From Williams with love

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That was the surprise that greeted Michael Zaretsky, a violist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, last October. He received Williams' Duo Concertante for violin and viola, written for him by the Boston Pops conductor laureate and multiple Oscar- and Grammy-winning film composer.

"I was totally astonished," Zaretsky remembers. He picked up the phone and called Williams, who was then secluded in the Berkshires, working on scores.

Williams said a letter of explanation would follow. What Zaretsky describes as "a really beautiful letter" asked if he would be willing to play the 13-minute piece. Indeed Zaretsky would. He and fellow BSO member Victor Romanul will give the world premiere at Tanglewood tomorrow night as part of a prelude concert of violin-viola duos.

Williams has also written a considerable body of classical music, including works for cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Busy again this week in the Berkshires, he was not available to tell how the duo came about. So let Zaretsky tell the story:

Ten years ago, Zaretsky was scheduled to play a Tanglewood prelude, including Brahms' Piano Quintet, with pianist Yefim Bronfman and other BSO members. The night before, Zaretsky, his wife and Bronfman were dining at a Lenox restaurant and Williams happened to walk in with friends for dinner. On asking what Bronfman was performing, Williams heard about the prelude program.

He decided to attend. Among the pieces he heard was Bohuslav Martinu's Three Madrigals for violin and viola, which Zaretsky played with Romanul. Williams took a liking to the piece, which he had never heard before. Seeing an opportunity, Zaretsky asked if Williams would write a piece for him and Romanul.

"His reaction was 'no, no, no, I'm so busy,' " Zaretsky recalls. But from time to time, the two men would meet in Symphony Hall during Williams' visits to conduct the Pops, and Williams would mention that he was still thinking about that piece.

"Oh, he's just being polite," Zaretsky thought.

Then came the Fed Ex man. Zaretsky and Romanul went to work, and in December they traveled to the Berkshires to try out the gift for Williams at his hideaway. They came expecting to spend 45 minutes with him. The 45 minutes stretched out to three hours as Williams made adjustments to the score.

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Not just "an incredible human being," Williams is also "a musician of the highest caliber," Zaretsky says. "I told him, 'This is a real gift, not to me, of course. It's a gift to all viola and violin players.' "

Because Williams loved the Martinu piece, he modeled his piece on it, Romanul believes. "What was nice was, he mentioned that he had written the parts based upon how he saw us as players, what he appreciated about Mischa's playing and about my playing."

Zaretsky says Williams wanted the premiere at Tanglewood. Also at Williams' suggestion, it will be joined on the program by the Martinu madrigals, along with Copland's brief, unpublished "Elegies" and Mozart's well-known Duo, K. 423.

The Martinu and Copland pieces also have a Tanglewood connection, Zaretsky points out. The Czech Martinu was a composer-in-residence in 1946, and Copland was a Tanglewood fixture as a composer and teacher for a quarter-century beginning in 1940.

As for the Mozart duo, Zaretsky recalls Williams' saying, "It's always nice to be in the company of Mozart."

There are plenty of violin-viola duos by such minor composers as Pleyel, Stamitz and Spohr, Zaretsky says, but apart from the Mozart and Martinu pieces, the repertoire for the duo is thin. He expects the Williams contribution to be right up there with Mozart and Martinu.

Only one other performance is scheduled as of now. On Oct. 22, Zaretsky will play the duo at Boston University with fellow faculty member Peter Zazofsky. Zaretsky and Romanul plan to record the work for a compact disc of duos.

The second of Williams' three movements suggests his music for "Schindler's List," Zaretsky says, but actually the piece is nothing like his movie music.

"It's a totally different John," says Zaretsky. "What is remarkable is how well he knows instruments. I was really surprised."


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