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Through Labor and Love: Weinberg, War and Persecution
Interview with Julia Rebekka Adler

[July 2010] An article about violist Julia Rebekka Adler could easily, rewardingly turn into an article on Mieczysław Weinberg instead. For one, it is Weinberg to whom she has pinned her hat, whose viola sonatas she has now torn from obscurity into the (narrowly focused) spot-light of well-regarded niche repertoire, and to whose music she very obviously responds. Further, she is genuinely diffident and prefers to talk just about anything but herself. And even her engaging husband and de-facto manager (an immunologist at the National Research Center for Environment and Health during daylight hours), who is supposed to make up for his wife’s self-effacing reluctance, feels so passionately about Weinberg’s music—and music in general—that he can’t praise her achievements at the exclusion of others’, or without getting side-tracked by his excitement for this or that composition or musical discovery. Thank goodness—because there is nothing more tedious than having to sit through the professionally deluded, tunnel-visioned ravings of a mother-manager, parent-publicist, or spousal spinmeister.

Happily I don’t even have to do the raving about her Weinberg CD—although I enjoy and admire it very much—because Jerry Dubins has already done that in his review for Fanfare. He also repeats, with hyperbolic enthusiasm, the basic information on Weinberg and the press-kit ready quotes (if she had one) about Mme. Adler, including very kind ones from Hartmut Rohde, her onetime teacher. She’s won lots of competitions, of course, and has studied with Kim Kashkashian and Yuri Bashmet. But what does that count for, if you are only a violist? She’s the assistant concert master of the Munich Philharmonic and that seals her reputation. Being an orchestra violist must necessarily—?—define the way audiences, critics, colleagues look at her and her playing. After all, back-benching in an orchestra, even if it is in the ‘assistant solo viola’ position, and not actually in the back, is the safe way out for those who don’t dare strive for more. For those who think good is good enough. For those who prefer the comfort of a 9-5 job (unfireable, at that) over the adventure that is music.

None of that is actually true in the case of Julia Rebekka Adler, but such convenient stereotypes—all of them exist for a reason—can only be overcome by better getting to know the person behind the symbolism of position, instrument, and career. Julia Mai, then still performing under her maiden name, was into competitions, and successfully. But eventually she saw herself faced with the choice between the alluring opportunity of the job at the Munich Philharmonic or taking out substantial loans to be able to afford to… play in yet another competition or two and hope for the breakthrough. Sensibility (and parental pressure) won out and she took the Munich job. And why should taking an orchestra be a dead-end, anyway? If the likes of Sabine Mayer or Emanuel Pahud can emerge from their respective orchestra positions as successful musicians, why not she?

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, Complete Sonatas for Solo Viola,
J.R.Adler / J.Nemtsov

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, Piano Quintet, SQ4t No.8,
Borodin Quartet / M.Weinberg

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, Violin Sonatas 1 & 4, Solo Violin Sonata No.1,
Y.Kalnits / M.Csányi-Wills
Toccata Classics

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, Complete Works for Violin & Piano,
L.Roth / J.Gallardo

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, Symphony No.6, Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes,
V.Lande / St.Petersburg State SO

The first thing she noticed after joining the orchestra was the considerable challenge that playing in an orchestra presented. “You enter an orchestra with a few successful competitions on your record and ambitions of being a soloist not yet quite laid to rest and, inevitably, you look just a little down your nose on orchestra duty. And once you’re in it you realize the hard work and skill that is involved in playing in an orchestra, and how different it is from playing Hoffmeister and Stamitz concertos” she recalled her acclimation phase. Now no longer a member of the successful Berlin-based Kuss Quartett, where the atmosphere of music-making didn’t appeal to her, she was ‘only’ a “co-principal violist” and busy trying to adapt.

But even though not all colleagues in an orchestra look kindly on one of their own having ambitions for more (researching music, unearthing lost masterpieces, recording them and releasing an album are regularly met with incomprehension or silent accusations of ‘who do you think you are?’), young Mme. Adler’s inner musical flame is still licking. She found a grateful outlet in the music of Mieczysław Weinberg whom she was once asked to perform with pianist Elizabeth Blumina, who insisted on playing something—anything—by the composer together with Mme. Adler. The latter dug up the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano op.28 and figured, “if Brahms can do it [to op.120], so can I”, and adapted it for her instrument. The result works perfectly and being the most approachable of the included pieces, it rightly opens her Weinberg album. (On the disc Adler performs the sonata with Jascha Nemtsov, a Weinberg expert himself who has recorded some violin sonatas for Hänssler.) Once the Weinberg-bug bit, Adler was hooked and set out to see if there wasn’t more that he had (actually) written for her instrument.

