Stuck in the Middle
The viola section of the orchestra can be overlooked. They are often stuck between the cellos and the violins. They are tuned a perfect fifth below the violin, and so often serve a supporting role for the soaring melodies characteristic of the violin section.
Michael Strauss is a viola soloist, as well as a chamber and orchestral musician. "The role of the viola section is primarily to be the percussion section of the string section," he says. "A good viola section will move inside the two outer lines and try to create line and support line either in the bottom of the top, wherever it's happening."
Featuring the Viola
Strauss has had plenty of experience fine tuning his orchestral playing. Since 1994, he has served as principal violist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. In addition to that full time symphonic gig, he has also released a number of recordings, the music of which ranges from modern works by Jennifer Higdon and David Finko to the complete viola quintets by Mozart.
Viola was perhaps most loved by English composers, Strauss says. "Music of Ralph Vaughan-Williams; some of the string serenades, like Gustav Holst's St. Paul Suite; the Edward Elgar Serenade" are all what Strauss calls "fabulous repertoire for the viola throughout history."
But it doesn't end there. "You could talk about Beethoven and some of his middle symphonies – the 3rd Symphony, 5th Symphony and 7th Symphony. Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony basically starts with a viola section solo."
Knocking On Death's Door
The viola doesn't have the best reputation among composers, however. Strauss laments that many notable composers throughout music history, such as Bartok and Shostakovich, wrote viola pieces immediately before they died. "In fact, Prokofiev was commissioned to write a viola concerto by Sergei Koussevitzky and William Primrose. Before he could put pen to paper, he passed away. Just the thought of it!"
The Viola's Funny Side
The viola is often the butt of musical jokes. Strauss shares his favorite, which also happens to double as an opera joke:
As luck would have it, a very famous conductor was conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and he fell ill. One of his apprentices was actually in the last stand of violas. So, the management came to him and said, "Johnny, the conductor is sick. You've been here for all the rehearsals. Do you think you could get us through this one?" He said, "I'll give it a try." So, he gets up, goes to the front and leads the orchestra not only through the premiere but subsequent performances and then 2 months of a run. It goes fabulously well. At the end of the run, of course, the next opera comes through and Johnny goes back to his seat. His stand partner looks at him in the first rehearsal and says, "So, where have you been?"