Violist Thomas Riebl Celebrates the Naumbug Viola Award

On Monday, November 7, 2022, at 7:30 pm, Austrian violist Thomas Riebl and pianist Thomas Sauer will be performing a concert as part of the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation’s distinguished series featuring past winners, „Naumburg Looks Back.“ To be held in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, the concert celebrates the 40th anniversary of Riebl’s winning of the first-ever Naumburg Viola Award in 1982. Tickets can be found, here.

The program, to be performed on a unique five-stringed tenor viola that Riebl developed with luthier Bernd Hiller, will include J.S. Bach’s Suite BWV 995, Lute version of the Fifth Cello Suite, transcribed by Thomas Riebl; a Naumburg commission for solo viola by Irish-born composer/violist Garth Knox, titled Toccata for Thomas; and Franz Schubert’s Arpeggione, with pianist Thomas Sauer.

The Violin Channel had the chance to chat with Thomas Riebl as he reflects on the Naumburg prize and looks forward to the upcoming concert.



What did winning the Naumburg Viola Award mean to you at the time?

I could not believe it; it certainly was the most important event in my musical career — I am so glad to be able to celebrate the 40th anniversary with this recital!


What opportunities came as a result and how did it help launch your career?

I got several engagements in the U.S.A., like getting the chance to play at venues like Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., Gordon Hall in Boston, and at the Ravinia Festival with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I was also invited to join the Juilliard Quartet for several concerts.


You’ll be performing the upcoming “Naumburg Looks Back” concert on November 7th, on a five string tenor viola. Can you tell us a bit more about this instrument and the process of creating it with the luthier?

One of my heart pieces is Schubert´s Arpeggione sonata. While performing this wonderful piece, I got more and more frustrated at not being able to play many spots as written by Schubert because, as a violist, you have to „escape“ in a higher octave.

Thus I asked Bernd Hiller if he would be willing to try building an instrument with an additional low string (basically an F-string, which I tune down one-half tone down to E thus getting the bass note of the Arpeggione). He had to try and experiment a lot as there are no examples around. It was a big challenge to cope with the limits of size, the curvature of the bridge, etc., but the end result was worth it!


During the concert, you’ll perform the world premiere of Garth Knox’s “Toccata for Thomas.” Did you work with the composer on this piece? Can you tell us more about it?

Yes, of course! We’ve known each other for many years and I was happy that he agreed to write a piece for this occasion. He is such a good musician and composer and knows how to perfectly use the instrument. He even borrowed a five string tenor viola from me to experiment with this unusual instrument.


When programming a concert like this on a unique instrument such as yours, what do you consider?

On one hand, I want to show this very special instrument at its best. On the other hand, I am very glad to be able to present two fantastic works which work especially well on my five string instrument: in Schubert´s Sonata, I can not only play in the original texture, but I can play all the lyrical passages in a natural range of the instrument. Cellists have to be very „sportive“ in the same places. Secondly, Bach’s arrangement of his 5th cello suite for lute is an amazing enrichment in harmonic structure, various voicing, using many five-voiced chords, etc. I believe my special instrument is the only string instrument you can play this wonderful version on (tuning: g1 – d1 – g – c – G)


As an educator, performer, and chamber musician, you balance a lot of different aspects of the music industry within your career. What advice would you give to an aspiring musician looking to wear a few different hats?

For me, the combination of the three mentioned aspects turned out to be a perfect mixture of different challenges — ones that influence and enrich the other. At least for a violist, this combination is perfect: I didn’t want to end up having played Bartok concerto hundreds of times but no late Beethoven string quartet! Also, teaching is a great chance to share your experience with young people (besides the fact that you learn from it yourself enormously!).

It is always good to approach one thing — in our case music — from different directions as long as you can keep quality in each aspect. In addition, times get difficult and it is good if you have more than one ability you can offer and succeed in.




The Walter W. Naumburg Foundation was founded in 1926 by Walter W. Naumburg, and today assists gifted young musicians in America. The foundation presents competitions and awards in solo and chamber music performance yearly. Previous violists who have been a recipient of the Naumburg Viola Award include Misha Amory, David Carpenter, Paul Coletti, and Paul Neubauer.

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