It was 26 December 2003 when my journey with Cecil Aronowitz’s viola began. My dear friend Michael Freyhan met me at Euston Station (en route to one of the infamous Pro Corda Courses in Suffolk!) and we drove to an address in North West London to fetch this special instrument. It was either incredibly good or bad luck that I had just bought a viola made especially for me by the then Newark based luthier Glen Collins two days previously. I had saved prudently for several years in order to buy Glen’s viola and the completely unexpected appearance of Cecil’s instrument presented a wonderful yet slightly frightening prospect….
It was Christmas Day 2003 and as was customary I called Eric Rycroft (one of my beloved viola professors from South Africa who had owned and played on Cecil’s viola since 1983) in Cape Town. It had been a very tough year as his sister Anne Rycroft (also a violist and member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra) had died in November 2003, and it was Anne who had been playing on the viola since the late 1990s.
Suddenly I was having a lifetime of Christmases all wrapped up into one. Not one, but two incredible violas! It took quite some time to tame Cecil’s viola which is made of spirited and rather highly-strung stuff. But, when he is in a good mood (and more importantly, when I am on form) there is no one quite like him. We have been together for seventeen years now! Sadly, Eric Rycroft passed away in Pretoria, South Africa in August 2020.
The inaugural Cecil Aronowitz International Competition and Festival took place in October 2014, the second in November 2017 and the third is planned for 14-20 November 2020 at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. The 2014 Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition was won by 19-year-old Timothy Ridout, whilst a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music.
The 2017 Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition was won by 18 year old Emma Wernig, from the United States.
The 2020 Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition was postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and finally took place from 6-12 November 2021 at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. The 2021 competition was won by 22-year old British violist Edgar Francis.
This competition week was also going to be host to two extensive live festivals, one a schools tour with a production of Romeo and Juliet, and the other a tour with Timothy Ridout performing and visiting significant viola composers and players birthplaces and towns around England. Instead, Romeo and Juliet, recorded and created during lockdown with musicians and actors recording in isolation. Additionally, the "teaser" video for Cinderella No More: The English Viola Legacy, a six-episode documentary on the history of the viola in England, recorded with Timothy Ridout and James Baillieu in Benjamin Britten's Library at The Red House, Aldeburgh in late 2020. Both productions will be available and free to all.
My philosophy in life: anything is possible if you want it badly enough and no amount of work or effort is too much if something is worth it. I believe entirely in Carpe Diem – for better or worse. Taught to me by many, but in particular my teachers back in South Africa. Jack de Wet and Eric Rycroft come to mind – thank you a billion times over. This competition is an investment in future generations of young violists and a dedication to a great musician and human being – Cecil Aronowitz.