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Striking a humorous note

Baltimore Sun

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

For nearly five centuries, they have been portrayed -- doubtless unfairly -- as the dumb blonds 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, whom do you run over first?

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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 websites 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.”

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Experts say that the reasons behind the unfortunate stereotyping date 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.”

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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 Baltimore Symphony’s principal violist. Cellos and violins labor under no such handicap.

What is the most beautiful sound a viola can make?

Splash.

Jonathan Carney, the Baltimore Symphony’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.”

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

Violins and cellos are a uniform size, but violas range between 15 1/2 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.

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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.

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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.

In symphonic music, “the first violins get the melody while the violas are relegated to the ‘boom, chuck, chuck’ parts,” Rahkonen says. “Even if you were the world’s best viola player, you would be pretty obscure as a musician.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most talented performers gravitated toward other instruments, while symphony conductors and high school music teachers began steering their most incompetent string players to the viola section, where they could do the least damage, “and maybe even make a contribution,” Rahkonen says.

In the 19th century, the quality of viola playing reached a notoriously low ebb.

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Opera composer Richard Wagner once raged: “The viola is commonly played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a string instrument once upon a time.”

If your airplane crash-lands in the desert, and far off in the distance you see Santa Claus, a good violist and a bad violist each holding a jug of water, who should you crawl toward?

The bad violist. The first two are figments of your imagination.

By the 19th century, the symphony’s pecking order was well-established.

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“Jokes always attack people on the top and bottom of the hierarchy,” Rahkonen says. “In this case, that is the conductor and the violists.”

In the 20th century, the viola’s lowly status began to change. Violists became more skilled, and composers began writing more for the instrument. Now, veteran performers like Field and Colberg are widely considered the equal or better of any musician in the Baltimore Symphony.

Such champions as Pinchas Zuckerman, who picked up the viola after achieving fame with the violin, are bringing the instrument some overdue cachet. (Zuckerman is acknowledged as the best viola player of this era.) It’s taken nearly 500 years, but the viola no longer automatically plays second fiddle.

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Two violas go into a bar ...

If laughter is the best medicine, viola jokes must have saved as many lives as penicillin.

Two particularly fine Internet sites for viola jokes are www.mit.edu/people/jcb/jokes/ and www.petelevin.com/violajokes.htm. Here are some of our favorites, culled from those sites:

How is a symphony’s viola section like the Beatles?

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Neither has played together for years.

How is a viola different from an onion?

Nobody cries when you cut up a viola.

What is the range of a viola?

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As far as you can kick it.

What is the difference between a viola and a coffin?

The coffin has the dead person on the inside.

What’s the difference between a viola and a trampoline?

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You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

What’s the difference between a chainsaw and a viola?

If you absolutely had to, you could use a chainsaw in a string quartet.

What do a Scud missile and a viola player have in common?

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They’re both offensive and inaccurate.

The principal violist heard that his house had burned down. When he got there, the investigator told him the fire was not the worst of it. Someone had also killed his wife and daughter.

“Who did it?” the violist asked.

“The conductor of your orchestra,” the investigator replied.

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The violist gasped. “You mean the maestro came to my house?”

A group of terrorists hijacked a plane full of viola players. They called down to ground control with their list of demands, threatening that if their demands weren’t met, they would release one violist every hour.

A violist parked his car, leaving his viola on the back seat while he ran into a store. Not a smart thing to do in New York City! When he came out, his worst fears had been realized. The side window was smashed, his car stereo ripped out of the dashboard, his cellular phone was gone -- and there were violas in the back seat.

-- Mary Carole McCauley

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