A LIFE IN SOUND: VIOLIST JOSEPH DE PASQUALE
by Stephen Wyrczynski
Sound is the means by which music expresses the complex range of human experience. The quality and uniqueness of sound distinguishes the ordinary instrumentalist from the worldclass artist. Legendary violist Joseph de Pasquale, who is celebrating his ninetieth year in October, has employed his sound for decades to achieve an unparalleled career as a performer, as well as a pedagogue. His sound combines the burnished richness of the cello with the brilliant virtuosity of the violin. It is this range of expression that has placed his live performances and recordings at the highest echelon—not only of viola playing, but also of string performance—in the current and past century.
Joseph de Pasquale began violin studies with his father Oreste de Pasquale, an accomplished violinist in his own right, and later continued with Lucius Cole, father of the celebrated cellist and teacher Orlando Cole. When he auditioned at the Curtis Institute of Music, he was accepted to be a violin student of Léa Luboschutz. At this point, Jascha Brodsky and Max Aronoff, of the Curtis Quartet, suggested to Mr. de Pasquale that he should switch to the viola because of his physical stature and digital span. With the counseling of his father, Mr. de Pasquale decided to make the transition to the viola and study with Max Aronoff and Louis Bailly. When the Second World War broke out, Mr. de Pasquale enlisted in the Marines and was stationed in Washington, DC. It was at this point that William Primrose joined the faculty at Curtis, and Mr. de Pasquale made the trip to Philadelphia every two weeks to take lessons with him. William Primrose, who had been a student of the great Eugène Ysaÿe, can be considered the greatest teaching influence of Mr. de Pasquale. His lush and unmistakable sound and artistry has been the standard to which Mr. de Pasquale encourages students to strive.
Mr. de Pasquale first taught in Boston at the New England Conservatory. Then, at the invitation of Efrem Zimbalist—the great violinist and former president of Curtis—he began to teach at the Curtis Institute. It is here that he would succeed his great mentor, William Primrose. This succession would not only be a physical one, but also a pedagogical one, where Mr. de Pasquale would pass down the traditions and methods of his teacher. Mr. de Pasquale spends a large part of a lesson demonstrating and playing along with a student. His teaching is centered on the student imitating him on the phrasings and nuances of a particular work or passage. There is no substitute for listening and absorbing first hand the scales, études, and viola repertoire. Eventually, the student is encouraged to develop his or her own style of playing.
Mr. de Pasquale incorporates classic Primrose concepts like the “link‐finger” shifting technique, where one shifts on the last finger used in starting position to “link” to the next position. He also uses the Primrose scale method, which is found in The Art and Practice of Scale Playing on the Viola, and accompanies it with Campagnoli’s 41 Études, edited by Primrose, as standard fare for students. He also insists on long tone scales to master a legato, sustained sound. He instructs students that in order to increase the smooth bow change at thefrog, to bring your left shoulder forward slightly, bringing the viola to meet the bow at the frog, as Primrose taught. This makes for a seamless connection. He also introduces the Franco‐ Belgian concept of “tirez and poussez,” the pull and push of the bow over the string. One should never press or force the sound. One creates better overtones and volume by drawing the sound out, not squeezing it down.
He, like Mr. Primrose, was blessed with fleshy fingers but realized many viola players do not have this advantage. The fourth finger, and proper fourth‐finger vibrato, is often chronically underused by violists. When addressing the vibrato issue, he suggests keeping the third finger down and close to the fourth finger so that the third finger supports the fourth to vibrate. This added leverage increases the oscillation radius and improves the contact between the tip of the fourth finger and the string, thus improving the quality of the vibrato sound.
As the principal violist of the Boston Symphony for eighteen years, then later as principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra for thirty‐four years, he has had a major influence on the sound of not only the viola section, but also of the string sections as a whole. While in Boston, Mr. de Pasquale acquired the ex‐Bailly Gasparo de Salò viola. This viola was enormous by any standards at 17 5/8 inches. The depth and darkness of its sound was Mr. de Pasquale’s signature on so many recordings and broadcasts. He was the envy of conductors around the globe, so much so that Eugene Ormandy was determined to steal Mr. de Pasquale away to join the Philadelphia Orchestra. Ormandy succeeded in doing so in 1964. During de Pasquale’s tenure there, a viola was made for him by Sergio Peresson, an unknown maker at the time. This viola measured 17 3/8 inches and is patterned on a Guarnari del Gesù model. Mr. de Pasquale was so taken by the tone and projection of it that he sold his Gasparo de Salò and played continuously on the Peresson for the rest of his orchestral career. Of course, just playing on an exceptional instrument does not automatically guarantee an understanding of good sound production. Mr. de Pasquale’s contributions to the lauded “Philadelphia Sound” really come from his musical leadership in terms of challenging the overall level of the string playing to be exemplary. He would often suggest to his viola section particular fingerings mirroring the violins’ virtuosity and expressiveness. He frowned upon safe and uninteresting fingering solutions. To this day, Philadelphia Orchestra parts are marked with Mr. de Pasquale’s suggested fingerings, which were designed to create a dynamistic middle voice. He was not afraid to suggest risk‐taking. For instance, there are passages in the slow movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra where the violas play the melody entirely on the C string in order to create musical tension in the sound. It had never been done before in Philadelphia. Another example of Mr. de Pasquale’s fingering choice that puts sonority at the top of the list of priorities is the first theme in the beginning of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë, Second Suite. He asks that the entire viola section play this passage on the C string. This fingering choice maximizes the legato sound and homogenizes the viola section’s approach. Also, in the famous viola tutti passage in the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Mr. de Pasquale opts not to crawl up in high positions to avert the long shift to the high E‐flat, but uses a tasteful shift up on the A string to serve as the ultimate dramatic climax in piano espressivo (ex. 1). This fingering sensibility is not unlike Primrose, who, in his scale fingerings book, reflects more brilliant fingering choices for the sake of clarity and sonority.
As Mr. de Pasquale approaches his ninetieth birthday, he can reflect on the generations of violists he has influenced. Currently in the Philadelphia Orchestra, there are nine out of thirteen violists who were his students, including the principal, Choong‐Jin Chang. The former principal who is now president of the Curtis Institute of Music, Roberto Díaz, was also his student. Other students include violists and titled‐chair players in the Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Minnesota Orchestras, as well as successful professionals around the world.
Because of the diversity and longevity of his career, one can count Joseph de Pasquale among the towering figures of teaching and performing to this day.
To honor his career, his continued musical contributions, and his upcoming life milestone, the Curtis Institute is celebrating Joseph de Pasquale in his ninetieth year. On October 25, 2009, beginning at 3:00 p.m., the Curtis Institute will host an afternoon of events commencing with a master class, given by the honoree himself, to gifted violists playing some of his favorite repertoire. This will be followed by a panel discussion with Mr. de Pasquale covering the highlights of his career in performing and teaching, facilitated by Roberto Díaz and Stephen Wyrczynski. There will then be a short audio and video presentation culminating with a birthday toast and refreshments concluding in the Bok Room at Curtis.
Stephen Wyrczynski studied with Kim Kashkashian, Karen Tuttle, and Joseph de Pasquale. He has been a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra for eighteen seasons. He is on the faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado where he teaches both private lessons and an audition seminar for viola orchestral excerpts. In addition, he will be a visiting Professor of Viola at the Jacobs School of Music of Indiana University for the 2009–2010 school year.