what you expected? And, what has been unexpected?

Lots of things were new and pretty unexpected when I began [quartet playing] five years ago, but fortunately I had all my years of experience in San Francisco to draw on, and it saves me many times. I didn’t expect playing together, and in tune, to be such a challenge. Being fine about having to do those housekeeping chores is a way of life now, but it goes with playing a string instrument in a smaller configuration: working on playing in tune, and together!

I don’t know that I’d enjoy being in another quartet — but I really love the one I’m in. I think we are very compatible and I’m glad about that.

What have been some of the highlights of your career?

I think every concerto I got to learn and perform with the San Francisco Symphony and the great conductors I worked with were great experiences, and I can still remember them all. What a great opportunity that was for me, and I am so grateful to have had the chances to do them. Also, all the great performances with the music directors and guests over the years that we gave with the orchestra were highlights for me.

Last night, finishing the Beethoven cycle here in London was a highlight — I hope there will be more next year, and also what about this concert on June 6th? I hope that will be a highlight, too!

You’re on the faculty at CU. What are you teaching? What aspects of teaching are the most enjoyable?

We are half-time professors at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There is a great college of music there. I assist Erika Eckert, formerly the violist of the Cavani Quartet, in teaching the undergrads and some graduate viola students there. I am learning about teaching! It’s very challenging to do it well!

We also have a two-year grad quartet program for a young, promising quartet, and it’s really fun to see them grow. The Tesla Quartet, from Juilliard, are with us now, and with the loan of a wonderful set of modern instruments by Joseph Rashid, through his son, Robert Rashid, and the Rashid Foundation, they are playing beautifully. We are very proud of them and their accomplishments. Nice kids, too! It’s a lot of fun to coach them.

How is life in Colorado in general and Boulder in particular?

We like it a lot. Boulder is right next to the Flatirons, the foothills of the Rockies, so it’s very gorgeous. And my husband is from Nevada, so he likes mountains and snow in the winter. I think he’s bought at least three snow shovels! It’s also a great place to decompress after coming home from tours to large cities — a bit of open country is nice. It’s also a liberal college town, so we like it. We actually live in Longmont, a few minutes north and a few hundred thousand dollars cheaper, house-wise, than Boulder!

What do you do for fun in the very few hours you have when you’re not teaching, performing, or rehearsing?

I like to jog and just be home. Going out to dinner with Tom, my husband, is a nice treat. And I’m trying to learn French, but I think it’s hopeless! I like mowing the lawn. You can see the improvement immediately!

What drew you to the viola?

I just wanted to be different in the school orchestra when I was 10, and I liked being in the middle. I think the viola grows on you (the violinists will say, “like a wart!”). It has a vocal human quality that I love, along with its supportive role. Composers all love the viola: Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, Brahms.

If you hadn’t been a musician, what do you think you would be doing?

Don’t know — always had to be one. If you can be happy without being a professional musician, then I think you shouldn’t go into it, frankly. It’s pretty demanding and competitive. If you have to do it for your happiness, then things will work out for you, I think.

You’re described in an article as having a wacky sense of humor? Is that still intact?

No, I’ve become mean and crabby mostly! (Just kidding!)

What are you listening to on your iPod?

Don’t have one! I spend so much time listening that I like to read in my spare time and give my eardrums a little decibel rest!

Marianne Lipanovich is a writer and editor based in Redwood City. A gardening expert, she is a lifelong music lover, having learned to read music before she learned to read.