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Violist Melissa Reardon: From Fellow To Faculty

August 7, 2018

Violist Melissa Reardon proves you can go home again as she returns to Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, this time as a faculty member rather than a Fellow. 

Violist Melissa Reardon’s first visit to Norfolk Chamber Music Festival was as a Fellow in 1997. This time around she’s coming as a faculty member and performer.

Reardon, who is a member of the Grammy®-nominated Enso String Quartet and a founding member of East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), had just finished her first year at Curtis Institute of Music. “I was looking to go to a chamber music-focused place,” she says, noting that among the groups she worked with that summer was the Vermeer Quartet. Unlike some Fellows who come to the Festival in an established chamber group, Reardon was there as an individual Fellow. That meant she played with a variety of people in different groupings over the course of the summer.

“It had a big impact on me. The stuff I learned there stayed with me in my music studies and my professional life,” she says. “There are few key ingredients in how you put chamber music together, specifically string quartet, that I got coached on. Those have been in the back of my mind and the way I approach and work on music.”

Shmuel Ashkenazi, first violinist of the Vermeer, for instance, talked about intonation and how voicing the chords when tuning them is so important in chamber music. “No one had broken it down so specifically before,” Reardon says. “He spelled out what needed to happen for a chord to sound in tune. It depended on the kind of chord.” Major thirds, for instance, need to be perfectly flat and minor chords need to be perfectly sharp to be in tune, she says. “That’s a funny way to think about it but it’s exactly right. Some of those things you might intuit while you’re learning but to have someone explain it was a lightbulb moment for me. It’s something I still think about. It’s the exactly the correct way to play it.”

In chamber music in particular, the music moves between a series of stacked notes, or chords, and melodies, which are horizontal. “There is a friction there between how you’re able to make those different kinds of intonation work together,” Reardon says. “The thing we’re always fighting with someone playing a melody is you can’t always follow those rules for the third for a stacked harmony because it will sound out of tune.” This tension can get even trickier when a piano is part of the instrumental mix, she says. “You can’t push the intervals in the same way you do in a string quartet.”

These initial thoughts on harmony and intonation have stayed with Reardon, she says, throughout her career. “Some of the things I learned at Norfolk resonated with the people I spent a lot of my time with later on,” says Reardon, who has been with the Enso String Quartet for 12 years. “There’s adjustments we make in real time, not even thinking about it so much, just doing it. It helps if the other people you work with are like-minded about how to approach these things.”

Like many viola players, Reardon first played violin. She was 3 at the time and wanted to be like her older cousin, who played violin. “When I was 7, my mother said there are too many violinists in the world. Why don’t you play viola? I switched.”

“I’m drawn to the rich mellow deep sounds that are possible,” Reardon says of her love affair with the viola. As she began playing more and more chamber music in high school and beyond, she also started enjoying the viola’s place in quartets. “I really relished that role of being in the middle of the sounds and being the connective tissue between outer voices,” she says. “The viola has a lot of the navigation in the group. I became drawn to it without realizing it.”

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.