Weinberg is a great composer to sink your teeth into and get some career-recognition, because he’s the real deal. He is not a washed-up Shostakovich wannabe, which had been the much repeated, rarely reflected, opinion trotted out by the few who were even familiar with his name. His music has genuine bite, authentic darkness, relentlessness, bitterness, and—to lighten the mood—anger. (He’s also got genuine, almost childlike humor in places, but let’s stick to the “dark” stereotype for now.) His writing for the viola isn’t particularly idiomatic, and while the virtuoso showboat sonata of Fyodor Druzhinin (slotted in between the Weinberg sonatas) sounds twice as difficult, it is Weinberg who is much more challenging to play. “Either he wasn’t very familiar with the instrument” suggests the Adler, “or maybe he just didn’t care. What did Beethoven say about his concerto: ‘what do I care for your fiddle when the spirit is speaking to me’?”

Sitting at around the table in the still barren apartment the Adlers just moved in, we talk about subjects completely unrelated to music—for example exotic fine teas that Mr. Adler cherishes with the same enthusiasm he does unjustly neglected composers or “real tango”. Mrs. Adler crinkles her nose at one of the more eccentric types of Korean green tea, suggesting, heretically, that it tastes like dishwater—and makes a cup of coffee for herself. Their daughter Lilith, who just turned one, roams about between the chairs, beneath the table, and takes turns sitting on our laps, smiling at anything in sight. It is she who brings the topic back to Weinberg because the whole Weinberg chapter in Mme. Adler’s life—from finding the manuscripts of the sonatas, typing them into Sibelius (the score publishing and composing software), practicing, performing, to eventually recording them—is tied in with her pregnancy.

When you hear Weinberg’s forcefully dark music, making some Shostakovich sound like merry-go-round ditties, the contrast becomes striking. Julia Adler herself would offer plenty contrast: A delicate (but not dainty) pale redhead, barely thirty, with an intriguing combination of seriousness and maturity and a streak of girlishness retained, she doesn’t at all conform to what you might imagine a natural fit to tear violently through those solo sonatas for viola. Now add her pregnancy, and the contrast is almost provocative. “I’ve never liked these clichés about pregnancy”, Adler admits and needles (because she is incapable of truly ranting) against ‘the silly romantic ideals and the kitsch about pregnancy going hand in hand with little flowers, white chiffon, and strawberry ice cream.’ If she were describing Simone Dinnerstein’s Goldberg Variations (she isn’t!), she couldn’t have found better words. And while the New York pianist was stage-managing her pregnancy-Bach with Hollywoodesque perfection, Adler performed—in her second trimester—a Weinberg recital titled “The Horror of War and Persecution” to a room of uncomfortably scandalized listeners who could not get the visual in sync with what they were hearing. Weinberg would be, our prejudice tells us, ‘anti-pregnancy music’. It seemed to have worked well for little Lilith, though—as sunny a one year old as can be, and busily flirting with the visiting scribe.

Tommy Persson, a long time friend of Weinberg, responded to the CD with much praise, culminating in “I’m simply overwhelmed by [her] very brilliant playing and great understanding of Weinberg’s music… a most important contribution to the growing Weinberg discography.” He would know better about the relative merit amid the finally burgeoning Weinberg discography than I do. But he certainly is right about her performance. It is world class—even where Adler herself suggests—believably, not out of false modesty—things could be considerably better, still. How would the response to this disc differ if Bashmet or Kashkashian had recorded this, and not a ‘Co-principal violist’? asks Thure. He has a point: the CD has gotten much praise, but several critics seemed to be hiding behind admiration for Weinberg and merely acknowledge the soloist. They can’t know, of course, for lack of extant scores, how much of the result is interpretation and how much of the Klezmeresque inflection here, or the dynamic nuances there, are Adler’s work as a performer. Though they could have heard that the playing is not just adequate but outstanding.

I have heard many great (or at least famous) violists of our time live—the two aforementioned, Pinchas Zukerman, Roger Tapping, Lawrence Dutton, Antoine Tamestit, Kim Kashkashian, and Lawrence Power... I’ve also sat in, suffered through, and occasionally savored, several dozen up-and-coming violists at the 2008 ARD competition (where, in 2004, Adler fiddled her way it into the semis). What Adler elicits from her instrument is playing at a rarified level. Maybe I’ve heard similar such intensity and accuracy from Tamestit, Power, and Kashkashian before, but no one else I can remember. About a lackluster Dutton recital I once wrote: “Mozart’s favorite instrument has problems to overcome. Where the cello yearns, the viola sounds like a cicada in love. Where the violin sings, the viola imitates an 80-year old mezzo soprano. Where violin or cello lament, the viola whines. There are, of course, players who can make me eat my words…”

Julia Rebekka Adler is one of them.

More Mieczysław Weinberg on ionarts.

A differently edited version of this interview first was published in July 2010. Above graphic is a detail off a photo from the private archive of Olga Rachalskaya