An Unprecedented Legacy

The Colburn School and the American Viola Society are proud to present the Primrose International Viola Competition® from June 17 to 22, 2024. All live rounds will take place at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, California. 

As one of the most renowned string instrument competitions in the world, the Primrose International Viola Competition features the world’s best and most promising young violists. In 2024, 24 invited Quarter-Finalists will compete for cash prizes and awards over $30,000 USD. Nokuthula Ngwenyama — viola soloist, composer, and 1993 Primrose Competition Winner — will serve as the inaugural Honorary Competition Chair and will write a commissioned work to be performed during the semi-final rounds of the competition.

The Competition will offer southern California one week of exceptional international competition, exquisite music and an exhilarating finish. All rounds will be open to the public, and audiences can expect to hear a broad survey of the viola repertoire. 

The 2024 competition is dedicated to the memory of Dr. David Dalton, who was one of the world’s greatest champions of the viola, and a former student and friend of William Primrose. Dr. Dalton was professor emeritus of viola at Brigham Young University, and earned his B.M. and M.M. degrees in violin at the Eastman School of Music. After meeting William Primrose, he switched to viola and received his doctorate in performance at Indiana University. Dalton collaborated with Primrose in writing his memoir, “Walk on the North Side and Playing the Viola: Conversations with William Primrose” and produced two documentaries, “A Violist’s Legacy,” and “William Primrose, Violist.” Primrose and he were co‐founders of the Primrose International Viola Archive (PIVA) at BYU, the largest and most important repository of materials related to the instrument. Dr. Dalton served as president of the American and International Viola Societies, as well as editor of the Journal of the American Viola Society. In 2013 in Krakow, Poland, the International Viola Society awarded Dr. Dalton the “Golden Viola Clef,” the Society’s highest honor for his distinguished and unique contributions to the viola.

Founded in 1979 by the American Viola Society as the first international competition solely for violists, the Primrose International Viola Competition is proud of the rich history and legacy it promotes. Over 40 years, the Competition has continued to attract distinguished jurors and talented participants worldwide, serving as an inspiration to young artists across the globe. The Competition has an international reputation for identifying the talent of tomorrow and is respected for its artistic and professional integrity. Its laureates occupy principal seats of major symphony orchestras, act as professors in major centers of education, and have achieved critical acclaim as international soloists. 

The live rounds of the Competition begin on Monday, June 17, 2024. For further information, please contact the Competition by e-mail at info@primrosecompetition.org. 

A Rich Tradition

William Primrose, violist

A plaque is affixed to the second story of an apartment house at 18 Wilton Drive, Glasgow. It reads:

One of the greatest musicians of all time,
the viola player
William Primrose,
was born here, 1904

Guided by his father, an orchestral violinist, and tutored by a student of Sevčík and Joachim, the boy’s precocity was not lost on his elders. He suffered under Sevčík exercises, but later admitted they served his left hand facility well into late life. (The bow arm was a different matter and had to wait to be sculpted into the extraordinary mechanism it became under the influence of the great Ysaÿe.) The boy and young man became exposed to the greatest touring artists of the day in Scotland and, later, London. Casals and the young Heifetz made profound impressions, but it was Kreisler whose influence was the most indelible. The rhythmic élan and sound became profiles of Primrose’s own performances. His early recordings as a violinist attest to his brilliance, witness the Rondo capriccioso of Saint-Saëns.

But there was a dormant yearning since childhood for that curiosity in his father’s cupboard, a viola. Not until his Belgian master’s encouragement to follow his predilection did the viola became a feature on Primrose’s horizon. This, despite familial disappointment and trenchant warning from a friend, “You will make the greatest mistake of your life!” Nevertheless, when the London String Quartet, on tour in America, summoned Primrose to fill in for their indisposed violist, he not only joined, he “burned his bridges,” and “walked the road to Damascus, saw the light, repented of past transgressions and switched to the viola.” Primrose, the great virtuoso of the solo viola, spent his most satisfying hours of music making in the small ensemble. Perhaps drawing him toward the collaborative art (and the viola) was the “intuitive English penchant for the center of the harmony,” as Menuhin expressed it. One can be transported by the recordings of Heifetz-Primrose-Feuermann in Mozart and Dóhnanyi, or Smetana and the Brahms B-flat by the Primrose Quartet, to be both touched and awed by such superb rapport.

Why did Primrose choose to open his recording career as a violist with Paganini caprices? “Youthful pride and ambition,” he said to impress others. And in this he did not fail. But the virtuosic show pieces were not the only colors on his artistic palette. The soft supplication of Songs my mother taught me can be moving, and the rhythmic suppleness found in Sarasateana, enchanting. His stylistic affinity captures the attentive adjudicator. Whether it is the melancholy of Brahms, the sprightliness of Boccherini, or the robustness of Bartók, the sensitive listener is persuaded to agree that stylistically speaking, things are about right.

Along the way Primrose felt a certain deficit in his musical upbringing. His experience in the orchestra was limited. Hearing rumored that an orchestra was being assembled especially for Toscanini, he wrote a letter of introduction, went to Milan and presented himself at the maestro’s apartment for an audition. Primrose was hired and spent four years on the first desk of the NBC Symphony in New York. At the close of this tenure, he became engaged in another facet of his career, teaching at the Curtis Institute. At this time, when his solo and recording engagements were blossoming, he admitted he wasn’t that fascinated in teaching, or prepared to do so. In fact, he admitted he didn’t know how his students learned anything from him. However, de Pasquale and Tuttle would strongly disagree, two who went on to become wonderfully gifted violists and teachers themselves. As Primrose gradually withdrew from the stage, he devoted himself more to teaching at various institutions. In his last years he set down in book form a lengthy exposition on the principles and practice of Playing the Viola. His students, and in turn, their students carry on the Primrose legacy.

Primrose was not a “hot-house” musician, rather a versatile human being. His respect and use of the English language came about in early stages reading Dickens and Thackeray and other masters of elevated literature. He was an inveterate reader which allowed him to converse with ease on subjects as diverse as the plays of Oscar Wilde or sumo wrestling. His basic manner was often reserved, that of a British gentleman. He expressed himself as “loving this world and all that is good in it and of good report… the glory of music and pictures and poetry and gracious prose.”

Is the Primrose ideal in viola performance attainable? Primrose was a rare combination of talents, born and nourished in a different age that has now passed us by. Still, more than ever aspiring violists strive toward that elusive zenith which seems to be touched with a bit of magic or mystery. May the inspiration continue.

— David Dalton