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May 1, 2022Stephen Laifer -
Violist Wendy Richman of Locals 802 (New York City) and 47 (Los Angeles, CA) first encountered the violin’s bigger cousin in 5th grade. She had been making steady progress on the violin when she was handed a viola in the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra and was immediately sent to a sectional rehearsal. “I started playing with everyone else, and it was total cacophony,” Richman laughs. “I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was wrong. And then I realized: nobody had told me the viola part was in a different clef from the violin.”
By the end of the sectional, Richman says she had it marginally figured out. She also quickly realized the viola was a perfect fit for her. “I was big for my age, and it just made more sense. It was a better fit for my height, hands, and voice. It just felt natural.”
More importantly, Richman says the viola fit her musical personality. “I always wanted to do something different to set me off from others,” she says. It’s also what drew her to chamber music, and specifically contemporary repertoire.
Richman attended every chamber music camp she could find in the summers, and in high school, she struck up an online friendship with Local 802 member Nardo Poy, a violist in the Met Orchestra and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. “He took an interest in me in a kind, mentoring way and helped me clarify some of my musical dreams and goals,” she says.
Undergrad studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory offered a quick entry into CME, the school’s contemporary music ensemble. From there, the appeal grew. Richman has been a founding member of several well-known contemporary ensembles, has recorded a solo album of commissioned works, and has presented the world and US premieres of a number of recent pieces for viola.
“New music has always appealed to my need for something different, but also because it’s intellectually challenging,” Richman says. “I have always liked sight reading something and not immediately understanding its technical demands and musical intent. The work toward perfecting it is the best part.”
That philosophy has held for Richman. She believes playing contemporary music well is in fact what gets people interested in a new piece—while the opposite, a poor performance, can turn an audience off. “Audiences can tell when they hear something played well, with good intention and sincerity. If they hear it played badly, they just think it’s bad music. Much of the time this music just gets rehearsed poorly. And the players need to be engaged to engage the audience in turn. If the players are grumpy about it, that certainly doesn’t do the music any service.”
She also prefers playing contemporary music written for smaller-scaled ensembles. “So much of this music sounds better with just a few voices on a part, or even just one.” This also appeals to Richman’s sense of wanting to share her distinctive musical voice. “In an orchestra, I’m thinking a lot about blending with a section and not sticking out,” she says. “It’s a different skill. In a new music ensemble, I feel my job is the opposite: to sound like a badass and have a singular voice. I thrive on that.”
The term “new music,” she elaborates, is an interesting one. “It’s more of a spectrum rather than a category. But new music to me is music by living composers, music being written now. It’s not Stravinsky.”
Richman says these days she thinks more of the differences between high modernist music versus experimental. “Modernist music is closer to traditional classical music in that it’s precisely notated, and you have to play all the right notes to make it sound right. With experimental music, of course you need to practice,” she says, “but there’s an openness, a pushing of the envelope. Regardless, you keep something of yourself in both of them.”
For Richman, that something also includes her own voice. She started voice lessons in 8th grade, continuing through college with secondary voice lessons. “Singing and playing inform each other. It’s great for thinking about how to breathe as a player, and for musical phrasing,” says Richman, who has even commissioned pieces for the singing violist. “It gets me to think about the viola differently.”
Like most musicians, Richman laughs at how the death of classical music is frequently bemoaned by the press—but it’s not happening anytime soon. She feels that featuring new and diverse composers is crucial to helping it thrive, but the music must be quality. “We have a responsibility to feature these people and explore who might be lasting. We have more than enough music by dead white men that still gets played even if it’s not good.”
Post-pandemic, while things are still slow, Richman has the time to research new music to program for herself. “My first major solo project featured music by nine men and one woman. I freely admit there were too many men. The next one will be different.” That said, she dislikes labeling things. “A women composers’ concert is a perfect example. Just program a concert and put women on it. Highlighting it paradoxically marginalizes it. Just normalize it.”
Being so focused on new music, Richman says she used to think she never wanted to teach or play in an orchestra. But both of those were things she could get paid for. “It’s not like there are a lot of contemporary music ensembles around, and I had to eat!” She laughs. Ultimately, she wound up getting jobs in both—and found she loved them both. She has held viola positions in several major orchestras, and while teaching at New York University (NYU) for several years, she subbed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. “Orpheus programs a considerable amount of new music. At times, I even got to lead the section on a newer piece. So I was doing stuff I had dreamed about doing when I was a teenager.”
Now based in Southern California, Richman is becoming established in LA’s freelance scene and teaches several classes at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “So many events in my life that were scary at the time opened other doors.” Like her audiences with new music, she says it’s a lesson in staying open to new things.