The Wise Fool, with Owl

Merry Pranks: Becoming a Violist

Although I’ve been playing the viola for quite a while, and have previously blogged about it, there are stages to becoming a violist. I picked up the instrument as an adult after a long break from music, thinking that I might have an smoother re-entry into the stringed-instrument-playing world as a violist than a violinist. 

Well, for my first ~9 years, that wasn’t quite true. And maybe more to the point, my subconscious was telling me something: I wasn’t ready to give up being a violinist yet. I learned some solo pieces on the viola, and even a concerto movement. But when I first tried to play the viola in an orchestra, I lasted for one rehearsal before I went scurrying back to the violin section. And chamber music? Nope. I played violin there too.

Another couple of years and a move to California later, though, things have changed. And I think that finally, I have come into my own as a violist. I have many people to thank for this: private teachers past and present, conductors who believed in me, and friends who were willing to let me play the viola in their chamber groups. But in order not to embarrass anyone, I will distill it down to two musicians who are both well known and both dead: Richard Strauss and Franz Schubert.

Version 2Last December I joined the Nova Vista Symphony for their Holiday Magic concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had been missing holiday music as an essential part of the season. And after the concert as we were standing around at the reception eating peppermint bark, the Music Director asked me, “are you going to play the next concert? We’re going to play Till.”

“What’s Till?” I asked.

“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. It’s a tone poem by Richard Strauss.”

“Oh cool!” I said, naievely. I mean, I like Strauss. Beautiful Blue Danube Strauss and Also Sprach Zarathustra Strauss. But who or what is Till Eulenspeigel?


Till Eulenspiegel is a prankster character from German folklore. He has been around in different guises since the Middle Ages, always upsetting the apple cart in one picaresque way or another. According to our conductor, this piece is the first to set laughter to music. There is a 7-note phrase that begins sounding like “ha-ha-ha” and this phrase is repeated throughout the work in different contexts by every section of the orchestra. Read these excellent program notes by Paul Thomason to learn more.

But like the eponymous stories, this piece is not just a fluffy musical joke. It has a dark side, and in the case of me and my viola, the dark side was the fiendish technical difficulty of the piece. Wandering in and out of treble clef, with unconventional harmonies, accidentals, and rhythm and tempo changes galore, this was the most difficult thing I had ever played on the viola. The horn solo at the beginning is much more famous, and famously challenging, than anything in the viola part. Every section had its share, and we were struggling. It wasn’t clear to me, especially at the beginning of the rehearsal cycle, just who was being pranked here. The orchestra? Or maybe the audience who was going to have to listen to us play this?

This wouldn’t actually be so hard if I had an E-string . . .

Community orchestras have a long rehearsal cycle for a reason, and I’ve been in enough of them now to know that usually, towards the end of that cycle, a minor miracle can occur, and things start to fall into place. That happened. I figured out how to finger the most difficult section. The conductor chose a good tempo and I stopped worrying about it going too fast. I watched this recording with the synchronized score multiple times to figure out where my part fit in with the rest of the notes I was hearing.

At the same time I was also playing Schubert with another orchestra and doing some chamber music reading on weekends with friends. And here I was sitting principal viola. Freaking out was not an option.

In fact, the controlled chaos and jarring harmonizations of “Till” were given a stark counterpoint in the second movement of Schubert’s cello quintet, which I performed a week later. I had performed the first movement in the fall with the South Bay Philharmonic’s chamber group, and for the next concert we moved on to the next movement. Both elegiac and peaceful, this movement has been called “a hymn which floats above the mortal sphere.” With no conductor to complain to (or about), it was solely the responsibility of the five of us for how it came out. And with a successful performance of the first movement under our belts, we approached this movement with more confidence and less rehearsal time. Gene Huang, the first violinist, also played the Mendelssohn violin concerto on the same program, a feat that I’m still a little in awe of.

I’m writing this blog a couple of months after the fact, with a different Schubert chamber piece in my head and under my fingers, anticipating another concert this evening. And as I write, I’m listening to our recording of the quintet. While I would not trade my violin experiences for anything, I couldn’t be happier that I learned to play the viola, because it gave me the opportunity to play this music.

Read more about my musical adventures on my blog.

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