In Defense of the Viola

Classical music’s most deserving underdog.

How is lightning like a violist’s fingers? Neither one strikes in the same place twice.

How do you keep your violin from getting stolen? Put it in a viola case.

What’s the difference between a viola and a trampoline? You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

Such is life for those tortured souls who choose to pursue careers on the viola, the symphony orchestra’s most ridiculed instrument. Never does a rehearsal pass when you aren’t a second-class citizen.

Violists got their reps from a few bad eggs: hacks who couldn’t handle the technical demands of the violin’s blister-inducing repertoire and retreated to a seemingly less demanding instrument in order to continue to win gigs. But quips aside, these oversized violins with throaty tenors and the people who play them are vital to music. They provide an ensemble piece’s inner voice—the meat in the harmonic sandwich. In fact, Mozart, a virtuoso violinist, gravitated to the viola in salon quartet sessions in order to feel the music’s infrastructure.

So why’s the viola still such good joke fodder? Start with its size. Petite violas (length varies depending on how much ax you can handle and how much sound you want) are about 16 inches long, which is already lengthier than the average violin. Now imagine how difficult it is to play the violin: You’re contorting your left arm so that you can nearly massage the outside of your left shoulder with your left thumb while sending your fingers toward and away from your face in different increments of fingerboard real estate, at different speeds; your right hand is involved in something else entirely. Now try as much with a bigger fiddle: one you can barely fit under your chin, strung with thicker (and therefore less responsive) strings, requiring a clunkier bow and more right-hand torque. There’s no way around it: Violas are awkward, which makes them difficult to master.

But they’re also the workhorses of the string section. Violas can wail—their highest-pitched string (the A) is the second highest of the violin’s—as well as growl—their lowest-pitched string (the C) is also the lowest string of the cello. That’s a lot of potential tonal ground to cover. And composers don’t usually think twice about exploiting it. Viola parts typically traverse three clefs’ worth of scales: the tenor, alto, and treble, which is, incidentally, the only one violinists ever need read.

Violas are also hard to hear, and hence difficult to connect with, due to an earthy timbre. They can sound mellow, or muffled even, particularly in their middle to lower range. In fact, without the strengths of a dynamic performer’s bow, violas can often leave new listeners unsatisfied.

Combine these issues, and you’ll start to see a pretty compelling case for why many of history’s great composers didn’t consider the viola star material, but rather an accompanist. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that composers began to write solo viola pieces. Of course, violists now have scores of good works from which to choose—sonatas by Brahms and Shostakovich and concertos by Bartók, Hindemith, Walton, and Kurtag, to name a few.

But the viola deserves more. Enter 24-year-old violist Cathy Basrak, who has recorded one of the more intriguing classical records of the new year: American Viola Works (Cedille Records), a disc that not only showcases the viola’s unique solo voice but offers five great, somewhat obscure, contemporary U.S.-born pieces. Here, Basrak knocks pretty confidently on the front doors of the world’s few viola celebs—Yuri Bashmet, say, or Kim Kashkashian—and manages to nudge her way in.

George Rochberg’s Viola Sonata, written in 1979, is a dark, soulful meditation, peppered with terse articulations of angst. Basrak attacks accented angular motifs with considerable gusto while slyly exposing her instrument’s sweet spot for the work’s tender melodies and spirited proclamations. Say the same for her interpretation of Frederick Jacobi’s rhapsodic ” Fantasy,” written in 1941, the golden age of musical modernism. Passionately opening the work in an expansive solo cadenza, Basrak welcomes you into the syntax of a pleasing yet modern harmonic poetry while exposing the piece’s whimsical elaborations on the instrument’s many characters.

Alan Shulman’s ” Theme and Variations” (1940) is conventionally palatable: It presents an age-old form, composed of one main tune and a series of virtuosic embellishments of it. These sound both fresh and neoclassic due to its experiments with discordant tones. Basrak breathes profound and natural vocalizations as easily as a seasoned singer. Another hit, Quincy Porter’s “Speed Etude” (1948) is more than its name implies. Even though the main draw here is the chance to sonically witness a violist playing as fast as a prodigious violinist, the real prize is the work’s impressionist dabs of color.

But the disc’s finest 25 minutes belong to its last track: living tonalist Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, a three-movement work graced with the prized New Yorker’s distinct talent for finding in the language of the Romantics a new, more urgent musical way to express obsession. Basrak lets go in this work and indulges you in forgetting you’re listening to a genre of music many deem stuffy. The playing is everything but careful—particularly in the piece’s manic juxtapositions of creepy cicada screams and expansive Brahmsian laments, as well as in the last-movement intro, where the lines of Basrak and one of her pianists, William Koehler, fuse stronger than anywhere else on the record for a truly gritty rant.

Cathy Basrak shouldn’t only be commended for her talent, but for her unbridled commitment to her means of expression as well. In the notes of her performances, the viola is about as far from a joke as possible.