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Cynthia Phelps

Principal Viola

The Mr. and Mrs. Frederick P. Rose Chair


Cynthia Phelps is the New York Philharmonic’s Principal Viola, The Mr. and Mrs. Frederick P. Rose Chair. Highlights of her solo appearances with the Orchestra have included the New York Premiere–Philharmonic Co-Commission of Julia Adolphe’s Unearth, Release, in 2016; performances on the 2006 Tour of Italy, sponsored by Generali; Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in 2010 and 2014; and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Two Paths, which the Orchestra commissioned for her and Philharmonic Associate Principal Viola Rebecca Young and which they premiered in 1999 and reprised both on tour and in New York, most recently in 2011. Other solo engagements have included the Minnesota Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao, and Hong Kong Philharmonic.

Phelps is a member of the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, established in the 2016–17 season, and performs with The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Jupiter Chamber Players, and the Santa Fe, La Jolla, Seattle, Chamber Music Northwest, and Bridgehampton festivals. She has appeared with the Guarneri, Tokyo, Orion, American, Brentano, and Prague Quartets, and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. She has given recitals in the major music capitals of Europe and the U.S. She is also a founding member of the chamber group Les Amies, a flute-harp-viola group with Philharmonic Principal Harp Nancy Allen and flutist Carol Wincenc.

Phelps is a first-prize winner of both the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition and the Washington International String Competition, and is a recipient of the Pro Musicis International award. Under the auspices of this philanthropic organization, she has appeared as soloist in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Rome, and Paris, as well as in prisons, hospitals, and drug rehabilitation centers worldwide. Her recording Air, for flute, viola, and harp on Arabesque, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Her television and radio credits include Live From Lincoln Center on PBS; St. Paul Sunday Morning on NPR; Radio France; Italy’s RAI; and WGBH in Boston. Phelps has served on the faculties at The Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. She is married to cellist Ronald Thomas.

"I spent four years looking for my viola. It has a very dark, throaty sound, which is what I’ve always liked. It’s quite big and very temperamental. I have to baby it!"

Interview with Cynthia Phelps

THE FACTS: Born in Hollywood, California. Bachelor’s degree in music performance, the University of Southern California; master’s degree from the University of Michigan. Prior to the Philharmonic: principal viola, San Diego Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra. At the Philharmonic: Joined in 1992. Solo debut with the Orchestra: spring 1993, in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, on a European tour. Most recent recording: Air, a Telarc CD for flute, viola, and harp, nominated for a Grammy Award

EARLIEST MUSICAL MEMORY: Playing the violin with my four sisters. We had two violinists (in addition to me), a cellist, and a pianist. All of us became professional musicians. The first piece I really fell in love with was Dvořák’s American String Quartet. I was 11 and had just switched to the viola. The instrument has a sound and color I really responded to. It’s the alto sound of the orchestra.

WHAT KIND OF VIOLA DO YOU PLAY? A Gaspar da Salo, ca. 1580, which the Philharmonic owns. I spent four years looking for it. It has a very dark, throaty sound, which is what I’ve always liked. It’s quite big and very temperamental. I have to baby it!

IF YOU COULD PLAY ANOTHER INSTRUMENT, WHAT WOULD IT BE? I would love to sing, if I had a voice. I always look forward to our performances with great opera singers.

WHO WERE YOUR MOST IMPORTANT MUSICAL INFLUENCES? My teacher William Primrose, with whom I studied in the last two years of his life, and my chamber music coaches at the Marlboro Music Festival: Felix Galimir, Rudolf Serkin, and David Soyer

WERE YOU INVOLVED IN EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES IN HIGH SCHOOL? I was on the student council and also a cheerleader.

WHAT ARE YOUR DUTIES AS PRINCIPAL VIOLA? Coordinating bowings with the other string principals, using rhythmic body language to lead the section, and acting as an intermediary between the section and the conductor if there are questions. The fun part is playing solos and representing the section at the highest level I can manage.

WHAT PERSONAL TRAITS ARE REQUIRED OF A PRINCIPAL PLAYER? You have to really enjoy taking responsibility, making decisions, and being outgoing and a dynamic performer — having a profile that people can respond to.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO OUTSIDE OF WORK? Spend time with my husband, three daughters, and two grandchildren, and swim, run, practice yoga, and play a lot of tennis. I have a big viola and I try to keep fit and strong. I’m a California girl!

As of February 2019

Upcoming 2023-2024 Performances

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