Being a violist, I’ve been aware of Robert Vernon by reputation for virtually my entire life. It wasn’t until I was out of graduate school that I had the good fortune of meeting him. I was playing at a summer festival, and he came to coach the violas for several days. In spite of his best efforts to be approachable, we were all too intimidated by the presence of a living legend to stick our necks out there and really interact with him. Eventually, he appeared to resign himself to what is no doubt a frequent occurance for him, and set about showing us what was what, and guiding us along asking simple yes or no questions. Slowly but surely, he got what he wanted out of us, and imparted valuable knowledge about the responsibilities of an orchestral violist to us.
That teaching presence is what I remember most about those few days. He was sort of like Gandalf – giving his charges what they needed whether they wanted it (or knew they needed it) or not, and pulling a magical solution out of his hat that no one else had thought of whenever a problem seemed insurmountable. That presence is the single biggest reason why I’ve signed up to go to a week long seminar taught by himself and another luminary of the viola this summer.
If names like Primrose, Hindemith, Tertis and Borisovsky are most responsible for elevating the viola in the first part of the century, Robert Vernon’s name certainly belongs in the second wave of leading violists, side by side with such names as Roberto Diaz, Karen Tuttle, Michael Tree and Heidi Castleman. When he retires from the Cleveland Orchestra at the conclusion of next season, the orchestra will have lost much more than the longest tenured string principal in the history of the orchestra. Thankfully, he does not to intend to retire from the the international music scene anytime soon.
“I’m not really retiring, I’m just leaving the orchestra. I do many other things, and I want to continue doing them,” says Mr. Vernon. “I want to continue playing for the rest of my life.”
Hopefully, that means that this summer’s inaugural Vernon-Castleman Viola Seminar will be the first of many, and that many other violists will be able to learn from this master. Someday, when pedagogical tallies are made, count on Robert Vernon to have a very long tail indeed. In the meantime, Clevelanders have one more season to appreciate one of the best to ever play the instrument.
Information from Zachary Lewis’ piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer appeared in this piece.