String Types by Ryan Fox

String Types by Ryan Fox

Having found an instrument, I decided to try as many different strings to find which set/combination best suited my viola and playing style. It is important to have the instrument adjusted in order to compensate for lower or higher tension strings, but many of these qualities will be apparent on your instrument, regardless. I hope that my experiences and descriptions can help save time and money for those intimidated by the myriad string choices available to us!

I think it’s important to preface this by saying that just because a particular string or combination may work or respond on one instrument doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on another! I remember certain strings working very well on one trial viola and not at all on another. I have, however, found that most of these strings have distinct qualities, sounds, and speeds of response that are easily produced no matter what kind of instrument or bow you have.

Steel strings!:

While gut strings were certainly the most popular until the introduction of synthetics, steel strings were actually available and used—even back in the time of Stradivari and Guarneri. They have evolved quite a bit since then, and I find that the winding of steel strings has an enormous impact on these strings.

My experience with steel strings are as follows:

Larsen A

These strings are of the highest quality but fetch a high price-tag as well.

A: This is probably the most commonly used (for good reason) A-string on the market for violists. The response is easy, sound is clear and brilliant, complex, maintains its integrity in the upper register, and projects with ease. I also have found that they last a very long time and don’t die the sudden and horrible death that Evah Pirazzis seem to. I found it to have the most “core” of any other La as well.

Low-tension A: I found the sound to be a bit warmer than the medium-gauge A, easier in response, but “whiffed” when urged to play loudly in the high register (the second statement of the first-movement’s theme in the Walton concerto, for instance).

tl;dr [too long; didn’t read]: buy the medium tension and don’t worry about trying A-strings ever again.

Vision Solo A

This string is the only steel one of the otherwise synthetic-core set, and I found on many instruments that it was a bit soft (didn’t resist bow pressure like the Larsens), extremely whiny, thin-sounding, and excessively bright. Its redeeming quality would be the amazingly easy response, but for nearly the same price as a Larsen (but sans the quality of sound). I would go with the Larsen any day unless you are dead-set on having a matching . . . uh . . . set.

Jargar A

Like Larsens, these are popular steel strings with cellists, but MUCH more affordable (I think the in-store price A is like $8 as opposed to the ~$26 dollar Larsen [buy online…]). This string is a very good alternative if price is an issue, and the sound is more than passable. It is less colorful and harder to draw out intriguing sounds, but the response is there, and it is not so banal that it would ever cost you a job or anything (no string should). Not my favorite, but matches the

Vision Solo or Dominant sets WAY better than their respective A-strings . . . possibly better than a Larsen would.

Jargar Forte

I cannot see a situation where this much tension would be necessary except for Cello applications. Absolutely seized up and spoke like it was King George the VI.

Kaplan D’addario A

I like the rest of the set, but no.

Passione A

As an alternative to the aluminum-wound gut-core A, Pirastro makes a Chrome-steel A string for use with more modern and demanding repertoire. While the gut A is simply brilliant, it squeaks and cries above 4th position at mf dynamics and simply wouldn’t endure anything like Shnittke, Bartók, or Don Juan. The Chrome-steel A, however, is low in tension like the rest of the Passione set, but can withstand modern repertoire and has a remarkably beautiful tone! Round and colorful, but can attack sharply when asked. A fantastic option if one is looking to try something beautiful and clear, but lower in tension than Larsen or Jargar strings. And it’s not gut-core like the rest of the Passiones, so it’s vegan-friendly

Evah Pirazzi A

There is a definite reason you rarely—if ever—see the signature green and black Pirazzi designation on the a strings of most violists, despite them having Evah D, G, and C’s. They are shrill, high-tension, absolutely SCREAM, and don’t match the intriguing complexity characteristic of the rest of the Evah Pirazzi set. This one is a no-go.


Comes in two different winding options. Don’t go home with chrome. The silver, however, has a . . . sandy . . . quality that I find quite amazing. Response is different than synthetic G’s, but the density of these rope-core steel strings allows more area of the string to be played (pretty far over the fingerboard, actually), which opens up the potential for expanded possibilities of different timbre than most synthetics, and they can certainly pack a punch. The soft dynamics don’t sound vapid at all—even ppp will still have a great core to the sound, and can even withstand the bow pressure of the wild-stallion Yuri Bashmet.


