Composers Datebook®

Piston's Viola Concerto

Composers Datebook - March 7, 2024


Perhaps there is some poetic justice in the fact that maverick American composers like Charles Ives had a hard time getting performances of their music during their lifetime, only to be both lionized and frequently performed after their deaths. Conversely, many mainstream American composers who were lionized and frequently performed when they were alive seldom show up on concert programs anymore — and in some cases, that’s a darn shame.

Take Walter Piston, for example, who in his day was regarded as one of America’s premier composers. On today’s date in 1958, his Viola Concerto received its premiere performance by the Boston Symphony, in a concert conducted by Charles Munch, with soloist Joseph de Pasquale, a Curtis Institute professor and first-chair violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

It’s a lovely, lyrical work and a terrific showcase for a great violist. But have you ever heard it in concert — or on the radio, for that matter?

A British reviewer, writing in the UK’s Gramophone magazine, was bowled over by this music, writing, “Piston's concerto opens pensively, quickly builds to an aching climax … in the final pages, a sweeter lyricism that prepares the listener perfectly for the playful syncopations of the exuberant finale.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Walter Piston (1951-1987): Viola Concerto; Randolph Kelly, viola; Latvian National Symphony; Alexandrs Vilumanis, cond. Albany TROY-558

On This Day


  • 1574 - Baptism of English madrigalist John Wilbye, in Diss (Norfolk);

  • 1875 - French composer Maurice Ravel, in Ciboure;

  • 1887 - Estonian composer Heino Eller, in Tartu;


  • 1786 - Bohemian-born composer and violinist Franz Benda, 77, in Nowawes, near Potsdam; He was active at the court of King Frederich II of Prussia;

  • 1809 - Austrian composer and organist Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, 73, in Vienna;

  • 1979 - Norwegian composer Klaus Egge, 72, in Oslo;


  • 1711 - Handel: opera, Rinaldo, in London (Julian date: Feb. 24);

  • 1730 - Handel: opera Partenope, in London (Julian date: Feb. 24);

  • 1819 - Rossini: opera Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt) (second version in Italian), in Naples at the Teatro San Carlo;

  • 1867 - Brahms: Scherzo for Piano, in Vienna;

  • 1883 - Balakirev: symphonic poem Tamara (Gregorian date: March 19);

  • 1884 - Chadwick: Scherzo (from Chadwick's Symphony No. 2, a work in progress), by the Boston Symphony, George Henschel conducting; The entire symphony was premiered by the same orchestra on Dec. 10, 1886, with the composer conducting;

  • 1892 - Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite, in St. Petersburg (Gregorian date: March 19);

  • 1896 - Gilbert & Sullivan: operetta The Grand Duke at the Savoy Theatre in London;

  • 1899 - d'Indy: Chansons et danses for winds, in Paris;

  • 1953 - Persichetti: Pageant for band, in Miami;

  • 1958 - Piston: Viola Concerto, by the Boston Symphony, Charles Munch conducting;

  • 1965 - Easley Blackwood: Symphony No. 3, in Chicago;

  • 1971 - Menotti: opera The Most Important Man, at the New York City Opera;

  • 1980 - Daniel Pinkham: Serenades for trumpet and winds, at Harvard University's Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Mass., by trumpeter Rolf Smedvig and the Harvard Wind Ensemble conducted by Thomas Everett;

  • 2001 - Harbison: Partita concerto for orchestra, in Minneapolis, by the Minnesota Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting;

  • 2002 - Colgrass: Crossworlds concerto for flute, piano and orchestra, commissioned by the Boston Symphony for flutist Marina Piccinini and pianist Andreas Haefliger, with Hans Graf conducting;


  • 1897 - Johannes Brahms attends his last concerts and hears his Symphony No. 4 conducted by Hans Richter.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®