It would be unfair and impolitic to name any names, but a certain person who may or may not be a relative once received a children’s magic set for Christmas. This precocious young man carefully read the instructions and memorized his spiel before presenting his first illusion. I can’t remember what the trick was, but I’ll never forget what he said when it was accomplished: “Viola!”
Of course, there was no musical instrument involved, just a little slippage between the French phrase on the page (“Voila!”) and the performer’s pronunciation, but ever since, it’s been part of my general admiration for the violin’s larger cousin to think of it as slightly magical, the orchestral equivalent of a conjurer’s flourish. Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama clearly thinks so. As a violist himself, the conductor is intimately familiar not only with the instrument’s extraordinarily lavish and dynamic sound, but also with the full range of repertoire within which violas play a special part.
On Tuesday, December 8, Ohyama will convene the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra at the Lobero Theatre for a subtle celebration of what the viola can do. No concerto is scheduled, but rather two works that were written by composers who played the viola themselves, and that include unusual voicings or other effects in which the violas play a major part. To better understand this aspect of the music, I spoke with violist and section leader Erik Rynearson. Santa Barbara music fans are fortunate to hear Rynearson play on a regular basis, as he is also the principal violist of the Santa Barbara Symphony.
In the String Symphony No. 9 in C Major, “Swiss Symphony” of Felix Mendelssohn, the young composer’s precocious understanding of the intricacies of baroque music gave him the confidence (at 14!) to experiment with splitting sections in order to achieve five- and six-part harmonies. “He knew what we can offer,” said Rynearson, referring to the composer’s feeling for the viola, an instrument that he often played at the time these works premiered. Asked to be more specific, the musician complied with a simile, saying that the violas are “like heavy cream — they have that richness.”
Antonin Dvořák was a violist, as well, and he wrote his Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22 during a period of relative security and intense productivity. Rynearson said that the piece is “a lot of fun” to play. Listen for his viola section’s star turn in the slow lyricism of the Larghetto movement.
The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra plays at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Tuesday, December 8, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit sbco.org or call the Lobero box office at (805) 963-0761.