Comes in three different windings: chrome, silver, and tungsten . . . but when people talk about using a Spirocore C, they undoubtedly are referring to the tungsten. It is everything that the G is, but responds 10x better than it or any other C, G, D, or A string I have ever tried. If you haven’t put one on, at least try it—it’s simply amazing. It’s the kind of tone and response where the first time I tried one, I played an open string and just laughed (for some reason). Many older instruments by legendary makers are described as having a gritty, grainy sound, and when pushed, this string will produce that sound. I don’t feel the need to corroborate my opinions with ridiculously credible credentials, but some other people might . . . so here ya go. Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet actually said: “Every viola needs a Spirocore C (and possibly the G if it works),” Lawrence Power mixes this string with Olivs, Yuri Bashmet is an advocate, as is Gilad Karni, and Roberto Díaz just uses a full set of Spirocores on his ex-Primrose Amati.

It’ll cost you $52 a pop . . . seemingly expensive, but I kid you not, there is a bass player in the Chicago symphony who auditioned on and played his ENTIRE CAREER on the same set of Spirocores.

They last for a while.

The Rest of the D’addario Kaplan set

I first heard these on the viola of a studio-mate and was flabbergasted at how incredibly clear and responsive they were. I mistook the wrapping near the top of the strings for Passiones but later discovered them to be steel Kaplan wonderbeasts. I was disappointed when I put them on my old Italian thing and they didn’t work, but Marie-Elyse sounds great, so these could very well be a cheaper alternative to a set of Spirocores for you to try. Just goes to show that strings are quite melodramatic in their reaction to the instrument they are applied to.



Really hard to go wrong with these. I haven’t found a single application in which they “didn’t work” on, but some violas absolutely shone with them (a Vuillaume and Storioni, in particular). Easy response, sweet sound once they break in (they sound pretty metallic for two days), great tone, but they don’t carry like Spirocores, Evahs, or have the nuance of gut strings. Both Dominants and Obligatos come closer to gut strings in sound than any other synthetic I’ve tried (I’m not counting Passiones as synthetic for this review). Still favored by Pinchas Zukerman as standard after a brief affair he had with Vision Solos. I would pair these with a Jargar A, however, as the A string is, in my opinion, totally wrong. James Dunham and Ivo-Jan van der Werff (both famous quartet players) used the heavy-gauge version of these before Passiones came around.

Vision Solo:

A remarkably easy set of strings to play, the C and G responding and singing with very little effort required. As you know, I dislike the A, but I particularly abhor the D—I find it to be the most intriguing and one-dimensional string on the market. With half of the set leaving me wanting, I’d personally shy away from these when you also consider that, despite the ease of playability in the low register, the whole set lacks a palette of colors to keep me captivated. Easy to ply, but just as easy to get bored with. I do, however, use these when I have no performances or auditions coming up and just need to learn notes/build left-hand technique. The ease of sound production allows me to focus on other aspects of my playing and to build my technique.


obbligato or music obligato (ˌɒblɪˈɡɑːtəʊ)

— adj

1.  not to be omitted in performance

— n , -tos , -ti

2.  an essential part in a score: with oboe obbligato

[C18: from Italian, from obbligare to oblige ]

These strings are one of the more commonly used sets, and for very good reason. They have a sound that darkens particularly bright instruments and a lower tension than Evah Pirazzis. This may actually make an instrument louder if it tends to be “choked” by higher tensions strings like Evahs or Spriocores. I don’t want to be redundant in my descriptions, so pardon my rightbrainedness and try to use your corpus callosum here. The sound is chewy and chocolaty on a lot of instruments that I’ve used them on, but my ear found their darkness achieved by suppressing particular overtones; making them dark, but not as resonant. Spirocores achieve their loudness in the same way, by utilizing lots of high overtones and getting a sound that is unique and cuts—Obligatos, I’d surmise, do this too, but by favoring some of the lower partials. This leaves a certain flatness to the sound and is my only complaint with these strings. The C-string is amazing in its response I would dare say it is responsible for the idiosyncratic “viola-sound” we all hear in our heads when someone says, “The slow movement of Beethoven 3.” Like their name implies, they can be an essential part in forming the sound you desire and are certainly worth a try. You will see these, Spirocores, Vision Solos, and Evah Pirazzi used more than any other string out there for viola.

