James Dunham: the man behind the viola

Friday, 2 September 2016

This month James Dunham will embark on his first trip to NZ, to join NZSQ for special tour highlighting masterpiece from Brahms and Mozart. In Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch the quintet will take over the city with the unique format of a one day-mini festival. 

We caught James Dunham between a masterclass and a performance at the Aspen Music Festival to have a quick chat. Here is what we found out.



INSTRUMENT OF CHOICE: Ferruccio Varagnolo, Milano 1914, with a  gorgeous and rich tone

FAVOURITE WORKS FOR VIOLA: The Shostakovich Viola Sonata (completed days before his death), & Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae on themes of Dowland. 

MEMBER OF: Axelrod String Quartet, performing on the Smithsonian collection of Nicol√≤ Amati and Stradivari instruments.

FAVOURITE VIOLA JOKE: Violins and violas are actually the same size. The difference is that violinists heads are bigger!


Why did you choose to play the viola?

“I started on violin, like many violists. I went to a music and art high school for my junior and senior years (Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan.) I was doing fine on violin, but as I got taller and the violin got “smaller” I asked the viola teacher if I could take secondary viola. He was very kind, and that was my first taste of the sound and feel of this warm and supportive instrument. Even so, I stayed on violin during my freshman year of college. BUT: I applied on violin and viola for the Boston Symphony’s summer program the Tanglewood Music Center. What was I thinking? They immediately invited me as a violist, and I didn’t even have my own instrument! When I arrived at Tanglewood, it was immediately clear that this was something I could do and wanted to do: the sound, the ensembles, the supportive and expressive role, especially in chamber music: As you can see, I didn’t choose the  viola… the viola chose me!”


Your summers are often busy attending festivals around the world, can you tell us a little about your experiences?

Each festival I attend has a very different focus, which is why I love to return each summer. The Sarasota Music Festival in Florida is small, very high level of both faculty and student, with significant side-by-side performing and masterclasses for the young artists The Aspen Music Festival and School is quite large with 3 orchestras, my own studio of private students, weekly studio class and, in my case, many chamber and solo opportunities with colleagues I love from around the world!


What is the one piece of advice you’d give to young musicians embarking upon their career today?

Try everything, play everything, have ideas you believe in and DO them! Music is alive and well, and it is our honor to create opportunities to share it, with joy, with all who wish to listen! So many possibilities for those who are willing to accept the role!


Do you know the New Zealand String Quartet? What is it like to join an established quartet as the additional player for tours such as Quintessence? 

I do know the NZSQ, although it has been some time since we’ve seen each other! I eagerly look forward to reconnecting and to these upcoming concerts! To play second viola with an established group is one of my favorite things to do. When one plays quintets with any five talented players, there are a wide range of concepts, sounds, communication that need to be established, understood and utilized. With an established group, they already have their own personality and communication styles, they already are a unit. So when I join a full-time quartet, it is truly more like playing a duet with this single organism!  


For more information about QuintEssence: CLICK HERE.