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New Artist of the Month:
Violist Jesús Rodolfo

November 1, 2021 | By Thomas May, Musical America

At heart, Jesús Rodolfo is a storyteller who uses four strings and a bow to give voice to his restless imagination. The young Spanish violist constantly returns to the model of narrative—even when discussing music as formally abstract as Paul Hindemith’s sonatas for the instrument, which rank among his favorites. Two of his albums to date are devoted to the composer’s sonatas (those with piano accompaniment and the solo viola sonatas).

“When I perform, I imagine that I'm talking, that there is a narrator,” as Rodolfo put it in a recent Zoom interview from his apartment in New York City. “It’s not enough to learn the score: you need the flexibility to then free yourself to express the content of the music—the whole message behind the pitches.”

Rodolfo’s just-released album, Remembering Russia—which marks his debut on the Pentatone label—shows this credo in action. His accounts of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky (with Min Young Kang as his keyboard partner) offer fresh perspectives on well-known pieces. It’s not just a matter of a different sonic lens—the viola’s voice reveals unexpected facets of young Juliet from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, for example—but, even more, the sense of urgent confession Rodolfo distills through his passionate, emotionally invested musicianship.

He feels especially close to the Prokofiev source. One upcoming project involves an “LGBTQ+ multidisciplinary reimagining” of the ballet as Romeo and Julio—details of which he plans to post on social media, including Instagram. Rodolfo recalls the unease he felt growing up gay in a religious household in northern Spain: “Music saved my life. I want to empower others the same way.”

The guiding theme of Remembering Russia is a closer look at composers who left Russia and made important discoveries about their voice in the U.S. At the same time, the album projects a self-portrait of Rodolfo’s abiding interests. For instance, he mentions Rachmaninoff as an inspiration for the sound of the golden age of film. “That’s a very strong personal connection to where I’m coming from, because I fell in love with the classic age of film when I was growing up.”

From Rodriguez Gonzalez to Rodolfo

Rodolfo also shares the immigrant identity. Born Jesús Rodriguez Gonzalez in 1987 in Oviedo, located in Spain’s northwest Asturias region, he moved to the U.S about a decade ago to focus on his viola studies at Yale, Mannes/New School, the Manhattan School of Music, and Stony Brook, where he obtained a doctorate in viola performance. An agent convinced him to change his name to the more-memorable Jesús Rodolfo—an allusion to his love of Puccini’s character and of the silent-film actor Rudolph Valentino.

Indeed, film gave him entrée to the universe of classical music as a young child. His family was involved in the construction business and in fishing and sailing. There were no musicians at home, but on weekends at the grandparents’ house, Rodolfo became obsessed with playing themes from favorite films on the piano, his first instrument. His grandmother gently encouraged him to forge a link from these tunes to classical music.

He took up violin at age seven, but soon developed an intense dislike of the “squeaky” sounds he was making on it. “And then my teacher showed me the viola and played a little bit of the Walton Concerto and of Schumann’s Märchenbilder. It was so dark and mysterious. I found the sounds so much more fulfilling.” Rodolfo quickly discovered that it was the viola that best enabled him to fully express his musical feelings.

He played principal viola in Claudio Abbado’s Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra before focussing his studies in the U.S. At Mannes, he found his chief mentor in Paul Neubauer. The esteemed violist helped Rodolfo harness what he bemusedly calls his wildness. “I was like a racing horse. Paul allowed me to blossom. He showed me how to nurture my own ideas and make them powerful.”

Not everyone’s first choice

The viola is perhaps the least appreciated of the string instruments, but Rodolfo says he never felt “like the middle, unwanted child….I love to promote an instrument that still seems to represent the great unknown.” He observes that composers like Bartók and Shostakovich reserved the viola for their respective swan songs: “They go to the instrument where they can express things in a different way, with a new voice, at the end of their life. What I'm trying to do is to bring the viola into the spotlight and make it shine by itself. So it's a way to tell a story in a different way.”

He speaks enthusiastically of influences beyond his instrument as well, singling out Anne-Sophie Mutter as an inspiration from childhood. “I love how she has evolved soundwise and takes advantage of the natural synergy of the instrument. I realize that I wanted to do that with the viola.” Others are composer John Williams and fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford. “The way he dresses women beyond just a prototype to me suggests a way we ought to think about music. We need to bring all types of music to a broader audience, to make it seductive and appealing to a new generation.”

Rodolfo unabashedly embraces such undertakings as performing movie themes by Williams on a Steinway decorated with Patricia Paoluccio’s Modern Pressed Flowers designs (another of his projects during the pandemic). At the same time, he revels in the intellectual challenges of complex modern scores by Ligeti and the neo-Baroque labyrinths Hindemith lays out in his viola works—as well as Bach’s music for solo strings transcribed for viola. (All three are on his Transfixing Metamorphosis recording.)

Here, Rodolfo’s training as an architect—he completed his degree and even obtained a license in Spain—comes to bear. “It’s important to understand the beauty of form,” he says. Another key lesson he internalized from his architecture mentors is the centrality of the audience: “the most important thing in a room is not the lights, not the space, but whoever is inside.” 

Classical music coverage on Musical America is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Musical America makes all editorial decisions.

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