Evah Pirazzi:

By a landslide, these dominate the market as the most used string here in the states (and I assume elsewhere). Their sound is brilliant when provoked but have a beautiful kind of plastic sounding aesthetic. They may lack cello-like depth, but I won’t complain—their sound is so unique that it’s the only other string set besides Spirocores that I can hear a recording and say, “Oh, this person is using Evah Pirazzis.” The Larsen A blends great and is almost essential considering how much of a terrible outlier the Evah Pirazzi A-string is. The C-string may be a bit tubby and require some extra effort to get moving, but the sound feels like a pleasantly full stomach and has a great balance between meatiness core and I-bet-you’ve-never-heard-theviola-part-of-this-quartet-before brilliance. Favored by genius performers, such as Kim Kashkashian, her students, viola-makers, Sergein Yap, Joshua Bell (I know, I know, a violinist . . .), and in between Ivo-Jan van der Werff’s time with Dominants and Passiones, he used these as well. As does Peter Slowik. And, like 8,000 other great and aspiring performers. The only real downside to these strings (besides the fact that they absolutely do not work on my viola despite any type of adjustment I’ve had done . . .) is that they die a sudden, terrible, and heinous death. Like an off-switch. “Hey guys, I gave 100% 24/7, so I’m just gonna die now without warning. Good luck in studio class today.” They are also quite expensive. Definitely worth a try if you haven’t—you may just find your ideal string. I, however, had to keep searching as they choked my instrument and wouldn’t resonate or respond . . . and I found that string when I bought my first set of…


We are obviously moving on to Gut Strings!!

Passiones are kind of weirdly in-between synthetic and gut, and since no one wants a science lesson in string theory (*crickets*) let’s just say they are very stable versions of gut strings that can withstand a bit more abuse. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because gut strings can’t take much abuse and are incredibly unstable compared to Vision Solos and other synthetics.


The sound combined with the relative stability is unparalleled, in my opinion. The sound they produce—though you can’t play as lazily with the right hand as you can with Visions—is oh-so dark brown! They cut, respond like you wouldn’t believe (when played correctly—they require obsessive attention to contact point and bow speed . . . closer to the bridge, slower bow speed, tighter bow hair, less pressure, you’ll get it), and may feel/sound soft under the ear, but they produce a sound that carries and sounds particularly unbelievable in the audience. If you try them, have someone else play your viola (preferably a violist) and listen to how they sound from afar. You can feel the chin rest and bow vibrating with sympathetic resonance and can create sounds which other strings just cannot. You can support the music you’re playing by evoking colors such as mournful or plaintive, 1950s, Cleveland Quartet, manic, English, dark-brilliance, water, and “whoa.”

You kind of just need to hear them/try them.

Ivo and Mr. Dunham have chosen these as their current string-of choice, and they also occupy

the D and G slots on my viola. (not Ivo and Mr. Dunham . . . Passiones . . .)


Would be my inner-string string of choice if I didn’t live in Houston. The irascible weather and humidity make these highly sensitive strings commit suicide fairly quickly. But their hypersensitivity will allow you to play with equal sensitivity and a truly special sound. Gut strings were used back in the day for symbolic reasons as well as aesthetic. They are, and were, made from lamb (NOT CATS), in homage to the Lamb of God, and to glorify said lamb by playing holy music on strings made out of materials that paid symbolic reverence.

And they sound worthy of the lamb (when Lawrence Power plays his inner-two strings, at least . . .). With projection, resonance, response and intriguing tone truly unmatched by anything else I’ve tried, the sound of these strings will never become antiquated. They do, however, die faster than every single synthetic.

You must, must, must buy the stiff version of these strings—if you do, they will be comparable in power and projection to Evah Pirazzis and can withstand much more bow pressure. Really worth a try, especially on older instruments that were designed for this type of material and tension. I have no idea how they would fare on a Greiner or Zygmuntowicz.

They carry a huge price tag . . . so give them a chance if you buy a set, don’t string ‘em up and throw them out. They require a different right-hand approach but are so much easier on the left hand. They might even be a great option to anyone unwilling to take a break, but who is suffering from left-arm pain.


Cheaper, softer, weaker, but for some reason amazing C-string on certain instruments. I found them to be less suitable for playing anything other than Bach, but the C-string (actually a tungsten-wrapped stiff-gauge string called Eudoxa-Oliv), just sounds glorious. They really are not comparable in my opinion to Olivs and were created to be a budget option to Olivs back in the day, but a dear friend of mine uses the C and sounds magnificent, clear, and loud—so yeah, that’s why we try different strings


Larsen D:

(These descriptions are shorter because my impression of these strings wasn’t terribly great, and I don’t have much to say on them.)

The Larsen D is quite flimsy under pressure (like 3x as bendy as gut strings), one-dimensional, loud, and quite frankly I have a hard time believing it’s from the same company that makes the A-string. They sound great on Celli, but we don’t play those behemoths.

