Violists often are unlucky butt of jokes


POSTED: Monday, March 23, 2009

Question: How many violists does it take to play the Beethoven viola concerto?

Answer: What is this, a viola joke?





        » ”;Eroica”; Symphony: 8 p.m. Saturday

» Violin Concerto: 4 p.m. Sunday


» Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall


» Tickets: $20 to $82


» Call: 792-2000 or Ticketmaster, (877) 750-4400; or visit www.ticketmaster.com




Do you know about viola jokes? You should. There are hundreds of them. Everybody makes fun of somebody. Russians make fun of Poles, Canadians make fun of Americans and so it goes. Musicians make fun of violists—the players of that alto-voiced instrument, like a violin but a little bigger. Viola jokes are mostly about the skill level of violists (though these days, violists are almost as good as violinists). Lurking behind the humor, there's usually a sad truth.

Q: How many violists does it take to play the Beethoven viola concerto?

A: Zero. There is no Beethoven viola concerto.

The viola is the neglected middle child of the Beethoven concerto family. Altogether, Beethoven wrote seven concertos: epic works in which a courageous soloist gets up in front of the orchestra to do two things.

One: show off a little.

Two: act as an emotional stand-in for Beethoven.

Beethoven's music veers between stormy drama and passion, profound inner peace and beautiful feeling for humankind. The soloists have to traverse all these moods and express them to the audience, with the orchestra's help.

Usually, the soloist is a pianist. If the viola is the middle child, the piano is the spoiled younger child.

Depending on how you count, there are five Beethoven piano concertos—or six or, though it sounds strange, 6 1/3 . The five written just for piano are about the most beautiful things ever, unless you count the one violin concerto.

The violin is the oldest child of the family, getting real tough love. Yes, the Beethoven Violin Concerto is beautiful. In fact, Beethoven liked it so much, he went on to turn it into a piano concerto. That brings the total up to six piano concertos, which seems distinctly unfair to this violinist ... like Beethoven loved the piano more or something ... always giving it everything.

Beethoven's Violin Concerto is magnificent but a bit like a rose with treacherous thorns. The violin's first entrance is impossible to play in tune, a potential disaster right off the bat. That's tough love for you.

The violin and piano also get a third of a share of another concerto, the Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano. That's one-third of a concerto for the cello, which makes it ... the older child's spouse?

At the Beethoven Festival, you don't have to pick favorites. You can hear two piano concertos, the Violin Concerto, the Triple Concerto, four overtures and four glorious symphonies all in one place.