Hardly Second Fiddle

Despite years of being the butt of orchestra jokes, the viola is gaining new status in the hands of well-regarded players.

December 29, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

How is a viola different from an onion? Nobody cries when you cut up a viola.

In the hierarchical world of classical musicians, viola players have had, more than most, to bear the strings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

For nearly five centuries, they have been portrayed - doubtless unfairly - as the dumb blondes of the symphony orchestra.

On the Internet, in the break room, at parties, violists are the butt of jokes that cast aspersions on their intelligence and musicianship. Jokes that take a vicious glee in imagining the destruction of their instruments. Jokes that mock the viola section as a refuge for broken-down violinists. Cruel, unfeeling, insensitive jokes. Like this one:

If a conductor and a violist are standing in the middle of the road, who do you run over first?

The conductor. Business before pleasure.

Granted, there are jokes about other musicians. Drummers in pop music and trombonists in brass bands apparently are the butt of similar quips. Violinists are tweaked for their ego; trumpeters for their competitiveness.

Conductors, for some reason, are subject to unflattering anagrams devised from their names. According to a 1992 article in The Independent, a London newspaper, one unfortunate baton-waver became known behind his back as "I Use Pig's Nipples."

But no other instrument is targeted more frequently than the viola. Type in the term "viola jokes" on the Google search engine, and you will get 19,700 hits. Individual Web sites can be three pages, or longer.

Understandably, some violists are a bit touchy about all the joshing. Luckily, Christian Colberg, who has been playing viola with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for nine years, isn't among them. In fact, Colberg is a viola joke connoisseur.

What do a lawsuit and a viola have in common?

Everyone heaves a sigh of relief when the case is closed.

"There are some people who do not like the fact that jokes are made about violists," Colberg says.

"But I think that there are very few things in life that should never be laughed at. If you hold something dear, it is your responsibility to make fun of it."

Experts say that the reasons behind the unfortunate stereotyping date back to the creation of the instrument in about 1550.

A viola is a few inches larger than a violin, and it has a deeper, richer tone. If the violin can be likened to a human soprano, the viola is comparable to the alto.

The viola came into vogue during the era of chamber music, when the performers sat about 5 feet away from the audience, according to ethnomusicologist Carl Rahkonen, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. But when orchestras moved into 2,300-seat symphony halls, the instruments had trouble producing the necessary volume.

"Violins could be modified to meet the new demands," Rahkonen says. "But for a viola to be as strong acoustically as a violin, it would have to be about a third larger than it is. Such an instrument would be unplayable."

Adding to the difficulty is that in most orchestras, the viola section is to the right of the conductor, where the sound from their instruments is directed at the back of the stage, instead of out into the audience, according to Richard Field, the BSO's principal violist. Cellos and violins labor under no such handicap.

What is the most beautiful sound a viola can make?


Jonathan Carney, the BSO's concertmaster, or top violinist, begs to differ. A closet violist, Carney loves the viola's voice, which he describes as "a wonderful, dark whiskey sound, a crazy uncle sound."

(You can judge for yourself when Field plays a viola concert Jan. 18 at Second Presbyterian Church.)

And just like a crazy uncle, each viola is unique.

Violins and cellos are a uniform size, but violas range between 15.5 and 18 inches - giving each a correspondingly different voice.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is not so easy to play a group of crazy uncles in unison. And, for that matter, not just anyone can play them. The viola strains the performer's back, neck, arm and hand.

"It is physically much more difficult to play a viola than a violin," Rahkonen says.

Schoolchildren seldom are started on the viola before middle school because they lack the requisite size and strength. And, in general, tall people are thought to have an easier time mastering the instrument because they can more comfortably tuck it beneath their chins and hold it there for long stretches of time; Carney and Colberg stand 3 or 4 inches above 6 feet.

What do lightning and a violist have in common?

Neither strikes the same place twice.

Adding to the viola's bad name is the relative paucity of musical literature for it to play.

In the 16th century, the viola usually played the middle line, which is less complicated and interesting than the upper line (performed by the violin) and the lower line (the province of the cello.)

Although Mozart and Beethoven played the viola themselves, there are precious few concertos (which feature instrumental solos) in the historic literature.

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