Larsen G:

Better than the D, but equally weird and uninspiring. Seems to just produce pitch, not actual sound/music.

Spirocore D:

Doesn’t have any of the amazingness of the C or G, but isn’t as bad as the Larsen D. It is clear and full, but requires a lot of activity to make it work, to the point of tendon pain after a while. It lacks the unique qualities of the specially-wound C or G, and just kinda sounds like steel with rosin on it. Especially after hearing a gut string, it leaves a general impression of “whuck?” when you hear it.


Felt like noodles under my fingers (they are like half the width of all other strings). Crazy easy response—the entire Houston symphony viola section with the exception of one person was using them for a while (according to a local luthier). Not much else to say though, you can get so much better sounding strings if you’re willing to give up a bit of easy-bow-response.

To conclude, here’s some interesting c-c-c-c-combos used by famous/familiar people.

Roberto Díaz: Spiros

Lawrence Dutton:

Spirocore C,

Spirocore G

no idea for the D,

guessing Larsen A.

~”Every viola needs a Spirocore C”

Lawrence Power:

Spirocore C,

Oliv D,

Oliv G,

Larsen A


Pinchas Zukerman: Dominants with a Jargar A

Kim Kashkashian:

Evah Pirazzi C,

Evah G,

Evah D,

Larsen A.

James Dunham:

Passione C,

Passione G,

Passione D,

Larsen A.

Ivo-Jan Van der Werff: Passiones all across

Joan DerHovsepian

Evah C,

Evah G,

Evah D,

Larsen A.

Gilad Karni: Spiros

Yuri Bashmet

Sprio C,

Spiro G,

Larsen D,

Larsen A.

There are many, many more brilliant orchestral and solo violists out there whom I did not mention SOLELY because I don’t know for sure what strings they are using these days! Just wanted to give examples of what some of our heroes are using 🙂


I am using…

Spirocore C,

Passione G,

Passione D,

Larsen A.

Viola Studies in Germany – Rebecca Gu

As an undergraduate, I spent a semester studying abroad at a “Hochschule für Musik” (conservatory) in Germany.

I wanted to share some observations on the differences between my experiences studying the viola as an American student in Germany versus the United States. Though subjective, I hope some of these thoughts may be of interest to any violists out there thinking of studying at a German school, whether for an exchange semester or a complete degree program.

  U.S. conservatory/school of music German “Hochschule”
Time • Student schedule more structured

• Curriculum more strictly prescribed

• Generally, must be on campus Monday–Friday

• Greater flexibility  = greater independence and responsibility

• The average student will have significantly more “free” time to accord to his/her practicing needs

• There are fewer frills involved with being enrolled at an institution.

• Some students also work part-time as paid “Akademisten” – often out of town

• Can be at school as little as once/week – though most stay to practice

Teacher-student relationship Closer, from my perspective Sense of greater distance – not emotional, but in terms of authority
Cost • Tuition before any scholarship

• Cost of living more expensive (housing, groceries)

• State-funded – free or very little tuition

• Cost of living less expensive (housing, groceries, government-subsidized student meals in the “Mensa” (student cafeteria))

Academics • Heavier academic load (often, distribution/core credits; papers, exams and homework assignments)

• Greater number of courses required for degree

• Lighter academic load

• More realistic correlation of credits and actual time spent – for instance, lessons earn  approximately 7 U.S. credits


Type of academic instruction • Theory, history courses taught through lecture classes with emphasis on written work

• Scale step theory/roman numeral analysis

• Theory taught through private or semi-private lessons (groups of 2-3) with emphasis on practical application at the keyboard

• Function theory (“Funktionstheorie”)

Musical curriculum • Some emphasis on orchestral excerpts

• Chamber music tends to be a built-in part of the program, with planned performance classes and recitals

• Orchestra tends to a regularly recurring class meeting 2–3 times/week

• Chamber music is self-organized and performances are initiated by the group

• Orchestra is assigned by project, rehearsing daily/intensively over a 2-week period in between longer periods of rest

The private lesson… • … is an hour long

• tends to stay private, not observed except occasionally by friends

• … is an hour and a half

• is often observed by students from the same or other studios and visitors (and one of the most valuable learning experiences for me was traveling to listen to lessons with different teachers!!)

Sound concept – emphasizing here that this is extremely subjective! • darker timbre

• use of weight to achieve expressivity – more condensed bow

• brighter timbre

• use of full bows and bow speed to achieve expressivity

Musical opportunities • I found gigging opportunities limited as an exchange student.

