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How One Student Went from Violinist to Opening SFCM's Orchestra Season with a Viola Concerto

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Isabel Tannenbaum's journey to becoming a "slasher" (violist/violinist) started when she was a freshman at another school and, short on violas for the chamber program, she was encouraged to make the switch by her teacher.

September 18, 2023 by Alex Heigl

Though Isabel Tannenbaum has enough of a grip on the viola to win SFCM's annual concerto competition, she doesn't remember the first time she was presented with the instrument all that fondly. 

"My very first lesson freshman year of college, I played one scale and my teacher said to me, 'You have really long fingers and pretty good intonation. Do you want to play the viola?' They were low on violas for chamber groups, which they usually are. So I was an 18-year-old, scared out of my mind because I had decided to play a wooden box for a living and go to college for that, and the first thing I hear from my teacher is, 'Do you want to play this other instrument?'"

After a panicked phone call to her mom, Tannenbaum decided to, in her mother's words, "just roll with it and see how it goes." As is common for violinists making the switch, she balked when first being presented with alto clef sheet music, and had to laboriously copy out fingerings and notes for her first piece of chamber music on the new instrument. 

"It was so frustrating because I just felt like I was falling behind so much," she recalls now, and even after signing up for private viola lessons, "I was still going to quit after the first semester. I thought, 'I tried it, I can say I've played it, maybe pick it up if necessary, but I'm done.'"

But a group of fellow students needed a violist for a string quartet competition, and, with the prize being an all-expenses-paid trip to the south of France for three weeks, Tannenbaum got to work. "Very slowly, over time I started to mesh the two worlds of violin and viola," she said. 

Fast-forward, and Tannenbaum is performing William Walton's Viola Concerto at the SFCM Orchestra's season opener on September 23, after winning SFCM's annual concerto competition last year. 

The SFCM Orchestra, conducted by Edwin Outwater.

The SFCM Orchestra, conducted by Edwin Outwater.

"I wanted to study it with my teacher, [String and Piano Chamber Music Chair] Dmitri Murrath. There are only so many viola concertos out there, and I really love this one, so I brought it to Dmitri and he suggested that I enter the competition. I went in with absolutely no expectations, just the goal of giving myself a deadline and something to work towards." 

"Isabel is a violist with a deep and warm sound and has her own artistic voice on this instrument," Murrath said. "Her expressions and colors radiate to the audience.  These qualities in her playing helped her advocate this rarely performed concerto."

Tannenbaum recently read a biography of Walton, which quite literally rearranged her understanding of the piece. When she was first learning it, "it sounded like it was written by someone who was at the end of their life, reflecting back with a lot of nostalgia, a lot of melancholy and heartbreak." But, she learned that Walton wrote the concerto when he was just 26.

"So then I started thinking of the piece as, here's someone who has this weight on his shoulders; he's so desperate to make something of his name and to put something out there. And he's wondering to himself, 'When I am at that age where I'm older and I'm sitting on my porch thinking about my life, what do I want to be able to look back on?'" She continued, "For me—someone who's also in their mid-twenties and at the start of my career and still learning—I relate to that. There's so many ways your life can go, especially with the path in the arts, so that interpretation just felt very natural."

Also on the program on the 23rd is Anna Clyne's Masquerade and Mikhail Glinka's Kamarinskaya. The evening closes with Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10, which he wrote as a school assignment at the astonishing age of just 19. 

Guests are asked to reserve seats for the Orchestra's 7:30 p.m. performance on Sept. 23 at the Caroline H. Hume concert hall at 50 Oak Street. Learn more about studying strings, chamber music, or viola at SFCM.