What’s better than a viola? For people who disparage the middle child of the strings family, the cruel answer is “everything.” However, to the Jan. 28 audience of the one-time recital Violamania! in Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the response is “nine violas.” While the use of one type of instrument limits the range of dynamics, articulation and timbre in the arrangements, a talented ensemble of students and professionals proved that the alto voice of the orchestra has a unique power to execute instrumental works for smaller ensembles.
The program’s first piece, Beethoven’s infamous “Allegro Con Brio” from Symphony No. 5 posed the most problems for the group. Originally composed for a full orchestra, the classical masterpiece performed by a viola octet was stripped of its rich, booming quality. Sancho Engano’s arrangement for eight violists sacrificed the contrasting dynamics that identify the piece, and the tempo changes were less dramatic than most performances. Violas are larger than violins, but their dimensions prohibit the same high level of projection. Since the octet’s voices were more muddled and mellow than a violin, the performers didn’t fulfill Beethoven’s intention. During the opening phrase of Beethoven’s Fifth, the violists could not produce the melody with the robust, unified fervor to which the audience is accustomed. Despite these challenges, the musicians collaborated well, appropriately giving and following cues from each other, and blending their parts.
Other pieces were better suited for a viola ensemble, including Scott Joplin’s Ragtime Dance arranged by Peter Taylor and Geoffrey Walker’s Absolute Zero arranged by R.A. Cohen. The violists expressed a youthful spirit in each piece, conveying a relaxed and joyous scene through quick, short bow strokes. The nostalgic twentieth-century tunes meshed well with the ensemble’s humbleness, not being excessive with regards to vibrato or other embellishments. Joplin’s playful tune was fitting for the violists as their tranquil timbre embraced a casual, non-royal character. Fun is one of the most important parts of performing: if people on stage are genuinely enjoying themselves, the audience resonates with their emotions.
Performers mentioned how the viola is misunderstood and used the pauses between pieces for purposes of both music and humor. The youngest member, Irene Kwon, was called from the audience by her teacher, Yinzi Kong, to perform Allegro from Paul Wranitsky’s Concerto for Two Violas. The audience related to the student-teacher interaction but other interruptions between pieces were distracting. For example, transitioning from the octet to a quartet, members individually left the stage, giving fictional excuses for their departures. The professional and student violists are not trained actors, so the dialogue was weak and detracted from the show. Having the performers speak to each other and the audience gave Violamania! personality, but felt out of place.
The most engaging pieces were Kong’s solo performance of Max Reger’s Unaccompanied Suite No. 1 and the quartet in Max Bruch’s Romanza. Kong is a professional violist with the Vega String Quartet, which is in residence at Emory University. Her honed skills were beautifully demonstrated through Reger’s piece, a common choice for violists to exhibit their technical proficiency and musicality. Kong’s earthy and rough lower tones complemented her aerial, smooth higher notes. Kong stayed true to the structural integrity of the piece, but her style was personal and connected with the audience. In their performance of Romanza, originally scored for viola and orchestra, the musicians adapted to sound like a standard string quartet. The four distinct voices were cleaner than the earlier octet, which gave the quartet a grander stage presence than the larger group. The suspenseful motion created by precise articulation proved that four violists can accomplish what a standard string quartet can.
Violamania! succeeded in educating the public about the capabilities and limitations of the viola. Historically used by composers to fill in orchestral gaps and provide harmonies, the modern viola was not originally a featured instrument, and compared to others, has minimal repertoire. However, the passionate performers demonstrated that the viola can transpose music meant for other instruments into new and exciting art.