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Violist's Virtuoso Self-Confidence Leads to Solo Philharmonic Bow

August 08, 1993|DONNA PERLMUTTER | Donna Perlmutter writes regularly about music for The Times.

For a fleeting moment (or more), usually at the first glimmer of mastery, every young musician with an instrument flung into his or her hands allows the fantasy: of being a star, a revered virtuoso, one who plays with a major symphony orchestra, not in it.

But Evan N. Wilson, who as principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic claims a rare, much-coveted solo opportunity with the orchestra Thursday at Hollywood Bowl, seems to have bypassed that commonplace experience.

"My dream from the beginning," says the husky Bostonian, who joined the Philharmonic nine years ago, "was to be named principal of a major band by the time I was 30. Seven weeks before the deadline it happened."

For proof that Wilson never wanted more, one need look only at his unswerving dedication to the viola--and the fact that it is strictly an ensemble instrument. Unlike the violin, no warhorse concertos have been written for it, and except for a few odd solo pieces in the standard orchestral repertory, it stays stubbornly among the stands.

"The viola was the instrument I asked for when my mother took us to a Boston Symphony youth concert," says Wilson, adjusting a room fan after finishing a practice session at his apartment in the Fairfax neighborhood. "I was one of seven children--all of us studied music--and a sister already had the violin. So that was that. But I never regretted it," he says of the slightly larger fiddle with the more nasal, veiled timbre.

By the time Wilson was 15, his father began chauffeuring him and the others to New York for classes at Juilliard. He remembers getting up at 3:30 a.m. for the journey. But, with all that, the family violist is the only one with a full-employment music career.

And when he steps before the Philharmonic--"this is my first time standing to play"--he will no doubt rise to the occasion with all the flair of an exhibitionist, if the outgoing message on his answering machine is any measure: It features Wilson in a raucous Elvis Presley imitation.

Still, Wilson's gregariousness does not seem ideal for blending with 100-plus colleagues--many of whom, seeking quieter comforts, are said to be put off by his high-profile personality.

Artistic administrator Ara Guzelimian mentions the violist's "reputation as a bit of a loudmouth," saying that he doesn't need invitations to speak up. "But being tough," says Guzelimian of Wilson, "and having superior talent makes for a magic combination. It certainly gives a person access."

As a result, Wilson says he enjoys the benevolence of executive director Ernest Fleischmann--known, over his 25-year tenure with the Philharmonic, to be confrontational with staff and players and even various music directors past.

The present maestro, Esa-Pekka Salonen, chose Wilson for the principal chair in 1991 after auditioning 10 outsiders and seven within the section (including Wilson).

"I have always known my ability," says the violist who beat out the competition. "But trying to be careful about offending others has not been easy. Sometimes I rub people the wrong way. When I left Juilliard for L. A. after winning the job here in '84 (then, it was Carlo Maria Giulini in charge of auditions), things didn't go well.

"There was no one encouraging me. My predecessor (principal violist Heiichiro Ohyama) never made me feel welcome, never showed me bowings--even when I asked. His attitude was: 'Shut up and play.' "

Ohyama acknowledges that there were difficulties. "None of us knew how to react to him at first," he says. "I honor Evan's talent but we all must grow, in matters of human experience, to be really great musicians."

"I felt really unappreciated," Wilson continues, "and went through five bad years that way--and drank heavily. But in time I realized alcohol was a numbing agent that leads to a slow death."

As for Thursday, being tapped by Salonen to play a solo is no small favor, especially with the maestro himself conducting.

And what will Wilson play? Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" because, he says, "it's so appealingly Romantic. Let people walk away saying, 'Hey, the viola is a terrific instrument,' not, 'Hmm, that was a tough piece.' "

Spoken as a champion.

Evan N. Wilson, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave. Tickets $1 to $63. Call (213) 480-3232.

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