• Ease of train travel for sight-seeing, out-of-town lessons, or auditions

• Stronger sense of classical music culture in community – better audience turnout and appreciation

Interaction with other violists • Studio class as performing opportunity

• More casual camaraderie

• No studio class; instead, frequent studio recitals

• More professional interaction

School social culture • Planned social events involving entire student body

• Students dress casually – usually/there is a looser dress code

• No planned events for school community

• Students tend to dress professionally – for example: most female students wear heels/nice boots to their lessons or just to practice (to be casually dressed may have been considered rude to the teacher)

Culture: beyond the conservatory walls… • “Telling culture” – generally, more information than necessary is given to you, such that you are prepared to sift out what you need when the time comes

• Ask yourself… what can I learn about my own culture? How do I contribute?

• “Asking culture” – if you need help or information, you must ask for it.

• Prepare yourself for culture shock.  If the ethnic demographic of the culture you’re visiting varies significantly from that of your own, try not to take acts of prejudice or discrimination too personally. As a non-Caucasian American in Germany, I initially interpreted acts of discrimination as personal assaults, before learning that while not correct or excusable, these acts tended more often to be a result of obliviousness than malicious intent.

• Ask yourself, what is this new culture teaching me? How do I interact with this culture while I’m a part of it?

Every school is unique. In my (limited!) experience, there are pros and cons to consider for both systems. With the chart above, I’ve sought to make some observations that might be helpful or thought-provoking to fellow violists, rather than argue that one system is better than the other.

Taking your instrument abroad and investing through your playing an environment that stimulates you can be an extremely enriching and formative experience. Beyond exposure to a new musical culture, you will improve your language skills, develop a heightened sensitivity to different perspectives, and build lifelong relationships with people from a different background who share your passions and worldview.

Scordatura Tuning in Bach’s Fifth Suite by Meredith Kufchak

When I started learning Bach’s fifth suite, I decided to play it using scordatura, with the A-string tuned down to a G. This is how Bach originally intended the cello to be tuned to play this suite, although it is not uncommon for performers today to play it with standard tuning. The reason I initially chose to play with scordatura tuning was because that was how the suite was originally written, but I discovered several other reasons for and against the scordatura tuning as I was learning the piece.

First of all, I should address the difference in difficulty of fingerings between the two tunings. For the most part I would say that the scordatura tuning makes the piece easier to get under your fingers. It minimizes the amount of shifting you have to do, especially for chords and double stops, and it fits more comfortably into the hand. Another thing that’s great about the fingerings is that those nasty fifths on the upper two strings are now played with the hand shape of a sixth, which feels much better in the hand. On the down side, fourths, which are hard enough to play in tune as it is, are now played how you would normally play a fifth. Also, in some passages that go higher than the D one octave above middle C, you have to shift up to reach notes that you wouldn’t have to shift for in standard tuning, but I would say that on the whole, the scordatura tuning minimizes shifting and makes the fingerings simpler.

Another benefit that I really enjoy about the scordatura tuning is that I can play every note in all of the chords. Those extra notes are so important to creating full sounding chords, even though leaving out one note can seem insignificant. But I love that I can play chords that aren’t normally possible with standard tuning. For example, there are so many C-minor triads in the suite with the open high G string on top, and I can’t imagine having to choose which of those notes not to play. It’s not physically possible to play all the notes in standard tuning, unless you awkwardly break the chord to be able to sound all the pitches. There are so many chords that have to be simplified with standard tuning, and I feel that taking away those notes really detracts from the rich harmonies. 

Another reason I really love playing with scordatura tuning is because of what it does for the resonance of my viola. With two G strings, the higher one of which is an overtone of the C string, my viola resonates so much more! That added resonance is another reason why the chords sound so rich and full.

One difficulty that I initially encountered when learning the suite with scordatura tuning was simple coordination. I realized how much we take for granted that what we see on the page comes out sounding how we expect it to! It took me a while to get used to the fact that what it feels like I’m playing in my hand is not at all what is reaching my ears. I was a Suzuki kid, so playing by ear comes very naturally to me. When I am playing with scordatura tuning, I have to be very attentive to not slip into playing by ear, because then I start putting down the fingers that I would be using if I were playing with standard tuning.

