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Lewis debuts new Mozart piece in Vienna, MSQ brings gift of music to war-scarred Bosnia

Professor Eric Lewis, violinist with the Manhattan String Quartet since 1968 and member of the WestConn music faculty for more than three decades, took on two formidable challenges — the premiere of a string concerto completed from an unfinished Mozart manuscript, and performance with the MSQ of a new work by a young American composer inspired by Balkan traditional music — during his visits in spring 2010 to Vienna and the war-scarred nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Lewis was invited by renowned Viennese violinist Eduard Melkus to play the violin part in the April premiere at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum of the “Triple Sinfonie Concertante,” completed by Melkus from a manuscript by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart discovered half a century ago in the archives of the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Lewis, who previously translated into English an article by Melkus on his discovery and work on the unfinished concerto, expressed surprise and delight at the opportunity to debut such a singular piece. “I love it,” Lewis said. “It’s a fresh discovery — appealing, lyrical and exciting.”

In May, Lewis joined WCSU Adjunct Professor of Music and cellist Chris Finckel, violinist Calvin Wiersma and violist John Dexter in the Manhattan String Quartet’s tour of Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Mostar to perform, offer master classes, and build cultural exchanges with professional and student musicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the suggestion of Finckel and supported by funding from the U.S. State Department, the MSQ traveled to Bosnia with composer and University of Arizona Associate Professor of Music Craig Walsh, whose composition incorporating a diversity of Balkan folk music rhythms was written for the quartet to premiere during its Bosnia tour. “Craig is a wonderful craftsman and a great spirit who became just like another member of our group during our rehearsals,” Lewis said. Their intensive efforts to master “a challenging piece that is quite exotic to the Western ear” proved “a very enriching, fulfilling and creative process,” he added.

Lewis and other members of the MSQ were on a mission that transcended their performances, as American cultural ambassadors to a nation born from the breakup of Yugoslavia and severely tested by ethnic warfare and widespread devastation before the Dayton accords restored a fragile peace to the region in 1995. Lewis recalled their performance in Mostar in a concert hall still surrounded by buildings bearing the shell holes and destruction of the war, “still not fixed as if left as a monument. It was a very moving experience.”

A strong believer in the healing power of music, Lewis viewed the MSQ tour as a pioneering visit by American artists to a country whose “cultural infrastructure needs a lot of support” and whose people welcome opportunities for broader cultural exchanges with the United States and Western Europe. In a nation that has suffered centuries of ethnic conflict and where the human cost of the 1990s war remains painfully fresh, “our answer as artists is that this offers a way to stop the cycle of revenge — to make us talk to each other and discover we all have the same needs.”

Like the MSQ’s landmark tour of the Soviet Union during its “glasnost” cultural opening to the West in the 1980s, “this trip was very meaningful,” Lewis said. “In their eyes, we could see a conviction: ‘We will rise, and we want to go places in the world to gain new experiences.’ Their students are quite talented and very open, not so mechanistic or solely concerned with technique. They are already saying interesting things with their music, and I put this down to the rich musical heritage of their country.”

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Professor of Music Eric Lewis performs with the Manhattan String Quartet.