Composer George Tsontakis doesn’t have a website. Although most composers hope for the next commission, Tsontakis hopes that he doesn’t get one – at least, not too soon. So far in 2016 he has had a new piece, Sonnets, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, both in Boston and at Tanglewood, which received standing ovations. Another new work, O Mikros, O Megas (“This Tiny World, This Enormous World”) received nine performances by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, including one that opened the 92nd Street Y’s concert season.
Tsontakis won the two biggest prizes in classical music composing: the Grawemeyer Award and the Charles Ives Living Award. Three of his concertos will soon come out on a recording by Naxos, the world’s best-selling classical label. They are performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, and Tsontakis has to finish a new work for that orchestra in time for an April performance.
And yet, right now he is sitting at home, practicing the viola for a performance of Schumann’s Quintet for Piano and Strings at the Olive Free Library on Saturday, December 3, as a member of the Highpoint Ensemble. Largely under Tsontakis’ guidance, the Olive Library has become a focal point for classical music in the Hudson Valley, including occasional Highpoint concerts and the Piano Plus series every spring.
Why does Tsontakis return to the viola, which he played in his earlier days? “I think a composer has to stay connected to performing,” he says. “When composers get disconnected from playing, they lose that sense of practicality and, to a degree, spontaneity. All the great composers played. Even conducting doesn’t replace it.”
Tsontakis isn’t retreating from the music world. Aside from his commissions and travels to be present at performances, he teaches Composition at Bard College and actively promotes his students’ careers. But he has ended his long run of summers at the Aspen Music Festival to enjoy his home overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir, where he spends some of his time reclaimed from travels tending a small garden.
“Like many musicians,” he says, “I had tendinitis and problems like that. When you’re an active player, your body takes a beating. I’m still doing physical therapy because of stenosis of my neck. So I had mostly quit playing… but I missed it. There’s a visceral quality from playing with others that comes out in the music you write. Playing physicalizes music. So if you know what the physical problems are, you can learn to practice in a way that minimizes them, and that’s what I do.”
Tsontakis also feels fortunate that the viola has been his primary instrument, because “the viola plays the inner voices and a composer learns a lot from that: being inside the harmonic mechanism. It’s usually the part nobody hears, but you get to know your audience better.” When Mozart played in ensembles, he also chose the viola.