This same thing is true regarding memorization. I prefer to memorize Bach suites for performances, because I feel that I can give a more natural and spontaneous performance if it is memorized. However, I have so far been unsuccessful in memorizing the fifth suite with scordatura tuning. When I memorize pieces, I usually don’t consciously try to remember specific fingerings. Rather, when I am familiar enough with a piece to the point where I have all the notes in my head, my fingers naturally find where they are supposed to be as I am playing. This does not work with scordatura tuning! Since we are so accustomed to our standard tuning, our fingers just try to go where they would go when we’re playing by ear, and what comes out is a bunch of wrong notes. You have to be constantly alert while you’re playing to override the automatic response of your fingers to go where they think they should go. When you’re playing with the music, the pitches on the high G-string are notated a whole step above how they sound, so you don’t have to think too hard about where you’re putting your fingers. But when you take the music away, it’s very difficult to keep playing those same notes!

I think that some violas are more conducive to the scordatura tuning than others, depending on each viola’s sound. Some violas will sound really good tuned down and will resonate more. Some violas have a tendency to sound very nasally with the A-string tuned to a G, and sometimes it is difficult for the nasally sound of the high G-string to blend well with the tone of the other strings. It tends to stick out of the texture if you’re not careful about it.

One more thing to consider, if deciding whether or not to use scordatura tuning, is the style in which you prefer to play Bach. Some people take a very romantic approach to Bach, and I feel that the scordatura tuning is not well suited to that approach because of the open, more nasally sound that the viola has with the high G-string. But if you play Bach in a Baroque style, I think that the scordatura tuning sounds more natural. For me, that means playing more simply and not overusing vibrato.

Scordatura tuning is definitely something to consider when playing Bach’s fifth suite. I have really enjoyed playing the suite with scordatura tuning, even though it felt strange at first. Re-tuning the instrument can give the viola a different, unique tone and open up so many new color possibilities. It’s also fun just to try something different and explore the possibilities of your viola!

Lillian Fuchs

Lillian Fuchs, 1902–1995

0407a Lillian_Fuchs

Where was she educated?

She studied with Louis Svecenski and Franz Kneisel at the New York Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School)

How did she come to the viola?

She began playing viola to join the Perole String Quartet

Where did she work as a professional musician?

She played with the Perole String Quartet until the mid-1940s, and later she was a viola soloist and performed in Europe and the United states. She also performed regularly with her two brothers, Harry Fuchs (cello) and Joseph Fuchs (violin). In 1962 she started teaching at the Manhattan School of Music; in 1971, at the Juilliard School; and in the 1980s, at Mannes College of Music.

Notable compositions?

Works for unaccompanied viola: Fifteen Characteristic Studies (1965), Twelve Caprices (1950), Sixteen Fantasy Études (1961), and Sonata Pastorale (1956)

Interesting facts:

Lillian Fuchs began her musical studies as a pianist before switching to violin.

Geraldine Walther, Lawrence Dutton, Yizhak Schotten, Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zuckerman, and Dorothy DeLay are a few of her many students.

She played on a Gasparo da Salò (1540–1609) and always used a gut “A” string because she considered it sacrilege to use anything else on such an old instrument.

First violist to record all six Bach suites on viola.

Links to recordings  

Prelude to the sixth Bach suite, performed by Lillian Fuchs


Sarabande to Bach’s 3rd suite, performed by Lillian Fuchs


Mozart Duo No. 2, KV 424, performed by Joseph and Lillian Fuchs


Martinu Madrigals, (composed for the siblings), Joseph and Lillian Fuchs






Quincy Porter Viola Concerto by Aaron Conitz

0403a Porter


Drawing of Quincy Porter playing viola

During my final year of undergraduate at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I participated in a studio recital project that was to feature music by American composers written for viola. While there were some obvious choices, my colleagues and I encountered something of a vacancy in the viola repertoire: American composers. It was because of this endeavor that I discovered the rich and diverse repertoire written for the viola by Quincy Porter. Among Porter’s works, I found the Suite for Solo Viola (1930) to be extremely attractive; its rhythmic drive, lyrical nature, and extremely idiomatic feel was quite provocative. I performed the work at the studio recital in Cleveland and then once again as part of my first doctoral recital here at Rice University. Working on the suite was challenging and rewarding; his compositional style is engaging, technically demanding, and always fits the instrument well.

My first encounter with the music of Quincy Porter inspired further investigation. While preparing the Suite, I found myself turning to recordings of the piece, which lead to the discovery of more of his works for viola. Eliesha Nelson’s recording of Porter’s complete works for viola was particularly inspiring, not only because of the wonderful artistry and execution demonstrated by Eliesha, but also in the presentation of so many beautiful pieces that I had never encountered before. It was obvious to me that these pieces needed to be performed regularly. The first piece I would turn to was the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. I would like to first give a brief biographical sketch of Porter to provide some historical context and, second, to describe my experience preparing and performing the concerto.

