‘Violamania!’ Proves the Alto Voice Can Go Solo

A & E – The Emory Wheel

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’ …

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