LA Phil's Teng Li Offers a Rare Performance of Paganini's Sonata per la Grand Viola

August 8, 2022, 4:33 PM · Excited for this weekend's big Joshua Bell concert, with fireworks, at the Hollywood Bowl? Don't overlook what is happening the night before.

On Thursday night, violinist Nathan Cole, our longtime Violinist.com friend who is First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will play the solos in the much beloved "Scheherazade." More importantly, though, is a very rare performance of one of the hardest works ever written for viola, Paganini's "Sonata per la Grand Viola," which will be performed by Principal Violist Teng Li with the LA Phil.

She also happens to be playing the piece on an even rarer instrument, the c. late 1500's Peregrino di Zanetto viola, her regular instrument which is owned by the LA Phil. Just to reiterate - it's a 500-year-old instrument! The viola was made several hundred years before Paganini wrote the piece in the 1830s, and well before Nathan's 1729 "Jack Benny" Stradivari violin (also owned by the LA Phil) was made!

I spoke to Nathan and Teng about the performance in the brief video interview below, and then I spoke a little more in-depth with Teng in this written article, below the video. Truly, to play the Paganini Grand Sonata is quite a feat, so if you are able to come to the Hollywood Bowl this Thursday, check it out!

Teng Li said that it's quite unusual to hear Paganini's "Sonata per la Grand Viola" in live performance.

"The Grand Viola Sonata is not performed as much as other viola works because it is extremely difficult," Teng Li told me. "People have come up to me and and told me they have never heard this piece before, even in a university jury. It is one of the hardest pieces, technically, for the viola."

So how did Li come to know the piece herself?

She has actually been playing it since she was a 14-year-old student in China.

"Actually a lot of the students at the conservatories in China played it, so I knew about the piece," Li said. "If your teacher said to you, 'Maybe you should give it a try,' that was such an honor! It meant your teacher considered you to be at a high enough level to actually do it!"

Originally from Nanjing, Li went to the Central Conservatory in Beijing when she was nine years old. She studied there until she was 16, then she came to the United States to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

She actually started on the violin, when she was about five.

"My parents got me a violin when I was two, for my birthday, and it was way too big!" she said. "It was a quarter-size violin. So you see, I think it was all meant to be, that I would play the viola. My first violin, even for a five-year old, was so big! The idea of stretching probably was already well-ingrained."

During the time she was at school, there were quite a lot of kids in China who were learning Western classical music, studying instruments such as piano and violin. "It became very competitive," she said. When it was time to audition for a placement at the Central Conservatory's middle school, the spots were limited. She played a good audition, but nothing was guaranteed.

"One of the oldest and most respected professors said to the jury, 'You always give me the worst violin players to become violists - if a person can't succeed as a violin player you put them in viola. Look, this year, you have so many wonderful players, I think we can have a really wonderful player to play viola, and that will be one more person who can stay at the conservatory.'"

Then he pointed straight to Li. "She will be great, to play viola," he said.

"And that is how I became a violist," Li said. She was 12 years old at the time, and the change to viola inspired a revelation in her playing.

"Magically, something just clicked," Li said. "Before, when I played the violin, people would comment that my sound was more of a darker sound. Viola just worked out better for me. I felt like I was able to do much more on the viola. The viola was the instrument that awakened me, musically."

While Li has been playing Paganini's "Sonata per la Grand Viola" since she was a teenager, it was a whole new story on the Zanetto viola that she now plays with the LA Phil. The Zanetto measures a robust 16 5/8 inches and has very wide shoulders. "I had to change some of the fingerings because the shifting was different on this viola than it was on the Amati viola that I played in Toronto," where she was principal violist for 14 years before coming to LA in 2018.

As the story goes, Paganini had commissioned Hector Berlioz to write a viola concerto, a piece that became the famous "Harold in Italy." But Paganini found the piece too easy.

"'Harold in Italy' is a wonderful piece, but it's more like a tone poem," Li said. Not surprisingly, Paganini wanted something much more virtuosic.

"Paganini really had a fascination with the viola, so he decided to write a piece on his own," Li said.

Significantly, Paganini himself performed his "Sonata per la Grand Viola" on a five-stringed instrument. In other words, Paganini wrote it with the idea that there was going to be an E string as well as a C string.

Li's viola has just four strings - C, G, D, A - no E string for those high notes.

"There is a reason for five strings," she said. "To play it on four strings, it really does go up into the higher register of the instrument, by a lot!" She has to reach so far around the instrument, that she has to let go of the thumb. Then come back again. "That's one of the harder things," she said. There are also passages with a lot of harmonics, and it can be challenging to make them speak.

"On top of all of that, as a virtuosic piece, like any virtuosic piece, you try to make it not just virtuosic, but something musical and something interesting," Li said. Listening to various recordings, "I find everyone's take is a little bit different. We are all trying to make it our own, to tell a story through the virtuosic passages, so it doesn't just sound like etudes!"

For more information about Teng Li's upcoming live performance of Paganini's "Sonata per la Grand Viola" with the LA Phil, Click here.

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Replies

August 9, 2022 at 06:19 PM · Teng Li & Nathan - I hope Friday's concert goes well! I have often wondered what Paganini expected from Berlioz. As a fairly self-absorbed musician, Paganini wanted a fireworks display, but he had commissioned Berlioz, who was probably equally self-absorbed but in an entirely different way. Anyway, we benefit by having both 'Harold in Italy' and the Sonata per la Grand Viola.

August 10, 2022 at 07:56 PM · Greetings, I received an e-mail from violin collector David Fulton, and he offers this comment and excerpt from his book, The Fulton Collection: A Guided Tour by David Fulton:

"I read with interest that Teng Li is going to perform Paganini’s Sonata per la gran viola. Perhaps she would be amused by the account that Salvatore Accardo gave me personally of his conversation with Paganini (in a séance, of course) about the piece where he (Paganini) explained how he executed the piece. (“Father Degortez” is a well-known medium, a priest who works in the Vatican.)

Accardo’s Conversation with Paganini

Here is what Accardo told me about his chat with Paganini. He said that Paganini’s Sonata per la gran viola is literally impossible to play on the viola as written. Curious about this oddity, Accardo himself consulted Father Degortez hoping he could go straight to the source and ask Paganini about the matter. During this séance Paganini explained that the composition was actually written for a special 5-string viola (with E string) having two pegs on left and three on right. Accardo proceeded to have such a viola constructed and recorded the piece on it. He said the “gran viola” worked perfectly and naturally."

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