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Violist Atar Arad: The Joy of Working With and Learning From Fellows

July 27, 2018

Violist Atar Arad has played at chamber music festivals around the world. He talks about the joy of playing with students at Norfolk Chamber Music Festival.

Violist Atar Arad has an immediate answer when asked why he keeps returning to Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. It’s the Fellows.

“The students are advanced and we get to play with the students, which is wonderful,” he says. “I try to forget that I’m the teacher. I just want to be a member of the group. That’s the thing with chamber music. If you do it seriously, you learn all the time. People play differently and you have to adjust. When I play with students, I’m not faculty. Maybe I have a little more confidence but I try to build their confidence – let them suggest things. And I get some great ideas too.”

Well known in chamber music circles in particular — Arad is a former member of the Cleveland Quartet and has performed with many top-tier quartets including the Guarneri, Emerson, and Tokyo to name just a few — he got his musical start in Tel Aviv on the violin. It wasn’t until he was 13 that he switched to viola. It’s a familiar story for many viola players. He was studying in Belgium at Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth. “One day three different people told me they wanted to play quartets for fun but couldn’t find a violist,” he recalls. “I said I would play if they could find me an instrument. I had to learn it quickly and it’s another clef.”

The first piece was Beethoven’s String Quaret in A Major, opus 18, number 5. “The moment we began to play I found myself in the middle of this wonderful sound and I knew I was going to be a violist,” he says. “It was love from the first sound. I also saw the reaction of my colleagues. They knew also I would be a violist.”

Arad did finish school officially as a violinist. “But the day after school was over, I began to learn the viola repertoire,” he says, noting he sold his violin to get a viola.

Arad grew up in an artistic rather than musical family. His mother was a well-known artist in Israel. “She was the first woman to have a solo show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art,” he says. His father was a photographer who he says invented paintography, a form of artwork that is part painting, part photographs. His brother, Ron Arad, became a famous designer and architect. “He got the visual gift,” Arad jokes. “I am the black sheep.”

His parents had one requirement when he expressed interest in taking violin lessons. “I had to practice two hours a day if I wanted lessons. Then I could go out to play,” he says. “Sometimes we had soccer games and I wanted to be in them. I loved soccer. I love it today actually. So what I would do is tune my E string so high that it would break and I didn’t have spare strings. I had to call my father at work and ask him to buy another string. He understood it. He never bought spare strings. My parents decided children need to play, too. We were both bluffing,” he says.

“When I became a violist I was joking it was the punishment for breaking the E string because it doesn’t have an E string,” he says with a laugh. “I find it symbolic because I used to break my E string.”

Just one year after deciding to focus on viola rather than violin, Arad won the City of London Prize as a laureate of the Carl Flesch Competition for violin and viola. Shortly after that he was awarded the First Prize at the International Viola Competition in Geneva by a unanimous decision of the jury.

It was the viola’s lush, deeper sound that drew him, he says. “The viola has some depth and darkness to it,” he says before discussing the challenges of the instrument. “I find that the viola because of its size is less perfect an instrument than a violin and a cello. They both are the ideal size. The viola is not.”

Arad says both Stradivarius and Guarneri, famous instrument makers from the 17th and 18th centuries, knew “exactly what size a violin should be in order to produce the cleanest and most communicative sound that can be heard in a hall in the last row,” Arad says. “If they were building the ideal viola, it would be so big no one could play it.” As a result, he says, “they reduced the size from this perfect dimension. That sacrificed the ease with which sound could be carried away and the ease with which you touch the instrument.”

That imperfection if you will, however, is part of the viola’s allure for Arad. “Because we are not perfect, we are human,” he says. “The viola has the most human qualities.”

By Janet Reynolds

Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.