The viola sings out

Music Critic

Google “viola joke” and you’ll be rewarded with thousands, an afternoon’s worth of hilarity at the expense of one of the most expressive sound producing machines ever conjured up.

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

I learned that one from a violist who, like many of his colleagues, collects the jokes and posts them online. Why shouldn’t he? He lives a charmed life with a string instrument mellower than a violin and more agile than a cello, a mechanism of magic, under his chin every day. He has no need for insecurity.


Even so, violists have traditionally fought for the limelight and seldom won, which may explain why the viola world has had its share of unstable characters as well. Covered by the higher and lower strings, the viola easily gets lost in the orchestra or a string quartet. The instrument lacks the stellar solo repertoire for violin or cello. For some inexplicable reason, such accomplished viola players as Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvorák seldom featured the instrument in their scores. Of the handful of viola soloists who became famous, none has been a household name to rival the great violinists and cellists.

That doesn’t mean we need pity the poor violist. Things began looking up for the viola in the 20th century when notable viola concertos began being written. Things are looking up even more in the 21st. We now have several fine soloists on the scene, much new viola music being written for them, and neglected earlier viola music is being rediscovered. The viola has even become hip in the twentysomething new music club crowd. And many recent CDs have come out to prove all of this.

A strong contender for classical CD of the year and one that early Christmas shoppers should begin stocking up on is the latest ECM release featuring the extraordinary Armenian American violist Kim Kashkashian. The disc is titled “Neharót,” after a stunningly beautiful and profoundly moving piece written for her by the Israeli composer Betty Olivero.

“Neharót Neharót” was written in 2006 in the midst of Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The title is Hebrew for “Rivers Rivers,” an allusion to the tears of women but also to nehar, which means ray of hope. For viola, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles and tape, it melds many sad songs, not only Jewish but Kurdish and North African, into a rapturous whole; the viola (which has a range common to the voices of women and men) is here the great healer.

Olivero’s piece is followed on Kashkashian’s CD by Tigran Mansurian’s “Three Arias (Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat),” resplendent works for solo viola and chamber orchestra by Armenia’s leading composer. This disc concludes with another beautiful Israeli work -- Eitan Steinberg’s “Rava Deravin” for viola and string quartet -- a haunting prayer in muted but glowing colors that finds common spiritual ground in Hasidic and Armenian song, the song of Holocaust-scarred peoples.

A warning: Do not download this recording. Buy the CD and play it through loudspeakers. This is music that embraces the world, and it needs to radiate in a space far more expansive than your cranium.


A star violist may be on the horizon. David Aaron Carpenter is a young American who makes his disc debut with recordings of a viola arrangement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and of Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto. Christoph Eschenbach, a champion of Carpenter, conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Elgar’s autumnal concerto floats on air in its viola arrangement, and Carpenter has a robust sound and mercurial personality. Schnittke’s concerto, which obsesses over cadences and short motifs while making radical stylist shifts, was written for the Russian virtuoso Yuri Bashmet, perhaps the most celebrated violist of our day. Carpenter goes to town with the score.

Bashmet himself makes an appearance on a collection of Bartók concertos on Deutsche Grammophon with Pierre Boulez conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. This instant classic has Gidon Kremer playing the First Violin Concerto and Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich tackling the Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra.

The real highlight is the Viola Concerto. It is a problem piece, since Bartók died before completing it and the final score was put together by Tibor Serly from extensive sketches. For that reason -- and just violists’ luck -- what surely would have been the greatest viola concerto up to that time never fully materialized. But Bartók left material enough for an eloquent score to be realized, and the three Bs (Bashmet, Boulez and Berlin) elevate the composer’s final thoughts probably as high as they can go.

Quincy Porter, an American composer who died in 1966, probably is better known as an educator. He was also a violist, and if you are viola conspiracy theorist, you might suspect that the instrument was the reason for his being overlooked. Maybe it was. Much terrific American viola music, including Morton Feldman’s “The Viola in My Life” and John Harbison’s Viola Concerto, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. But the viola revival and a splendid new generation of American violists are about to change all that.

So all hail to Eliesha Nelson, a young African American violist from North Pole, Alaska (really), who has taken a fancy to Porter and recorded his complete works for viola on Dorian. She is a marvelous player, and Porter’s is marvelous music.

Porter’s Viola Concerto, written in 1948, seems to flow and flow. Its four movements are slow, fast, slow, fast, but the piece inhabits a middle path, where slow feels ever moving and fast feels like there is always time to stop and smell the roses. “Rivers, Rivers” could be a Quincy Porter title as well, except he stayed away from poetic titles. “Blues Lontains” for viola and piano was about as fancy as he got.

Nelson is a ravishing violist, and she is joined on the disc by an impressively multitalented John McLaughlin Williams, who conducts Northwest Sinfonia in the concerto, and he accompanies Nelson on viola duos for piano, harpsichord and violin. This disc is a real find.

The Irish violist Garth Knox, formerly a member of the adventurous Arditti Quartet, is now an adventurous soloist and composer in his own right. Although he has long been associated with hard-core European Modernism, he has branched out into early music playing the Baroque viola d’amore, which has sympathetic vibrating strings, as well as more folk-based new music. He put out a stunning solo CD last year that was all over the map. He has followed that with a new one, “Viola Spaces,” on Mode that is also all over the map even though this time he composed all the music.

In a series of eight etudes, he explores ways of producing sound on the viola, using up to four different instruments. He then follows that up with a series of variations on the music of Marin Marais, a Baroque French composer. In addition he offers an entertaining viola and tuba duet and a lovely fantasy for viola d’amore and five violas based on Johannes Ockegham’s 15th century music.

The hipster in the bunch is Nadia Serota, who plays solo viola music by fashionable young New York composers on “First Things First.” The disc is on New Amsterdam Records. At least I think they are fashionable young New Yorkers. There are no program notes, which are considered passé in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn new music clubs these days. The drink menu is thought the place for description and intellectual rigor.

Nico Muhly is the featured composer on Serota’s program, and there are additional works by Judd Greenstein and Marcos Balter. All the music is facile, the products of composers in love with a few good ideas worked into the ground. But there is a good time to be had, what with these cocksure composers and Serota, who is an engagingly bouncy violist, obviously in no mood to let a little lamentation wreck their party.

The viola, they’re no doubt saying, is the future.