Entertainment Music

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Classic talk: The orchestra's unsung hero of 'the midfield'

Champion of the viola: Yuri Bashmet
Champion of the viola: Yuri Bashmet

George Hamilton

I started having music lessons at an early age, and half an hour of every day would be spent at the keyboard. By the time I was ready for big school, I was playing the cello. That came about because I could play the piano. Everyone in class was being taught on a stringed instrument - some with more success than others, it has to be admitted - and the notation was on the treble clef, the stave that marks out the notes of the melody.

Those of us who could read the bass clef, where the pianist finds the notes for his left hand, were assigned to the cello section. That's where the tenor voice in the orchestra gets its lines. In our little school orchestra, the violins played the tune, the cellos filled out the foundation.

There were no violas in our ensemble, which was probably just as well, for the notes for the violin's chunkier cousin are written on completely different lines. Uniquely, violas employ the alto clef.

I got to thinking about this unsung hero of the orchestra when I was in Russia recently and found out about the Sochi Winter International Arts Festival.

It was the brainchild of the conductor Yuri Bashmet, who'd been impressed by the response to a series of concerts he'd given there. Long before the city won its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Bashmet's festival was putting Sochi on the cultural map.

Bashmet is, without question, one of the leading viola players in the world - violist would be the term, but in keeping with the instrument's Cinderella status, it sounds somewhat unconvincing.

He has been credited with bringing this musical equivalent of the squad player into the limelight, with solo concerts all around the globe, and bookings that have topped 100 a year.

As long ago as the late 1700s, the composer Carl Stamitz was championing the instrument. But Stamitz was one of a rare breed, whose status gave him the opportunity to take the viola out front. He had written his own concerto for the instrument, which points to a major part of the problem.

Over the years, composers shied away from the more mellow strings of the mid-range instrument, preferring to write for the showy violin, or the rich, rounded tones of the cello.

Much in the way that opera puts the spotlight on the soprano and the tenor, with the alto and the bass in supporting roles, so concertos got written for violins and cellos. If you wanted to play the viola, you had to content yourself with a seat in the orchestra.

And yet, while they may not have written very much at all specifically for the viola, composers from Mozart to Mendelssohn performed on the instrument. Mendelssohn, who wrote a viola sonata, would play in string quartets.

Mozart did the same, enjoying his position in midfield, so to speak, harmonising in between the violins and the cello.

His Sinfonia Concertante in E flat - an important work in the development of his compositional technique - gives equal prominence to the violin and the viola.

Interestingly, too, the viola is tuned up half a tone to play in the key of D, to give its sound added lustre so that it can better compete with the violin.

You can enjoy Bashmet performing this Mozart work in the company of Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on a Deutsche Grammophon recording (DG 477 5925). The Stamitz is on a Helios CD by the European Union Chamber Orchestra under Dimitri Demetriades (CDH 55035).

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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