New Viola Concerto by Jesse Montgomery: 'L.E.S. Characters'

April 17, 2023, 5:09 PM · When violist Masumi Per Rostad describes his childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he points to one central truth: "Music was life for us."

Among his childhood friends was the composer Jessie Montgomery - a classmate at the Third Street Music School Settlement and fellow witness to the swirl of artistic spirit and activity all around them during the '80s and '90s, growing up in that particular neighborhood in New York City.

Jessie Montgomery and Masumi Per Rostad
Composer Jessie Montgomery and violist Masumi Per Rostad.

"It was a wonderful time to be at Third Street - I have lifelong friends that are from that time," Masumi said. "For us, music was another form of play and social interaction. We'd go out and play handball or 'man-hunt' in the streets of Manhattan and get all sweaty. Then we'd run back inside for group class. Then we'd run outside and play tag, and run back inside and for a music-hour recital or a lesson. It was so natural, like living and breathing."

That time, place and mutual experience was the inspiration for a piece that Jessie wrote for Masumi called L.E.S. ("Lower East Side") Characters, a viola concerto that Masumi will perform with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) this Saturday and Sunday, in its West Coast premiere. (Click here for more information about the concert.) LACO was a co-commissioner of the concerto.

Masumi started played violin when he was four years old. "My mother wanted me to be able to do something that she wasn't able to do when she was younger, and we had an incredible music school in our neighborhood - Third Street - a community music school," Masumi said. "I started on violin, and when I was 12, I started playing the viola as well..." It's a funny story - when he was filling out his orchestra audition form, he noticed some small print, promising the use of a viola and free viola lessons for anyone who would play viola in the orchestra.

"I said, 'What's a viola?' But I just did it, I signed up and I started playing viola in addition to violin," he said. "I immediately loved the viola. I loved that my head rattled when I played it - it was literally mind-blowing. It was a revelation for me because I was always kind of a big kid, and in a lot of ways, the violin was too delicate for me. It didn't really suit my natural sound concept."

After a while, even his teachers at Third Street could see it: Masumi simply was a violist. At their urging, Masumi dropped the violin and never looked back. He went on to earn his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees at the Juilliard School, then he was a member of the award-winning Pacifica Quartet for about 17 years. After teaching at the University of Illinois, Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, The University of Chicago, Longy School of Music, and Northwestern University, he is now on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

"One of the things that's really special about the piece that Jessie wrote for me is that it's based in our neighborhood and our childhood experience in the East Village," Masumi said. The piece is in five movements, each of them illustrating a different real-life street performance artist or character from the Lower East Side of their 1980s world.

"The 80s in the East Village was - it was normal for us - but looking back on it, it was a really crazy experience," Masumi said.

"I grew up in an artist's loft, surrounded by artists and different kinds of musicians, but definitely not classical musicians," Masumi said. Both parents were visual artists, and there was (and still is) a 1957 Chevy BelAir sitting right at the center of the loft, a remnant from the old days, when it was a garage.

The loft was located above a punk bar called CBGB - "It was the place where Madonna and The Ramones and Blondie used to regularly play. When I was a kid, these punks with the Mohawks and crazy colors would be lined up around the block, and we couldn't get into our front door," he said.

"There were so many artists in the neighborhood - crazy eccentric artists, and that's something that Jessie and I remember very strongly," he said. The movements of the viola concerto are named after those artists - The Can Man, The Poet, Mosaic Man and Garbage Art.

The "Can Man" is a real person named Gene Pool - "He would ride a unicycle around the neighborhood with cans tied all over his body - completely covered in cans," Masumi said. "It was to make noise, and it was also like display art. It was kind of personal exhibitionism and defiance."

Then there was Mosaic Man - whose real name is Jim Power.

"Our neighborhood was kind of decrepit in those times, and there were holes in the sidewalk," Masumi said. "Buildings were constantly being razed, and there were a lot of empty parking lots everywhere. It felt like it was falling apart."

"So there was a man, an artist, who would go around and fill those voids with mosaics. In the little cracks in the sidewalk, he would put beautiful mosaic tiles. Or he would cover light posts with mosaics," Masumi said. "There are still a few of them preserved around the neighborhood - now they are appreciated as art. But in those days, it was just: Do it, and maybe no one will notice, or maybe they will notice."

"The Poet" is evocative of a persona, Masumi said - an iconic figure.

"'Garbage Art' is this idea that, out of the rubble, we build beauty and art," Masumi said. "It's taking the theme of Mosaic Man or Can Man and running with it. For this movement, Jessie envisioned an instrument that is basically a whole bunch of garbage thrown into a spinner. It's a percussion instrument that makes this crazy, rickety-rackety sound."

The actual constructed-object instrument was built by the percussionist in the Orlando Philharmonic when they premiered the piece in October 2021, and they've used it for performances since then.

"It almost looks like a bingo machine, it's got a hand crank and it makes this big old racket!" Masumi said.

When it comes to Masumi's instrument, he plays a 16 3/4-inch viola by the brothers Amati, made in 1619. "It was cut down dramatically in the 1850s, by John Betts," Masumi said. "It was originally a tenor, so it was about 18 inches, and it's got a massive scroll. The scroll is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, but it's huge. And the body of the instrument is now what we would call a contralto."

"It took me 10 years to find that viola," he said. When he did, he wrote an article about it for Huffington Post. "I was lucky to be able to get it directly from a family that had been caring for it for the last half-century. It was Ed Ormond's viola, and he played in the Cleveland Orchestra. So I know the immediate history, and just how meaningful it was to him and to his family."

And so how exactly do you write a concerto for the unique voice of the viola? It has not been done all that often. Compared to the number of violin concertos, there are drastically fewer viola concertos in the canon.

"The viola's voice is inherently in the middle, and it's harder to hear sound in the middle," Masumi said. "For example, if you look at televisions, for clarity, the sound is all treble, and in the bass. But they don't really focus on the middle very much; it's just a harder range for the human ear to find distinction in."

In the case of a viola concerto, "historically, there have been different solutions, like in the Hindemith or Schnittke concertos for viola - just cut out the violins! But Jessie managed to write something that has the right kind of balance of transparency in the orchestra, and balancing of registers," Masumi said - and she has done so while still keeping the violin section. "It's not a difficult concerto, where the violist has to battle the orchestra. It works really well."

L.E.S. Characters is dedicated to the memory of three important people in Masumi and Jessie's lives who were lost during the COVID pandemic of 2020-2021: Jessie's mother, Robbie McCauley; Mary Lou Francis, Associate Director of the Third Street Music School Settlement when Masumi and Jessie were studying there; and violinist Chris Pors.

"It was a real succession of hits," Masumi said. "These are people that were really important to us, and that we care deeply about."

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For more information about Masumi's performances with LACO in the Los Angeles area, click here.

Masumi also will perform L.E.S. Characters in at least two other places this summer: with The Knights in Central Park in June, and then with the Grant Park Symphony in August.

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