Interview: Fearless Rivka Golani still boldly goes were other violists fear to bow

Violist Rivka Golani performs at Gallery 345 tonight at 8.

Violist Rivka Golani has been nothing short of a phenomenon over a career that’s coming close to 50 years. And, a week from her 66th birthday, is showing no signs of slowing down.

Born in Tel Aviv and now based in London, England, Golani has a strong bond with this this city, thanks to two stints of teaching at University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music. She refreshes the bond tonight with a recital at Gallery 345 with pianist Stéphan Sylvestre.

Although the bulk of tonight’s programme is well-known music — Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre; Franz Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata and the Cello Sonata, Op. 36, by Edvard Grieg — note that none of these pieces was originally written for viola.

That’s the biggest clue to what Golani has tried to accomplish for the past half-century: expand the repertoire of the viola, which has historically lived in the shadows of the showier violin and the deeply expressive cello.

“When I took up the viola, I had in mind to never be limited by a fixed idea about this instrument – a low, slow, wailing, crying instrument,” says Golani. “I wanted everything from this instrument, to go from one extreme to the other. That was the big challenge for me.

“I call it madness, but it’s not. It’s opening doors and daring to do what others don’t.”

Golani mentions 70 viola concertos that have been written for her, 14 double concertos, and a number of new projects, including commissioning new music for piano, viola and orchestra, inspired by her recent work with Sylvestre.

Besides wanting to grow the viola repertoire, Golani insists that classical music is not complete unless it includes the works of today and tomorrow. It’s a belief she tries to instill in every one of her students (she currently instructs 14 violists and one violinist in London).

As the violist puts it, “You educate young people to be open minded to everything that is around them, which includes the situation around us, the human side. Music cannot be isolated from where we live today. We always talk about this.”

To illustrate, Golani mentions a coming October premiere of four new double concertos for two violas, by Hungarian composers, in Budapest.

“Each composer has chosen poetry or any subject that has to do with anti-war expression. It’s not a protest, but a voice,” she explains. “It’s a world with no borders, with no language or cultural barriers. We have so much in common when it comes to trouble,” she chuckles. “It’s an example of a project that draws inspiration from something and expresses something that we believe in.”

Including her students in new music projects propagates the spirit of adventure, Golani explains. “This inspires them to commission their own friends, so they become very creative this way. This way, I’m not trying to direct them to play only pieces that were written for me.”

It’s also a way of illustrating how fluid and flexible these relationships can be.

Golani is including Canadian content on tonight’s programme, a piece by the late Ann Southam originally written for Toronto violist Douglas Perry that mixes pre-recorded viola (recorded by Golani several years ago) with live solo work.

Having been assigned the piece by a CBC Radio producer David Jaeger, Golani admits she didn’t like it at first. She found the minimalist-style continuous repetition of note sequences to be very awkward physically.

“I  simply could not do it. So I asked David Jaeger if I can have permission from the composer to triple the speed of the repetitions,” Golani recalls. “I needed a challenge; I couldn’t just stand there, driving myself and my audience crazy.”

Jaeger returned with Southam’s blessing — and with revisions for the accompanying tape.

Golani and Southam didn’t meet until the day of the recording session. “I remember she was there,” the violist says. “I played it as fast as my body and the microphone would take. I needed to be in a trance to be able to perform it, otherwise it doesn’t work.

“When I finished, I saw a big smile on her face, and I was very moved.”

Golani knows of several students and professional violists who have performed the piece since — “it is part of the general repertoire now.”

Do they play the piece at Golani’s tempo?

She laughs in response. “I really don’t know. For that you would need pills of madness.”


For more details on tonight’s recital at Gallery 345, click here.

Here are the second and third movements of the Grieg sonata, with Michael Hampton accompanying:

John Terauds


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