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Living in alto clef: best loved, most overlooked, viola works

Strings Magazine
December 2007
By Heather K. Scott

Searching for good solo viola repertoire may sometimes feel like looking for a vegetarian at a Texas barbeque. It's true; the viola is often overlooked by composers when it comes to creating good solo music. As a result, alto-clef players frequently have difficulty tracking down compositions that speak to them—musical jewels that are simultaneously beautiful, engaging, and challenging.

To help uncover these hidden gems, we queried eleven well-known violists and asked them to share their all-time favorite viola work, as well as a beloved unknown or overlooked piece. The resulting collection from these accomplished violists includes some music that you'll undoubtedly recognize ... but may introduce you to some lesser-known works as well.

"We have such a small and limited repertoire that we are always searching for possible hidden gems," says Lawrence Dutton, violist for the Emerson String Quartet. Where to look for those gems depends on your personal preferences and how you feel about transcriptions. For Dutton, it means turning toward contemporary composers.

"The main source of music now for solo viola would be in new music," he says.

But for players like performer, educator, and viola advocate Helen Callus, it means looking to past composers and not discounting transcriptions. "A lot of our repertoire [comes from] transcriptions and we embrace this as part of our existence," she says.

Whether it be a work written especially for the viola, like Atar Arad's viola sonata, or a transcribed piece, such as one of Bach's gamba sonatas, each can provide a learning and emotive experience for the viola player—and his or her audience.


Victoria Chiang is a founding member of the Aspen Ensemble Quintet, and is on the artist faculty at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the Aspen Music Festival. Chiang has served on the faculty at the Juilliard School and Hartt School of Music, and she was a board member of the American Viola Society.

ALL-TIME FAVORITE—Concertpiece for Viola and Piano, George Enescu

"This is one of my all-time favorite pieces," Chiang says. "It is a work that demands virtuosity, lyricism, and elegance. It also is one of the few pieces for viola in the Romantic French style."

MOST OVERLOOKED—Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, Ignaz Pleyel

This is Chiang's current favorite. "It is a beautiful piece in the classical style of Haydn and Mozart, with lovely melodic lines passed back and forth between violin and viola," she says. "Violists need concertos! This is an effective work, and a wonderful complement to Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante."

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