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VIOLIST MATTHEW HUNTER '83G has one of the most enviable jobs in the world of orchestral musicianship. In 1996, he became the first North American string player to join the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the venerated, 115-year-old ensemble widely considered to be one of the two or three best in the world. Popular, too: BP concerts, and sometimes entire tours, sell out within minutes of being offered to the public.
Hunter is an Amherst native whose musical training began with childhood violin lessons from the late Julian Olevsky, and after undergraduate work at Dartmouth, he returned for graduate study under Olevsky at UMass. Last fall, before a concert in New York, Hunter returned to campus to perform with pianists Estela Olevsky and Nigel Coxe in a recital benefiting the Julian Olevsky Scholarship Fund. During that visit, he also took time to meet with aspiring music students in Bezanson Recital Hall, and to have a cup of tea at Estela's home with a visitor from UMass Magazine.
Young and cordial, with a thoughtful expression often brightened by amusement, Hunter is as comfortable presenting a précis of his musical career which includes earlier chairs in the Columbus Symphony and the Canadian National Arts Centre Orchestra as he is lifting his viola to his capable shoulder and nestling it under his bearded jaw.
Here's Hunter in response to some of the questions put to him that day.
UMM: Why the change to the larger instrument, the viola, after completing master's studies at UMass and two years at the St. Louis Conservatory on the violin?
MH: "While I was in St. Louis, I organized a duo, trio, and quartet to practice with. The duo was with my friend Walter Kuessner, a violist. At the end of my two years there, Walter wanted to sell his viola, and I picked it up and played Bach's `Chaconne.' The sound didn't coordinate with what I expected to hear, but I knew I liked it. I was convinced that I was a violist."
UMM: What's it like being an American violist in the Berlin Philharmonic?
MH: "For violists in American orchestras, the style is to play smaller violas, to not play very physically, and to keep the hand in the lower positions. The technique uses less energy, and the sound is clearer, lighter, and less individual. The role of the viola is more accompaniment.
"Orchestras have different sounds, of course; they're like dialects. A specific sound and style result when musicians coming from one area are trained by the same people in the same way. The geographical distance from Ottawa to Berlin is tripled musically. The sound of the BP is what I had always been seeking: open and full-bodied. The viola is played as a full instrument.
"There's no prim and proper ethos when it comes to playing in the BP. Each player has a big personality in playing. There's total musical freedom and limitless physical energy. The style of the whole orchestra is to be at the front of the chair. Sitting at the back of the chair is unacceptable; it's seen as taking a rest. Recently we had a new colleague who wanted to try a different kind of chair, and he was told, `You don't need the back of the chair.'"
UMM: How did you get the position with the Berlin Philharmonic?
MH: "A good dose of destiny was at work. The first moment of destiny was when I mailed a letter to Walter, who was in the BP, in 1994, letting him know I was touring Germany with the NAC orchestra and asking if we could get together. I had only a three-hour window of time. As it turned out, Walter picked up the letter the day he was to travel to see his parents, a trip that would take him through a town where it was convenient for us to meet.
"Then when we met, Walter said, `We need a sub for two weeks in the spring. It'd be wonderful if you could play.' Here's moment-of-destiny number two: the two weeks in May that the BP needed someone were the exact two weeks the NAC had a vacation break! Otherwise, I couldn't have done it, because of the union contract.
"So I went to Berlin, and that's when I saw `the wave' during a concert. I was one of fourteen violists playing a fortissimo and was sitting in the back of the section, on a riser. Suddenly I saw a wave go through the section as all the musicians bent forward. I realized that was where I belonged. I wanted to catch that wave! Another time, while playing a Dvorák symphony, the entire orchestra stomped their feet in accompaniment to the music. I thought, `What a difference tradition makes!' The next time, I stomped my feet too; I felt shy, but my instincts said go with it. Everything was different from my experience but in line with my instincts.
"Which brings me to moment-of-destiny number three. In my childhood and at UMass, I studied under Julian Olevsky, who was born in Berlin and had trained with the Russian Alexander Petschnikow. I was learning the characteristic Berlin sound. Julian, who was one of the most acclaimed violinists of his era, trained me with an emphasis on the left hand, the same style as the Berlin musicians are trained. When I went to Berlin, I was bringing a sense of their own style.
"When I returned to the NAC, I refused to go back to the introverted style. When the orchestra played the Dvorák, I stomped my feet at the place where the BP had but in a disheartened way. It was my crab-pot period: feeling like I was trying to get out of the bucket, getting pulled back in.
"Well, Walter called in fall 1995 and said the orchestra was auditioning for an opening in the viola section. The audition date was November 11. This was moment-of-destiny number four, because although on that date the NAC had a pops concert scheduled, we were having a guest conductor, so I knew I could get a pass."
UMM: And the audition? What was that like?
MH: "The whole idea of the audition in Germany is different from that in America. For one thing, there's no curtain that alone was fairly stressful. And you play concertos instead of sixteen-bar excerpts. In this country some dynamic range is wanted, but no individuality, and so the excerpts suffice.
"For the BP, I had two auditions, one for the viola section, and one for the entire orchestra and the maestro. For the first, I played two concertos with piano accompaniment. For the second, I played concertos by Stamitz and Bartók. They heard me without stopping for ten minutes. That's an extremely different approach from the one here, where after twenty seconds you can be interrupted by someone tapping the rhythm.
"The ten-minute approach is extremely interesting, because what you hear is musicians under stress but given time to get over it and show what they have. By the end, some musicians' playing has improved, but others' has stayed the same or even worsened."
UMM: How did you prepare for your auditions?
MH: "I learned a lot about discipline from Julian. And in Berlin they told me they'd rarely seen anyone as prepared as I was. Since I was an outsider, I felt I had to be more prepared than their most prepared person. I was going to ensure that no one worked as hard as I.
"I practiced the concertos for four audiences and gave one of them pieces of paper they could crumple up and throw at me. At night when I went to bed, I had it in my head. I have a really close physical relationship with my viola, but I also practice in my head, and I imagine how good a beautiful bow stroke feels.
"Also, I've always taken the extra step of psychological preparation, reading self-help books such as The Inner Game of Tennis and substituting `viola' for `racket,' and The Greatest Salesman That Ever Lived and reading `violist' in place of `salesman.'
"You can't just wake up on the morning of the audition and put on your special aftershave. You need to be grounded, with the kind of deep psychological preparation that lets you go to the best place being completely enveloped by the music."