Silent warrior. Underdog. Middle voice. These are the generous words that describe the viola, the string instrument accustomed to the shadows, and to the relentless jokes.
Violists rarely get a chance to shine. It's always the violinist who gets the melodic lines and virtuoso showstoppers. Or the cellists who produce that sturm und drang.
In fact, there is a huge pile of music written for solo viola. Paul Hindemith, a violist himself, wrote a bunch of sonatas and other stuff for the instrument. And we mustn't forget that Mozart himself played viola.
The Post and Courier decided to step in and shine a small spotlight on this overlooked instrument, and on the dedicated violists who too often are taken for granted. Four violists playing in this year’s Spoleto Festival share what makes their preferred instrument so singular.
Meena Bhasin, 34, is among the fine musicians performing in the festival's chamber music series at the Dock Street Theatre. Chamber music repertoire can offer special opportunities for violists. That mid-range voice is more easily noticed.
“It’s much more sort of my natural voice,” she said.
It can be tough for the viola to be heard next to the violin and cello.
“Our ears are naturally predisposed to hear the highs and the lows,” she said. “It’s not until it’s removed from an ensemble that you realize just what it was bringing to the table and just how much it was creating the richness of sound that we take for granted,” Bhasin said.
Owen Dalby, 33, a violinist in the St. Lawrence String Quartet who also plays viola and is married to Bhasin, said he likes the viola's versatility.
“It’s the great kind of chameleon of the string family,” he said, adding that it has helped shape his musical preferences. “I like my violins to sound dark and viola-like.”
He also enjoys the instrument’s character.
“It speaks beautifully without being a showoff,” he said. “It tends towards a sort of nostalgic and deeply personal sound.”
Masumi Per Rostad, 40, who is playing in the chamber music series, said the viola can be the hardest stringed instrument to play because of its size.
Rostad said that composers such as Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Dvorak were obsessed with the viola because it provides an inner voice in the ensemble.
“It’s where the magic happens,” he said.
Rostad said he likes the instrument’s flexibility.
“We get to explore, because we don’t have the shackles of a definition already set before us,” he said.
For Alfonso Noriega, 33, the viola assumes more of an individual role.
“In contemporary music, voices are way more balanced,” he said. “Every instrument has an important role.”
He compared the viola to a foggy day.
“It’s not sun, it’s not rain, it’s just in the middle and I like that a lot,” he said.
Noriega is playing viola in the Music In Time concerts and Liza Lim’s opera “Tree of Codes." The viola has an important solo in the opera orchestra.
“It’s very exciting to be in the middle and be moving from one side to the other,” he said. “I always have to fit in.”
Noriega said the thing he likes most about the viola is how similar it is to his voice.
“I like to play the viola because I feel like I can sing easily through the instrument,” he said.
John Pickford Richards, 38, who plays in the New York-based JACK Quartet, a special guest ensemble in the chamber music series this year, said he feels a kinship with other violists.
“We all struggle in the same way to make this instrument sound brilliant,” he said. “It takes a lot of physical maneuvering to get around it.”
He said he’s never had a soloist's mentality but also recognizes the viola’s subtle power in quartets.
“Frankly, I appreciate not always being on top, there’s a lot of pressure up there,” he said.