Instruments of the Orchestra

Sonia Emmons

The viola is the misunderstood middle child of the string family. Sandwiched between the violins and cellos in pitch, its confident string siblings are known to hog the parents’ attention and tease the shy viola for its perpetual clumsiness and soft voice. Yet rather than breaking its strings in anger, the humble viola simply responds with a dark, chocolate-y song. Its sweet sound has a mellowing effect on listeners. Even the word rolls smoothly off the tongue. Vee-OH-lah.
The viola is sometimes confused with the violin because both instruments are played on the shoulder. But in music size does matter: the viola is longer, wider and thicker than a violin. It is also a perfect fifth lower than the violin, which means there’s a juicy C string and no E string. An inflated body renders the viola more difficult to play and even harder to project amidst a sea of high-pitched violins, cellos and growling basses. Orchestral parts tend to put the viola in the frustrating position of being seen and not heard. What makes the viola truly grand is its voice. It supplies the rich inner harmony that gives the music a rounded fullness.
A member of the great Amadeus String Quartet once said that a string quartet is like a bottle of fine wine: the cello is the bottle that holds everything together, the first violin is the label and decorations on the bottle and the second violin and viola are the delectable wine inside.
Professor of Music Matthew Michelic served the finest of wines on April 3 in a recital with Professor Michael Kim, piano. The two stretched together backstage before collaborating brilliantly on two well-established sonatas in the viola repertoire: Sonata for Viola and Piano, op.147 by Dimitri Shostakovich and Sonata in E-Flat for Viola and Piano, op.120, no. 2 by Johannes Brahms.
As is his custom, Michelic delivered interesting, chuckle-worthy commentary before each piece.
The first piece on the program was the lengthy Shostakovich sonata. Completed three days before the composer’s death, the three movements are strikingly different in style and mood. The first movement is sweet with a touch of secret madness. Often the piano played a lyrical line while the viola floated above it producing a chilling sound, sometimes intentionally harsh. The second movement felt a lot like fiddle music. Michelic’s bow bounced across the strings, seeming at times to laugh maniacally.
The third movement famously quotes Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Michelic achieved a sound that was eerily hollow but not empty. His big viola sound filled Harper Hall with a richness that was matched by Kim’s active piano playing–his lovely page turner was kept quite busy.
The Brahms E-Flat Viola Sonata is a musical gem. Violists are prone to singing the second movement, Appassionato ma non troppo allegro, in the shower or while perusing the Journal of the American Viola Society. Michelic and Kim’s performance of the sonata was sensitive and lyrical.
Prof. Michelic delighted the audience with a short piece for solo viola piece entitled Arrival Platform Humlet for Middle-Fiddle Single (Viola Solo) by Percy Grainger. The viola imitated the sounds of train whistles and the nervous humming of someone awaiting his sweetheart’s arrival on the train.
The viola often receives undeserved abuse from people who enjoy telling jokes at the expense of others. Please, rather than telling your favorite viola joke, find a violist and ask to hear some sweet tunes. You’ll be happy you did.