Viola and Piano Concert March 10


by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer
Violist Hillary Herndon and pianist Bernadette Lo have a few things in common. Their instruments play a large role in their lives. And the reason they each started playing is because of their mothers.
When Herndon was little, her mom bought a violin for $100 in a pawn shop in Louisiana. She and her mother began taking lessons together.
“She stopped playing by the time I got into kindergarten,” said Herndon, who is the associate professor of viola at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
“When I was in fifth grade, I went through that stage where I didn’t want to be inside playing violin. I wanted to be outside or playing with my friends. My teacher actually was a violist, and she said, ‘Look Hillary, you’ve put in a lot of time and your parents have put in a lot of money. You’re not quitting. We’re going to switch to viola for three months.’ Rather than buying me a new instrument, they put viola strings on that violin my mom had originally bought.”
Lo, who is the visiting professor of piano at Sewanee, said like Herndon’s mother, her mom had always wanted to learn an instrument as well.
“I’ve been playing since I was 6-years-old, but I didn’t choose it. My mom had always wanted to learn an instrument, but she came from a really poor family and could never afford any luxury. By the time I arrived, the economy in Taiwan just began to take off, and both my parents were actively saving money for my education and my sister’s education. She wanted me to learn an instrument, perhaps to fulfill her own wish to be fluent in music.”
On Sunday, March 10 at 2 p.m., Herndon and Lo will take the stage in Guerry Auditorium for a joint recital. The pair will play music from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s competition of 1919. The event is free and open to the public.
“This competition was a seminal moment in the viola and piano repertoire, and was really forward-thinking for that time. There were 70 works from the romantic era, but of things that were published, there were like five or six pieces,” Herndon said. “The competition and the $4,000 prize inspired composers from all over to compose. They had 72 entries, which was more music than had been written for viola up to that point.”
The contest ended in a tie, with Coolidge herself having to step in to choose a winner.
“Ernest Bloch was the one who won, and Rebecca Clarke was second. People were just astounded that the composer was a woman, and they demanded her piece be performed as well. Those two works have become staples of the repertoire. The other 70 entries were returned to the original composers. We somehow lost what those were in between,” Herndon said.
Herndon said her colleague, David Bynog of Rice University, set out to trace down the remaining 70 pieces.
“He’s found a lot of work and found evidence that they were likely entered, things like letters where the composers had written Elizabeth asking about details of the competition. Those add up to about 50 of the works, and he wanted to give a presentation on his findings. David asked me and a couple others to play a few examples, and we prepared a recital around that.”
When Lo and her husband, who is the music director of the opera program at the University of Tennessee, moved to Knoxville in 2007, she and Herndon met and struck up a partnership.
“It has been a wonderful experience working with her. I’ve met so many wonderful musicians. I have learned a lot from her,” Lo said.

“For a pianist, we rarely play with other people. To play with another musician always makes me feel less lonely on stage. It is like having a conversation with someone you genuinely like. You keep passing the energy between each other.”