0403b Nelson

Cover of Eliesha Nelson’s Grammy-Award-winning CD of Porter’s music

Quincy Porter (1897–1966) was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to a musical family. His early interest in composition and viola performance brought him to pursue studies in composition and viola at Yale College (1919) and Yale School of Music (1921) with Horatio Parker and David Stanley Smith. In 1921 he received additional instruction from Vincent d’Indy while studying in Paris. Upon returning to America he began private composition lessons with Ernest Bloch; when Bloch was appointed the first president of the fledgling Cleveland Institute of Music, Porter followed him to Ohio. Porter’s involvement at the Institute was as a member of the theory faculty and violist in the Ribaupierre Quartet, the resident ensemble of CIM. Porter received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to return to Paris for three years (1928–31). Several sources claim that his compositional style came to fruition during the time spent in Paris; notable works were composed during this period including his String Quartet No. 3, Suite for Solo Viola, and the Violin Sonata No. 2. In 1932 Porter was appointed as professor of music at Vassar College; this position would mark the beginning of his career as a composition teacher and music educator. He remained at Vassar until 1938, when he was appointed dean of the faculty at New England Conservatory. Porter returned to Yale University in 1946 as professor of music and remained in this position until his retirement in 1965.

Porter’s compositional output represents an amalgamation of his American and French training, with a strong emphasis on contrapuntal line within a rhythmic and polytonal harmonic environment. The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra strongly represents all of these distinctive qualities. Written in 1948, the concerto was first performed and recorded by Paul Doktor and later would be taken up by several other notable performers including William Primrose, the piece’s dedicatee. Primrose described the work as “one of the most engaging of viola concertos,” although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention as other works written for Primrose. Howard Boatwright, in his eulogy for Porter, suggested that the work’s lack of attention was largely due to the fact that it was directly contemporaneous with the Bartók Viola Concerto, even though “in many respects the Porter is a more satisfying piece.”

The work is comprised of four movements; the first three are performed attacca, with an optional break between the third and final movements. It follows a non-standard progression of slow–fast–slow–fast. The first movement is extremely lyrical and flowing, characterized by somewhat unusual groupings of five and six, slurred in such a way that the divisions of pulse are obfuscated, making it difficult for both the violist and accompanist to have a sense of metric structure. Examine the opening passage of the first movement—


Opening of the Porter Concerto

The rhapsodic gestures are rhythmic in nature but are given a more cantabile effect through the slurring (e.g., groupings across two sets of sextuplets). This particular feature is maintained throughout the movement; learning to feel the rhythmic gestures but also to establish a lyrical quality was definitely a challenge on an individual level, but also became problematic when putting it together with piano (Note: not a likely piece to be able to put together for a lesson in one rehearsal …).

The second movement opens with an extensive orchestral interlude, after which the viola enters with a more extroverted, but nonetheless lyrical, melody. I found that the largest challenge in approaching this movement was not learning and executing the notes, although they did pose some difficulty, but putting it to memory; its meandering, soulful melodic passages soar above the orchestra, but tend to have such similar harmonic quality that it becomes difficult in distinguishing where one phrase goes that another didn’t and vice versa.

Without a doubt the third movement is my favorite of the four. It has an intensely introverted quality that suits the viola so incredibly well. Porter provides a number of modal scales that serve as the harmonic underpinnings of the movement. An extended cadenza is at the heart of the movement; it displays a wide range of virtuosic passage work and double-stops. The cadenza has such juicy substance that was so much fun to work on and experiment with colors and effects.

The finale movement is a raucous, almost rustic, dance and is full of challenging scalar-passage work as well as ostinato-like double stops (reminiscent of the second movement of the solo suite). One particular passage was great fun to learn and also to play—the harmonies Porter travels through are wonderful!

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Page from the fourth movement of Porter’s Concerto

This delightful movement has enormous character and flair, providing the performer with ample opportunity to demonstrate playing of the highest order. Unlike most viola concertos, the Porter ends with a bang!

My journey through discovering, learning, and performing this concerto was incredibly fulfilling, not only musically but also technically. The work displays such a range of technical and musical demands while remaining tonally accessible in a way that is certainly comparable to the “Big Three” concertos. I highly encourage everyone to explore and revive the works of Quincy Porter, for he is certainly an American composer to be heard.

