Stephen Upshaw

Photo by Nora Belal

For UK-based violist Stephen Upshaw ’10, diversity is key to measuring success and satisfaction in his career. And from a look at his recent schedule, things are going pretty well. In the past few months, he’s toured with pianist Jeremy Denk and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, as well as with British-Norwegian singer-songwriter/composer Sasha Siem whose music lives in the alternative pop world. He has also continued his role as artistic director of Sounding Motion, a collaborative company that explores the relationship between dance and contemporary chamber music.

On some level, Stephen’s years at NEC set the stage for this kind of diverse concert calendar. “I don’t think I would have the musical life I have now without having gone to NEC. The main thrust of what I do is thanks to that foundation.” The studios of Martha Strongin Katz and Carol Rodland fostered his technical skills on the viola and furthered his ability to interpret and express the notes on the page, but it was in the classes of Music Theory Professor Katarina Miljkovic where he found his love of avant-garde music. Through attending new music concerts with a tight-knit group of aficionados and a collaboration with Boston Architectural College devised by Miljkovic, Stephen began to explore the wider reaches of contemporary music and its ability to synthesize with other fields.

Working with composers of new works has been integral in shaping Stephen’s artistic identity. In October 2014, Stephen gave the world premiere of a solo viola work by British composer Michael Finnissy, entitled Seven Pavans. Last summer he played with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra, which premiered Heinz Holliger’s Scardanelli-Zyklus, conducted by the composer himself. Composers like Holliger and Finnissy have changed the way Stephen thinks about and approaches music. “They write impenetrably difficult music notated so specifically, and when you work with them, they can hear absolutely everything you’re doing. In a way, it has taught me how to read music."

Nonetheless for Stephen, excitement also lies in collaborations with younger, less-established composers. Sounding Motion’s six-week residency with undergraduate composers at the University of Huddersfield has been absolutely fulfilling. It’s a uniquely intimate experience, due to the company consisting of just three dancers, a violist, and a percussionist. “We pick three or four students to work with and teach how to write for dance. Before we begin, we always ask the students if they’ve written for dance, been to a ballet, or seen a live contemporary dance piece. Almost all say they haven’t, and in a way, that’s better – they’re a blank slate, open to discoveries.”

What’s next for Stephen? Hard to say, but we can assume that his constant search for new musical horizons will lead him to exciting destinations, and we’re looking forward to following his career.

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