Who or what inspired you to take up the viola and pursue a career in music?
I started playing the violin in the US public school system in the 4th grade but it wasn’t until my studies at the Eastman School of Music that I discovered the viola. I was first violinist in a student string quartet taking part in the Cleveland Quartet Seminar. The violist of our group said she needed to end the rehearsal early so I asked her if I could try her viola and I would bring it back to the dorms later. It was a lovely old Hill viola, not too big. The instant I pulled an open string sound on the viola tears immediately started pouring out of my eyes. It was as if I had finally found my voice. It was such a visceral reaction; not only did I fall instantly in love with the colors of the instrument but physically my whole body relaxed. While I continued to finished my degree in violin I also began studying with the great violist of the Cleveland Quartet, Martha Katz and then stayed for a Masters degree in viola and studied with the great modern music expert John Graham
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I think “important influences” are like tree branches resting along the side of a river. You float down the river following your path and then you hold on to a branch and soak all the experiences in. For me it is the accumulation of tree branches that have help to guide me. Some have been teachers and mentors. My parents also helped me in non-musical ways. While they were not musicians, they were very supportive of my musical interests.
My seemingly non-linear life journey began with orchestra jobs and then successful auditions for two professional string quartets. Chamber music has been a huge influenceon my development as an artist as the skill you must develop include listening to your colleagues, keeping an open mind, taking risks and really immersing oneself in the process of learning music. But it was my first big solo engagement that really lit the inner fire of artistic purpose that has carried me to this day. Premiering a fantastic concerto by the great Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin with the New Jersey Symphony was the beginning of my solo career and now, almost 10 years later I have been fortunate to have had over 40 viola concertos written for me and 18 CD recordings.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I have always been a very optimistic person so I don’t really think of “challenges” or setbacks. Every goal I have set for myself I have achieved in some form or another. Orchestra, quartet, trios, university teaching positions, soloist, recording artist…. I’m very happy to do what I do. I tell my students that “the journey IS the destination” and to try not to be too “goal oriented.“ Perhaps that is my biggest challenge: not to be impatient. Time management can be a challenge as well sometimes. As a “self-managed” artist, I design my own website, manage my YouTube channel, social network platforms, reach out to conductors and basically manage every facet of my career. This takes a lot of time. I have learned a lot of skills along the way that you don’t always learn at school and I try to pass these on to my students and in public masterclasses and lectures where I try to encourage other artists to be “artist leaders.”
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I’ve now performed with over 70 orchestras worldwide so I couldn’t possibly choose my favourite performance. Certain performances stand out for me such as my debut with the Grand Rapids Symphony where I performed Brandenburg 6, Hindemith’s Trauermusick and Amanda Harberg’s concerto in one evening. I have a very vivid and fun memory of performing with the State Orchestra of Merida, Venezuela. My dear friend Fran di Polo, President of la Sistema in Caracas, taught me a “joropo” to perform as a “bis” (encore) at the conclusion of my concerto performance. I motioned for the principal bassoonist, who just happened to also play the charango, and we performed an exciting jorpop for the audience and they loved it. That is one of the things about performing world wide that I love most. The chance to meet people, make new friends, learn about different cultures, their food, the folksongs and dances. Music really does connect us and learning so many musical styles has been a great gift for me. Every opportunity to perform is a unique experience and chance to communicate with the audience in a very personal way. As an artist I am constantly trying to find the balance between being as perfect as I can with being musically communicative. When a performance takes you to that special place where you are truly at one with the music, the orchestra and the audience then it is hard to beat that special feeling.
