None but the lonely viola

None but the lonely viola: In the latest Camerata Pacifica program, the main spotlight went to a fascinating new work for solo viola by Chinese-born composer Huang Ro

December 8, 2008

In classical music circles over the past several years, East has been meeting West with increasing frequency and influence. China, in particular, has produced a steady flow of fine musicians and composers — most famously, Tan Dun — in the era after the strictures of the Cultural Revolution.

Huang Ruo, born in 1976 and who has studied extensively in the West, belongs to the next generation of Chinese composers, for whom the blending of Eastern and Western ideas and sounds comes naturally. The young composer’s viola piece, “Four Fragments,” proved to be the highlight of Friday’s Camerata Pacifica’s concert, trumping the much longer and more bombastic Brahms piece for sheer freshness.

Hearing that natural synthesis in the compact, heightened intensity of a solo viola work added to the intrigue of the composer’s cultural background. In a note about the piece, Huang detailed his affinity for the too-rarely featured solo voice of the viola, partly because of its resemblance to the sound of the Mongolian Horse-head fiddle.

As played with an unforced mastery by Richard Yongjae O’Neill at Hahn Hall during the Camerata’s “lunchtime” performance, it came off as a striking piece, contemporary but equipped with visceral interest. True to the composer’s sentiments about the featured instrument, the writing is ideally tailored for the viola’s deeper sound and timbre, compared to the more oft-employed and spotlighted violin.

Mercurial moods and an engaging, exotic sense of drama prevails over the course of the roughly 12-minute work. Vigorous bursts of mad bowing and furtive double stops are interspersed with tranquil asides. Long, sustained tones, pregnant silences and ghostly wisps of sad-sweet Chinese melodies weave around more rough and rugged parts, and it ends on a soft, ethereal note, sailing into a high register in the clouds.

Viola may never get its love and credit due, but given a thoughtful and well-appointed opportunity to shine, it can do so in distinctively fascinating ways.

Cello, that more-commonly featured solo voice, was the center of attention in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Capriccio, Opus 49, showcasing the considerable expressive powers of regular Camerata cellist Ani Aznavoorian, accompanied by pianist Anna Polonsky. This teasingly short work, a warm-up for his more expansive Cello Concerto to come, is a lovely and lyrical example of the great Brazilian composer’s creative touch. A rhapsodic melodic part avoids romantic overbite by virtue of an oblique harmonic palette, in keeping with the composer’s unique personal style and the filtered influence of Ravel.

For the meat and potatoes portion of the program, Ms. Aznavoorian and Ms. Polonsky were joined by Mr. O’Neill and the dazzling violinist Catherine Leonard for Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C Minor, Opus 60, No. 3. The quartet laid into the score with energy, dynamism and the right measure of attention to the muse of romantic brooding.

After the churning angst of the opening movement, a brief and active Scherzo leads into a pining Andante, with cello taking on the longingly emotive theme, before violin and then viola join in, with varying relationships of harmony and counterpoint. Its finale works its way into a grand, march-like cadence before a gentler denouement, all sensitively conveyed by these fine and inter-connected musicians.

Incidental note: In between movements of the Brahms, a man in the audience too-audibly growled “so, let’s go!” (Or was that an odd cell phone ring tone?) Heckling is so rare in the realm of classical concert decorum, one of the last cultural frontiers for collective politesse, it can be disproportionately disturbing when it happens. Is public heckling in classical music the next sign of the fall of civilization? If so, we’ll need the music’s soothing force all the more.