Viola Overload!
13 Dec 2011
Inside the Classics

Ever since I posted a video of our viola section playing my arrangement of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, I’ve been getting periodic requests from violists wanting copies of the parts. I’ve probably sent out about 30 copies in all, and I’ve heard some excellent stories of performances all over the place. But until today, I’d never actually had the chance to see anyone else perform the thing.

Enter my old pal Russell O’Rourke, a Princeton grad currently corrupting the viola studio of UMass-Amherst. The Amherst kids have taken things way beyond goofing around together – they have an actual, honest-to-God Viola Choir, which is a thing that absolutely should not be legal, but apparently is.

Aren’t they cute? (Russell’s the bearded, bespectacled one in the back row.) And so committed. Not entirely sure what that bit of stomping at the beginning is all about, but it does get your attention. (The idea of adding physical choreography to the fanfare sort of started this summer at the camp Russell and I both work at, but it never really came together too well, and I can’t remember what the thinking behind it was.)

There’s more, too. Here’s the same group playing a gorgeous arrangement of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, by Oregon Symphony principal Joël Belgique.

There’s even more at their YouTube channel, if you’re the sort of beautiful freak who enjoys this sort of thing. Though cello choirs are far more common (for obvious reasons concerning such niceties as tone quality and good taste,) there does seem to be a growing interest in violists getting together en masse and wreaking our particular brand of musical havoc. An all-star gathering of 48 London-based violists even put out an album a while back, featuring everything from Shostakovich to Percy Grainger to Duke Ellington (the Grainger being the rare work that was actually originally scored for massed violas.)

I suppose I could muse about the melancholy beauty of the viola’s middle register, or the lush character that emerges when string instruments play together by way of explaining the compulsion to put collaborations like this together. But let’s be honest: the real reason that we violists do things like this is that life is just so much more fun once the violinists leave the party.

<February 2020>

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