When people find out that I play with the Knoxville Symphony, the conversation generally continues as follows:
“So, what instrument do you play?”
“I play the viola.”
“Viola... Is that like a violin?”
“Well, kind of...”
The viola is not nearly as well-known as it's counterparts in the string section. It is held under the chin like a violin but has a lower sound. In fact, it has the same strings as the cello: C-G-D-A but they sound an octave higher. In the Knoxville Symphony, the viola section sits right next to the first violin section. Our general purpose in the orchestra is to support and fill in the middle of the string sound. Our parts are the best bits of what the violins play combined with the best parts of what the cellos play. And, sometimes we even get the tune to ourselves. It may sound strange since the violins usually get to be front and center with the melodic line, but my love of orchestral viola parts is the main reason I switched my focus from violin to viola in graduate school.
It's rare for an orchestra to program a viola concerto. The viola is not considered a solo instrument, which is too bad. I'm not sure why this is, there are a number of possibilities. Compared to the violin and cello, there's not much solo repertoire written for the viola. When Lucas asked me to play a viola concerto with the chamber orchestra this January, we began the hunt for a Baroque-era viola concerto. There were exactly three to choose from. There are hundreds of Baroque violin concerti. It's not that composers don't like the viola. Actually, many composers were also amateur violists. Dvorák, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Bach all played the viola. (So did Jimi Hendrix, but that's another story.) Violin has always been king of the strings and an audience favorite. Historically, composers have relied on commissions to pay their bills. Perhaps if one of Mozart's patrons had been an amateur violist he would have written five viola concerti instead of five violin concerti. Most of the solo repertoire for the viola was written in the 20th century although there are some great pieces from earlier eras.
Some pieces that feature the viola are:
Harold in Italy by Berlioz
Symphony #6 “Pathetique” by Tchaikovsky
Don Quixote by R. Strauss
Viola Concerto by William Walton
Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major by Mozart