Interview With Delmar Stewart, Viola


By: Carole Hamlin, Governing Members Executive Committee Member

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Delmar Stewart recently.  Like all the BSO musicians I've gotten to know over the years, he is a really nice person who is fun and interesting to talk with.  I asked him about his hometown and childhood.  He was born in Davenport, Iowa, and grew up there.  There were no musicians in his family, but when he was only three years old, he heard his friend's mother play the violin and was mesmerized.  He remembers that clearly.  He wanted his parents to get him a violin and finally received one at age 7.   One advantage that Delmar had in his musical education was that from the beginning, playing was his passion, not someone else's expectation of him.  Luckily, there was a very good teacher locally, William Henigbaum, whom Delmar studied with for ten years.

Delmar attended the Cleveland Institute of Music as a violinist studying with Donald Weilerstein for three years before discovering his true calling - the viola, an instrument he felt better suited him both physically and temperamentally.  After taking up the viola, he finished his undergraduate degree studying with William Preucil Sr., at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.  He then got his master's degree (MFA) at the University at Buffalo (SUNY at Buffalo), studying with Martha Strongin Katz, the violist of the Cleveland String Quartet.  He also became a fellowship member of The Creative Associates, a contemporary music group under the direction of the composer Morton Feldman.   During that time, he went to London for a year to study with Cecil Aronowitz, the great English violist.  It was a fortuitous journey because in addition to studying with Aronowitz,  Delmar also met his future wife, pianist Aliza Lidovsky.  They were both living at the London Musical Club, which had been a legendary residential and rehearsal location for London musicians since the 1940's.

Delmar came back to the US to finish his MFA in Buffalo.  Aliza followed him, and they were married in Buffalo.  It seems to have worked out, since they have been married for 42 years.  They have two daughters, Miriam and Rachel.  Miriam is a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.  Her spouse, Catherine Pancake, is a filmmaker and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Their six-year-old daughter Eliana is the apple of Delmar's eye.  He drives to Philadelphia every Monday to spend the day with her.   Delmar's other daughter Rachel is an accomplished circus performer who founded and operates her own circus school in Boston, Esh Circus Arts (www.eshcircusarts.com).  

After Buffalo, Delmar got a faculty position in the Music Department at the University of Georgia in Athens.  He taught viola and chamber music and was a member of the American Pro Arte String Quartet in residence at the university.  The group played a number of U. S. tours, including a performance at the White House at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter.

When Delmar joined the BSO in 1977, the audition procedure was very much the same as it is today. Openings for all American orchestras (and many international ones) are advertised in the International Musician, the monthly union paper of the American Federation of Musicians. Upon submission of resumes, applicants selected are sent a list of standard repertiore to prepare. Each audition consists of 3 rounds - preliminary, semi-final, and final. The preliminary and semi-final audition rounds are held behind a screen, so that decisions are based solely on how one plays not on any other factors such as gender, race, or appearance.  Only for the final round, usually consisting of 3 or 4 players, is the screen removed.  In the preliminary round of Delmar's audition there were 55 violists. After winning an audition a player plays with the orchestra for a probationary period of one or two years before being granted tenure.

There have been many changes in the Baltimore Symphony in the 40 years since Delmar joined.  Two of the most important ones happened at about the same time.  The first was the opening of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 1982.  "Previously, we were based at the Lyric Theater, which we did not always have access to and sometimes had to rehearse in various high school auditoriums.  The second important change was becoming a 52-week orchestra in 1982.  This meant not having to be unemployed during the summer and enhanced our ability to recruit and retain better players."

Delmar made the following comments about what makes an orchestra work:  "The strength of an orchestra, or probably any large organization, is always the talents and dedication of the people who make up its constituent parts.  When things are going well and everyone's concentration is on the same goal, there is sometimes a kind of magic that creates a sum that is greater than the individual parts.  It is that magic that makes live music so rewarding and all the complications of maintaining and supporting a symphony orchestra worthwhile."

When questioned about his goals or aspirations, Delmar said:  "My aspiration has always been to play better tomorrow than I did yesterday.  I work consistently at this, and from time to time I feel I have succeeded.  Every program presents a new opportunity to learn and improve, and I always feel that the current week's concerts, whatever they may be, are the most important and outstanding of my career in the BSO." 

I asked Delmar if it's true that orchestras get power from their audience, and he said, "yes, there is something intangible in the air, especially when the hall is full.  It is a communication that is readily apparent to all involved but not easily explained."

Delmar is also an instrument maker.  While on the faculty of the University of Georgia, he met Jack Fry, a physics professor from the University of Wisconsin, whose hobby was the studying the acoustics of violins.  Delmar was captivated by his ideas and decided to experiment with them by beginning to make violas.  After completing several instruments on his own, he had the good fortune to study with the well known viola maker, Otto Erdesz, and later with violin maker and restorer Michael Weller.  He has played one of his own violas in the BSO since 1983.  He has made about 40 instruments in all - mostly violas but also four violins and a few guitars.

We are lucky to have the opportunity to see such gifted and talented people on stage every week at the Meyerhoff.  Delmar Stewart is a shining example.