Strauss Viola Recital Shines Spotlight on Underappreciated Instrument

From the Oberlin Review:

Violists endure a lot of abuse. They are the butt of jokes, composers only rarely write solo repertoire for them, and they commonly receive unexciting parts and no solos in orchestral music. But last Saturday, Sept. 7, the viola finally took the spotlight. With standing room only in Kulas Recital Hall, Associate Professor of Viola and Chamber Music Michael Strauss showcased the viola’s coppery tone through some of the immersive works that have been written for it.

The program began ambitiously, with Shostakovich’s monumental Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147. Completed only a few weeks before the composer’s death in 1975, it is the last work he wrote. Fittingly, the piece is intensely sorrowful and exhausting to listen to, let alone play. Yet Mr. Strauss, joined by Professor of Instrumental Accompanying James Howsmon on piano, gave an utterly engrossing performance.

Faint plucked notes at the outset transformed the hall into a macabre salon, a lugubrious parody of light dance music. The viola and piano trace spare themes that seem to both progress and lead nowhere, as if a traveler were wandering through an endless gloomy forest thick with brambles, each grove indistinguishable from any other. Mr. Strauss and Mr. Howsmon amazingly maintained this unsettling atmosphere throughout the long movement.

The fast second movement maintains the mixture of elegy and absurdity, with violent themes over insistent repeated notes conjuring a deranged fiddler.

Unofficially subtitled “in the memory of Beethoven” by Shostakovich, the third movement is the solemn gravestone capping the work. Quotations from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata punctuate fearsome issuances from the grave. The remarkable work ends with the viola endlessly exhaling a single note while the piano sketches distant remembrances of earlier melodies. The audience was left in awe.

The program slowly brightened with Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude, Récitatif, et Variations for Flute, Viola, and Piano, Op. 3. Professor of Piano Monique Duphil transformed the piano into an organ during the cosmic Prélude. Her majestic, low chords gave way to a long-breathed dialogue between Mr. Strauss and Associate Professor of Flute Alexa Still, as if the world were slowly coming into existence. Eventually, lush greenery around a sparkling pond filled that world, populated by frolicsome spirits whistling folksy airs. The piece benefitted from Ms. Still’s beautiful lower register and Ms. Duphil’s crystalline accompaniments.

The slow trajectory from dark to light was completed in the last piece, Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4 from 1919. Despite a definite connection to the Romantic style, the work features Hindemith’s characteristic wit. Carnivalesque melodies abound; during a fugal section, the theme jags downward to a “wrong” note in parody of a Bach fugue. Bright harmonies deceive and defy logic, forcing the viola to dip and dive to stay on its track. Returning to the piano, Mr. Howsmon provided great contrast between textures, providing a kaleidoscopic backdrop to Mr. Strauss’s solid, limber playing.

Discrediting the common vituperation of the viola, Mr. Strauss’s recital was exceptionally executed and immersive from beginning to end. Not only is the viola blessed with a unique tone, its repertoire contains some fascinating pieces. It’s a shame that the viola is not heard more often. Luckily, Mr. Strauss returns to Kulas on Sept. 25 as part of the Hawkeye Trio, with Mr. Howsmon and Fenelon B. Rice Associate Professor of Clarinet Richard Hawkins. After centuries of quietly laboring behind the spotlight, maybe the viola is finally making its way forward.

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