A violist's-eye view of the orchestra

minnesota orchestra viola section
Minnesota Orchestra viola section
Greg Helgeson

Let's get the obvious thing out of the way right off the bat. Yes, we know all about the viola jokes. No, we're not offended by them, and some of us even collect them. It's fine, really. We're not a bunch of high-strung divas who can't take a joke at our own expense (unlike some other instrument groups we could name).

In truth, there are jokes about every instrument in the orchestra, and about the perceived personality of an average operator of that instrument. But the viola jokes are particularly numerous and omnipresent on orchestral stages, and there's a reason for that.

As a general rule, violists tend to be viewed within the orchestral world, as the — shall we say — slow children. This fallacious characterization stems from the fact that most of us started out in childhood as violinists, and at some point decided to switch to the lower, bulkier, more melancholy viola. Violinists take our decision to switch as a sign of weakness on our parts, when in reality, most of us switch at least partly because we're tired of hanging out with other violinists, who are, of course, the schoolyard bullies and prom queens of the orchestra.

No less illustrious an observer of musical life than Garrison Keillor once opined that "violists have this dark, moody, gypsy streak — especially when they get older and realize that their instruments for some reason cannot be heard beyond the stage. You think you hear the violas, but it's really the second violins."

This dig hits a little closer to home than most viola jokes because it's rooted in a reality that orchestral violists must deal with every day: even when there are 11 or 12 of us in a section, we're just not very loud compared with pretty much every other section of the orchestra. (I know violists who don't even like playing sonatas with piano, because it takes so much effort just for the pianist to avoid drowning out the viola.) Pound for pound, we produce less noise than any other instrument group on an orchestral stage, and trying to force more sound out of our wonderfully imperfect wooden boxes only makes the problem worse. So Garrison's not far off in his assessment.

Still, the sound the viola does make, when you can hear it, is absolutely unique among string instruments. More sonorous than a violin, less dark and rich than a cello, the viola's tone has always sounded to me like someone figured out a way to bow an English horn. And like an English horn — which is an oboe for oboists who don't find the oboe stressful enough to play — viola presents its player with technical challenges and logistical imperfections that would reduce most violinists (whose instruments just magically seem to work) to tears.

For one thing, the sound box on a viola — even a large one (violas, unlike full-size violins, can vary in size) — is too small for the register in which the strings are tuned. So certain notes (which we call "wolf tones") will suddenly refuse to speak, or speak with a bizarre and unpleasant vibration that sounds as if you've played out of tune. This too-small sound box also accounts for the softer volume level of the instrument.

So why are we musical misfits even in the orchestra at all? The short answer is that we're there because you'd miss us if we were gone. Every time a full string chord explodes into the air and just seems to shimmer from the inside out, that's us. Whenever the cellos are playing a beautiful melody, but it sounds to you like they're somehow singing along with themselves, that's because we're doubling them. And when a composer suddenly clears away nearly all the cacophony that normally dominates symphonic music, and gives us just a few bars to ourselves, I maintain that we can bring you to tears faster than any other instrument onstage.

We have another role as well within the large orchestral texture: we're the listeners. That sounds obvious, I know — shouldn't every musician be listening to everyone else? — but the reality is that with 95-100 players on a huge stage, there's no chance that everyone is hearing the same thing. People at the back can't hear the ones at the front, the violinists on the right can't hear the bassists on the left, and on and on.

But the violas are nearly always right near the middle of the stage and at the front. We can hear almost everything, and since we also spend a lot of time playing interior rhythms and backing textures, we can have an outsized effect on the overall pulse and ensemble of the orchestra, if we're listening and reacting carefully enough. If a tricky rhythmic passage is starting to pull apart because the bassoons and first violins can't hear each other, there's a pretty good chance that a strong viola section can lead both sides back to the center.

And that? That's real power, if you ask me. Sure, we might not always have the flashiest part to play, and it's pretty rare that you walk out of a concert gushing about the big viola solo. But those other instruments? The ones who like to snicker at the very concept of a viola solo, and who like to tell you that the definition of a quarter-tone is "two violists playing in unison"? We save them from themselves in a thousand little ways at just about every concert, because we're listening. And I'm not saying they should lay off the jokes, I'm just saying that one of these nights, we might decide to not be quite so helpful.

Violist Sam Bergman has been a member of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2000.

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