Stefanie Farrands on her ACO Up Close program

ACO Principal Viola lets us in on her upcoming recital program, which features a beautiful new piece inspired Thomas Tallis and a precious Romantic work by an underrated viola virtuoso.

Garth Knox’s solo viola work, titled ‘Still’, was a surprise birthday gift to me from my family. They certainly know me well.

I care so much about new music being written for the viola. Firsthand knowledge from a composer is such a treat and allows us to interpret a work with the rawest information on hand. We need to be present, be aware and react to the times we are living in. It inspires and pushes me to be the most honest musician I can be.

I met with Garth in Paris in 2019 and we spoke for hours about ideas for this piece over a cup of green tea. This is what we ended up with.

‘Still’ is inspired by the harmonic progression of Thomas Tallis’ third tune, which appears in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for string orchestra. This piece had a big impact on me growing up.

I’ve been waiting at the blocks to premiere this work, and this recital felt like the right place. There is something special about playing a piece for the very first time and translating these fresh dots on paper into a world of new sounds.

The viola is such a versatile instrument, and it has the capability for so many different complex colours and sounds. We need to look after it. And we need to look after our composers, too. I feel incredibly grateful to my family for this precious gift, and to Garth for trusting this piece with a violist other than himself. It means the world to me.

Beethoven, Mozart, Dvořák, Bach, Britten, Haydn and Schubert all played the viola. Brahms was a pianist, but I have always felt if he were to play a string instrument, it would have been the viola. He writes the most exquisite viola parts which always seem to show how expressive, colourful and malleable the viola can be.

I’m grateful to the ACO for letting me smuggle in the superb baritone David Greco to join us for this recital to sing Brahms’ Two Songs. I fell in love with these songs and the sextets when I was a teenager, and I’d say that Brahms penning these to paper had a life-changing effect on me. All I wanted to do was express myself through my viola. My instrument is my voice box, and these glorious two pieces show the viola in its best light.

Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata is a treasure and arguably one of the greatest sonatas in our repertoire. Clarke was a powerhouse violist herself, and her writing is idiomatic to say the least. She had a difficult life as a female musician and wasn’t encouraged to write, like all too many women. Her father abused her, banished her from the house and cut her funds off as a student. Her Viola Sonata tied for first place in a competition (next to a work by Ernest Bloch), but the work was later withdrawn as reporters speculated that it must not have been Clarke who wrote the piece. The idea that a woman could write such a beautiful work was socially inconceivable. Her music is simply beautiful – and we need beautiful music to be played and heard in this world.

Richard Tognetti once proclaimed (proudly, too) that our beautiful new hall, The Neilson, was a viola – rich, warm and enveloping. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

So I’ll be basking in the glory of being able to give you a concert full of my favourite sounds in the world, but twofold. A viola inside a viola.


Click here to book to ACO Up Close: Stefanie Farrands, Sunday 9 October, 2.30pm at ACO Pier 2/3 (Sydney) and Tuesday 11 October, 7.30pm at Hanson Dyer Hall (Melbourne).