The viola has been called many things, from the “Cinderella” of the orchestra, to the mysteriously “purple-toned” instrument.* Those who have met the unique viola on the playing field have ranged from the world’s best violinists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Nigel Kennedy and Maxim Vangerov, to more unlikely characters like Jimi Hendrix, newly-crowned American Idol Kris Allen and the fictional Fantastic Four character The Thing.
Perhaps the magic of the viola is that just a shade more so than the signature grandeur of the trumpet or the characteristically ever-graceful harp, the viola’s triumph is in its versatility of colours in truly shaping itself to the hands and ideas of its player. Its imperfect dimensions (somewhat squashed as the ideal size for its pitch range being too long for even the best basketball players to handle) on one hand makes the player work even harder for sound colour. But on the other hand it is perhaps why the viola has been attributed as being able to convey the imperfections of humanity more clearly than any other instrument. Further, while the cello still boasts the frequency of vibration closest to the human heart, it is the viola that fits the range of the human voice.
This afternoon’s selections showcase the viola in the diversity of its roles, from a viola-only duo and quartet, to partnerships with the cello, violin, and a more traditional role in the string quartet. The centerpiece of the programme, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is so rarely performed because of its challenging instrumentation focusing on the mid- and lower-range. Here we see the violas shine in a solo light as well as in the ensemble, exploring the full baroque range, celebrating the compositional genius of Bach in fugues and fluid phrases that flow from one viola to the next, and bounce back again.
* And oddly enough, both of those descriptions came from the same violist: the world-renown Kim Kashkashian.