What do you mean name me a viola soloist? I'll name you several!
In a recent radio interview, I was asked why there are so many mean jokes about violists. In all fairness, the viola often gets pretty bad press. Back in the day (or so I was told in A-level music class), owning a viola meant you stood a good chance of getting a plum position in a tasty band with a prominent kapellmeister. Violists were portrayed as halfwitted ignoramuses who should only ever be entrusted with notes of a crotchet length or longer (Mozart totally knew this to be a fallacy).
In my opinion, times have changed dramatically. Okay, we don't have the plethora of concerti that violinists have, but the concerti we do have are beautiful and often quite dark. We don't have a huge deal of original early repertoire, but the viola became a fast favourite of composers throughout the 20th century, and its popularity continues to grow today.
Furthermore, the standard of viola playing has risen dramatically and, in my opinion, this has largely been down to the inexhaustible pursuit of excellence by a number of pioneers. As a young musician there were a number of violists who really inspired me and continue to inspire me today:
- Nobuko Imai: The original grande doyenne of the alto clef. This Japanese lady may only stand about five foot, but she has been a pioneer her whole career - as a female musician and as a promoter of the viola as a legitimate solo instrument.
- Tabea Zimmerman: Many men wish they could make this much sound! When faced with a musical dilemma, I frequently like to ask myself 'What would Tabea do?' Her sound, and the agility of her playing, technically and musically, is jaw-dropping stuff.
- Laurence Power. This does not even need explaining. If you don't know why he's amazing you should a) be ashamed of yourself and b) rectify the situation immediately.
A few weeks ago, in a midweek afternoon concert from Hoddinott Hall, I got to add another name to my 'Violists I Love' list (this list actually does exist - it is a running joke in my family that I like lists, and I blame my mother for this). Nils Mönkemeyer is a young German violist and I really, really hope we get to work with him again. Nils joined us (along with BBC New Generation Artist, violinist Veronika Eberle) to perform Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante and it was quite simply refreshing, exuberant, fun music making. It wasn't just that technically he was impeccable, it was that his playing was so musical and so natural that you didn't even give a thought to the technical aspects. If my mother and father are reading this, I would love some of his recordings (this is a subtle hint for birthday and/or Christmas presents).
Every instrument needs its champions. It is in this way that we can continue to push boundaries, technically and musically, and that we can continue to be inspired.