Harold and Beth

By Tim Munro

Beth Guterman Chu rehearsing with the SLSO.

Orchestral players speak through their instruments, communicating in eloquent musical phrases. When asked to lay down their instruments, to pick up a pen or talk into a microphone, many become taciturn. Why speak in words when you can sing in musical tones?

But Beth Guterman Chu is an exception.

The Principal Viola of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is fully engaged, passionate, and voluble, whether she uses words or notes. And she is falling over herself to speak about her upcoming performance as a soloist with the SLSO of Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.

For Guterman Chu, the work’s central character is almost a beloved friend. “Harold is a dreamer. He is melancholic, but also innocent. Playing the piece suits my musical temperament.” 

It is enjoyable for Guterman Chu to be a loner among the fray, “while the orchestra around you is stormy, or peaceful, or triumphant.” She appreciates a piece of virtuoso frippery as much as the next string player, “but I feel a kinship to Berlioz’s idea of the ‘singing’ that Harold does.”

The violist has loved the piece since she first heard it, “so incredibly evocative and mesmerizing.” When a friend, the author Curtis Sittenfeld, asked her to name a few cherished musical works, she included Harold in her list. (And by the way, she says, Sittenfeld’s resulting story collection, You Think it, I’ll Say it, is “AWESOME.”)

She delightedly zooms in on a favorite Harold moment. In the second movement, the violist creeps up and down the instrument with glassy arpeggios, while the low strings carry on a sort of walking bass line. “It is both satisfying and a bit strange.”

Harold is somewhat neglected, and Guterman Chu does understand why. First, the solo viola repertoire cannot compare with the violin or cello repertoire. Second, Berlioz is a “quirky composer (and therefore well suited to write for the viola!).” Third, Harold is “a really big production, when usually the concerto can be tossed-off.” 

Finally, Harold asks for a large orchestra. “Usually with forces like these, the orchestra will put on a Mahler symphony.” She laughs. “The orchestra is putting its faith in me and in Berlioz!” 

The first time she played the work, fifteen years ago, Guterman Chu found herself bewitched by the playing of the young harpist. “A large portion of the first movement of Harold is a dialogue between viola and harp.” And that young harpist was none other than Allegra Lilly, now Principal Harp of the SLSO. “I can’t wait to play it with her again!”

Zooming in on her own section, Guterman Chu says the SLSO’s violas are crucial. “We are glue between the sections, the color or the blue notes in the chord, the special solos that composers save for the most important moments, the note in the chord which turns the phrase in a totally different direction.”

Though thought of as followers, if the violas don’t lead, she says, “the orchestra sounds flat.”

And who are their musical pals? According to Guterman Chu, the violas play nice with other string sections, but also make friends across the orchestra, with the French horns, the English horn, the clarinets. “We are chameleons, and we find an endless number of colors to shift seamlessly between roles.”

Zooming right out, surveying the things that drive her as a musician, Guterman Chu doesn’t hesitate. “A love for sound! Some musicians open their mouths, bow their strings, put air through their instruments, or press their keys and the most glorious sound comes out. It can fill you will love, make it hard to breathe, and raise the hair behind your neck.”

Occasionally there may be ruts, but soon a jolt. “A colleague will turn a phrase, I’ll hear a new piece, or I’ll see an audience member or one of my children hear something new and be transported, and it brings me back to my fundamental understanding that music is one of the greatest joys.

“Music can warp time and place and help us connect to things more important that our daily grind. I feel lucky to work on and perform music everyday with such generous and talented musicians.”


Guterman Chu’s picks!

Asked to name picks for the SLSO’s upcoming season, Guterman Chu at one point stops to say, “OK, so am I talking about every week. I can’t stop...it is such a good season!”

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto “is not serious Beethoven, it is joyful Beethoven. Liz Roe is a damn good pianist, cellist Melissa Brooks is like my other stand partner, and Celeste Golden Boyer is one of the best violinists and dearest people.”

“I will love Walt Disney, A Decade in Concert. My kids (seven, six, and two) are huge music buffs, but are also Moana fans. I can sing every word of a few Disney movies, and it will be hard for me to hold back while on stage.”

“Karina Canellakis is swiftly becoming one of the most talked-about young conductors. We are lucky to get her here before she explodes. Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis is a colorful work and the whole program looks awesome.”

“I haven’t played a single IN UNISON Concert without crying. The music is powerful and sung from the heart. And Kevin McBeth is one of the most generous musicians.”

“I’m excited to play Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony again (and look out for the amazing viola melody in the beginning of the last movement!).”

“I cannot wait to see Stéphane Denève every week that he will be here.” Denève is one of her favorite conductors and musicians, but, importantly, “he matches that talent with charm, kindness, and a generous spirit.”

Which of Denève’s program’s is most tempting? “After hearing Harold in Italy, you will love Symphonie Fantastique. Come for the ‘Witch’s Sabbath,’ but fall in love with the love-sick melodies. My husband and I used to sing them to our babies to soothe them.”


Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A Grammy winning flutist, writer, and broadcaster, he lives in Chicago with his wife and badly-behaved orange cat.