It's official: The viola joke is dead.
If you're wondering what that's all about, check out this page from the brainiacs at MIT. You see, the poor violist, sandwiched between the violin and cello in the orchestra, consigned traditionally to the "pah pah" that follows the cellos "oom," rarely getting a chance to shine on its own — yup, the poor viola, perennial butt of musical jokes, is one of the last persons the more fortunate among us can insult to its face without being hauled before some fancy Instrumental Rights Commission. The penalty, by the way, would be to be strapped to a table, like Alex in "A Clockwork Orange," and forced, for puposes of ideological correction and re-education, to listen to Max Reger's complete Sonatas for Unaccompanied Viola. Noooooo!!!!
Perhaps the viola's lowly status came from the canard that violists were mostly failed violinists. Then there's its tone, oft-slandered as resembling a violin with a head cold. That's cruel, man. But no more!
Why not? Because the violists, bless their great big hearts and long arms, are fighting back. Not with words or fisticuffs. With artistry. Such as you can hear Monday on WFCR from London-based Ukrainian violist Maxim Rysanov, one of the brightest stars of the instrument. Check out a little past 9:30 his gorgeous rendition of Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata, in the arrangement for viola and strings by Dobrinka Tabakova, the Bulgarian-British composer we've been playing lately. From the same album (downoad your own here), we've got Rysanov's version of a cello classic, Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, coming up in the noon hour, a good example of how the viola is as much a small cello (same tuning, one octave higher) as a large violin. If you don't conclude that this is some of the most gorgeous and accomplished string playing you've heard this year, then it's off to the Instrumental Rights Commission for you!
Actually, in the hands of Rysanov and his increasing number of peers, the viola is nothing but itself, the gorgeous mezzo of the string family, fully capable of both soulful song and dazzling fireworks. I'll add that in my many years broadcasting and presenting string quartets, I have noted with pleasure the vast increase in the quality of violing, to the point where the players of the once-derided instrument are often the most interesting in the group.
So lay off the viola. Instead, lay on the viola music. Thickly!