That Special Tone of the Viola

Mar 13, 2017

Early solo viola repertoire was often played by violinists who also played the viola. But as WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, that music today puts violists in the spotlight, including Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Violist Choong-Jin (C.J.) Chang.

Radio script: 

[MUSIC : Hector Berlioz, Harold in Italy]

Susan Lewis: In 1934, Berlioz wrote Harold in Italy at the request of the famous violinist Paganini. Today, the solo part is played by violists such as Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Viola C.J. Chang, who fell in love with the instrument as a student at Curtis:

C.J. Chang: It was chemistry for me. I played the violin for a long time, and when I picked up the viola, I was so happy. I just love the tone.

SL: Slightly larger or bigger than a violin, the viola’s musical range starts at  "c."

CJC: This "c" is one octave higher than the cello "c."  And, it can go as high as you want actually. But actually, we leave that up to the violinists. 

SL: The viola is the voice of the title character in Harold in Italy—an impressionistic story of a journey in the Italian mountains. 

When I picked up the viola, I was so happy. I just love the tone.- C.J. Chang

CJC: Viola has that special tone. And this theme obviously showcases that tone. 

SL: Judging it to be a more orchestral than solo vehicle for the viola, Paganini declined to play the premiere—but later publicly praised the work, paying Berlioz 20,000 francs. Other composers writing solos for viola include Bartok, Walton, and Hindemith.

Listen to C.J. Chang and the Philadelphia Orchestra perform Berlioz’s Harold in Italy on WRTI, Sunday, March 19th at 1 pm and on Monday, March 20th at 7 pm on WRTI HD-2.