As to my favourite recordings, I’m very proud of the last several I have done including a concerto album of three works for viola and orchestra by the American composers Amanda Harberg and Max Wolpert for Naxos. Three more CDs are due to be released in the coming season: one with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Heredia of Costa Rica, as well as one with the Philadelphia Camerata performing the concerto of Stan Grill and also a CD with the Southern Cross Philharmonia in Melbourne.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Because I do so many world premieres I have the reputation for being a “modern specialist.” The funny thing is that ,when you get right down to it, I feel the viola is essentially a “vocal instrument” and so I really feel great warmth from performing the romantic and classical repertoire. The great English concertos of Bowen, Forsyth and Walton are some of my favourites. Of the new works written for me I really enjoyed performing Andrew Rudin’s concerto. Also Richard Danliepours’ viola concerto is incredible and we had a lot of fun working on it together. I think because I love exciting music with strong rhythm and soaring melodies, many composers today enjoy writing for me and I’m very happy to see other violists performing these pieces now. Because of my violin background and the basic technique and breadth of repertoire the violin provides, I enjoy challenging works for the viola, but ultimately it’s the “human song” that creates the most allure for me.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Very often repertoire decisions are made for you. Unlike many violin soloists who will play 3-5 concerti up to 10-20 times each a season, I will often play 7 or 8 different concerti only once or maybe twice a season. While this creates a real sense of excitement and freshness it is also very challenging to keep all of the notes in my hands. For instance the first half of the 2019 season I will perform the Stamitx concerto in Cape Cod, the Hindemith der Schwanendreher in Los Angeles, but also give the second perform of the season of the Forsyth concerto and also give world premieres in Melbourne, Colombia, and New Jersey as well as record two new concerto CDs; one in Australia and one in Philadelphia.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
For me, the venue is defined by the energy of the audience. A smaller hall creates a more intimate connection to the listener. Music needs two elements: a person playing the music and someone to listen to it. If the listener is absent, then its called “practicing.”
Last season on a month long tour of China I performed in several acoustically amazing halls but just last weekend I gave a special holiday house concert in my hometown for 20 friends and that was just as thrilling.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Good one. I think because my goal as a violist is to sound like a vocalist, it’s no surprise that a lot of playlists on my iPhone are of choral works. The saying goes,”Mjusic begins where words end,” so to hear music “with “ words is almost like the first form of multi media performance. Jesse Norman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs, the English a capella group Voces 8 singing Ola Gjeilo’s “Ubi Caritas”; these works really have meaning for me. Most of my instrumental heroes are violinists like Oistrakh, Milstein, Heifetz, and Ehnes. But I also love jazz, the American Songbook and any musical style and artist that resonates with me.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I think it is the totality of my “experience” that I look back on with joy and gratitude. My first time performing in Kiev, performing in the Cathedral in Quito with the National Symphony of Ecuador, my Kimmel Center debut premiering Andrew Rudin’s concerto to name a few. For me, it’s like choosing my favourite piece of music. I’m too close to it…I just love doing what I do and I look forward to doing much more!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I feel success is not measured by achievement. If you reached your goal, then you set the bar way too low! For me, the definition of success if doing what you love. I of course am constantly trying to improve my craft and I am constantly working on my career but at the end of the day, if you love what you do then you ARE a success.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
You are what you think. If you have the courage to say to yourself what you really want to do, then do it! If I can do it, you definitely can!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I would like to be doing what I do now. I also really enjoy teaching. As the viola professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College I get to share ideas with my students. We work on our craft but also discuss music careers, address how to be an effective teacher and motivator. For me its all about sharing the journey, not only with audiences but with the younger artists searching for their voice.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
When you wake up and you feel so incredibly lucky to be doing what you do, that although you are eager to do whatever it takes to keep reaching higher, you feel content making a positive difference. That’s happiness.
What is your most treasured possession?
Born in San Francisco in 1968, Brett Deubner began his studies at the Eastman School of Music in New York where he quickly made a name for himself as a violinist and violist performing as soloist with the Eastman Philharmonia as well as leading the orchestra in Heidelberg at the Schloss Speile Festival. While at Eastman, his principal teachers were Zvi Zeitlin on violin and Martha Katz and John Graham on viola.
Since the world premiere performance and subsequent critical acclaim of Lalo Schifrin’s Triple Concerto with the Grammy award-winning New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, he has gone on to perform world wide as soloist with over 70 orchestras in 11 countries on 5 continents to unanimous approval for “the warmth and sparkling” quality of his playing. (Doblinger Press, Vienna)