THE BLOG
03/28/2013 12:13 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2013

The Sensual Viola: The Hunt Begins

Whenever I am near Palo Alto I steal away to visit Bernie Zaslav and talk shop. "It took me at least a year to begin to discover all of my beautiful Guad's erogenous zones..." Bernie says it with a sly smile and lets out his great chuckle. We have NYC childhoods in common but with a difference of about fifty years he got genteel Brooklyn and I got Manhattan's # 1 crack street of 1990. Besides that, we are also in the very small club of professional string quartet violists. He played in the Vermeer, Composers, Fine Arts, Stanford and Kohon string quartets. 'Guad' was his beautiful 18th c. Giovanni Battista Guadagnini viola. When he talks about that viola there is a twinkle in his eye and a sweet sadness in his voice. In retirement he finally sold it off.

You can only understand life in a string quartet by living it...and then there's the viola thing. If you can't read alto clef, I'm not sure if I should even try to explain. There are oodles of bad viola jokes due to an abundant history of mediocre violists but at the same time, we get why Mozart and Haydn would argue over who got to play viola when they read string quartets together.

The first time I played a viola, it rattled my head. I kept playing the low 'C' string over and over again because I just couldn't get over the thrill! That was the beginning of my addiction. I never connected with the violin. I wanted to but it just didn't happen. Confession: I was a 'big' kid. Second in girth at my school only to 'Andre' who told us he had a 'glandular condition.' I just liked to eat. A lot. Anyway, I think I was just too much for the violin. I crushed it. When I picked up that first viola, I could really lay into it and it was juicy. Mmmm.

That was 24 years ago and a lot of fiddles have come and gone. Violas are not like violins in that violins are, more or less, a standardized size and shape (Violin geeks- don't cringe, that statement was made relative to violas!) Whereas a violin's body is approximately 14", a viola can range from 15"-18+"! There are many essays and much conjecture about the correct length for a viola but I think it is all bunk. The argument is that a viola should be a lot closer to the median between a violin and cello but, because we have to hold it 'da braccio' (by arms) instead of 'da gamba' (between legs) the size had to be reduced.

In my opinion, 16 3/8" blends soprano (small viola) and bass (large viola) sound with the added benefit of being generally comfortably manageable. Anything larger starts getting tubby sounding and a strain on the body. And smaller? Well...unless you have that rare great small viola with a deep sound, you might as well play violin!

My current fiddle was wrought by Joseph Hill in London ca. 1770. The original label inside says 'In the flute and harp market' In general, you can't trust labels because so many are fake -every cheap factory violin has a label 'Antonio Stradivarius'- but this one is certified.

She has a funny moustache. Joey Hill painted a darker varnish on under the bridge area to make it look like an antique when it was made. Even then, old instruments had a certain cachet on the open market. Over the years it has picked up battle scars like the ash burns from player's pipes or cigarettes and the usual scrapes and scratches. It probably lay dormant in an attic or barn somewhere for a while because it has some worm tracks in the ribs. One shoulder was so worn down from years of a hand resting on it that I had to have it built up again with new wood. Besides this short list of minor flaws, the viola is in remarkably fine condition 240+ years later.

I really...'like' my viola. Friends and colleagues have often remarked on how it sounds like a great old Italian. It is a glorious fiddle to play because it is warm and fuzzy and has lots o' character. It is generally clear and responsive. I must be crazy. I know that I have a great fiddle but, somehow, 11 years later, I also know that this isn't my final instrument. I am looking for my own beautiful Guad like Bernie still dreams about. I am looking for my final viola...

to be continued...