Playing with the San Antonio Symphony by Blake Turner

As a music student, I’ve naturally found that much of my time is spent working in the practice room. In recent years, a large portion of my practice sessions have been focused on orchestral excerpts for orchestra repertoire class and either summer festivals or professional auditions.  Individual practice helps us as players to reach our goals, but it can’t teach or prepare us for everything. And for myself, I’ve found this holds true for orchestral playing. In the past, I’ve worked on excepts with the intention and hope of eventually joining a professional orchestra, and while practicing excerpts helps us to single out and perfect important portions of major works, nothing can replace the experience of playing with a professional symphony.

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Me, with the viola section of the San Antonio Symphony

One such opportunity for me occurred this past January, in which I got to play in the viola section of the San Antonio Symphony for winning the AVS Orchestral Excerpts Competition. Having been raised in the San Antonio area, I grew up attending concerts and watching the symphony, so it was very surreal for me to be on the same stage with musicians that I had idolized as a young violist. Apart from enjoying myself and soaking in the whole experience, I took notice of what a professional orchestra like the San Antonio Symphony did differently or better than the other orchestras that I had played in.

Something that really impressed me during rehearsals was everyone’s focus and attention to detail. The fact of the matter is that professional orchestras do not have the luxury of many rehearsals and the time to spend combing bit by bit through the music. This means that more of the responsibility falls on the musician, not the conductor, to bring out the subtleties within the music.

Again, something else I noticed that was tied to good musicianship and efficiency was how closely the symphony musicians listened to each other. If there was a section that didn’t go smoothly or was out of tune, everything was usually fixed the next time we ran the passage.

These are all aspects of orchestral playing that I understood were important, but they gained an extra degree of significance for me after that week. The whole experience was just another reminder to me that a large part of our growth and development as musicians comes not just while in the practice room, but from sharing and performing music in the real world.

Healthy Practice Habits by Rachel Li

Have small goals to achieve during a practice session.

It’s really good to have intentional guidance from the start; it motivates you to focus on achieving that goal instead of wasting time doing mindless play-throughs of the piece.

Use the metronome.

Of course a metronome is not needed at all times, but a metronome helps keep you accountable with your tendencies to rush or slow down, as well as aiding in maintaining a consistent tempo when necessary. Overall, using the metronome creates a grounded foundation from which the piece can grow.

Take the time to work on technique, not just the pieces you are working on.

Working on technique exercises on the side will keep you on your A game, and therefore, help you play your pieces better. It also keeps you accountable with consistently strengthening your general weaknesses.

Slow practice, especially for technically challenging areas.

Slowing difficult passages down helps you pinpoint what is making the passage so hard.  When you slow down, you also become more grounded and feel more secure.

Record yourself.

As painful as it is to hit that play button and listen to your own playing, this is a good habit to maintain. It teaches you to be your own teacher and reveals to your ears so many things that you are not noticing in your playing. It also keeps you accountable with your progress on the piece.

Find the difficult sections and make sure those sections are practiced daily.

It’s easy for us to play the easy sections over and over again, because it feels good to play well.  However, it saves a lot of time if we, from the start, pinpoint those gnarly sections and focus on them first, and then work on them daily.  This helps prevent the buildup of overwhelming frustration when you get stuck in a passage.

Look at the score.

When you are collaborating, it is so helpful to see your part in context with the other parts. It guides you toward knowing what it is that you need to focus on when you are learning the piece.

Take breaks.

You’ll actually realize that you focus better if you take small breaks. This is also good for preventing injuries.

Frank Bridge

Frank Bridge (1879–1941)

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What was the focus of his career?

He was a violinist but also a gifted violist. He played in multiple string quartets, notably the Joachim Quartet and English String Quartet. He was also a conductor before he started composing. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an American pianist, was one of his important patrons.

What were the highlights of his career?

Aside from his string-quartet career, he was also appointed assistant to Sir Thomas Beecham at the New Symphony Orchestra, and he occasionally substituted for Sir Henry Wood as a conductor at Queen’s Hall.

What were his influences/where did he go to school?

He went to the Royal College of Music, studying violin and composition. He was later awarded a scholarship to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford.

Being a pacifist, he was traumatized by WWI. His composition style changed at that point—having more dissonance and darkness.

Works written for him?

Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) by Benjamin Britten, based on Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet (1906)

Did he have any notable students?

Benjamin Britten was his most well known student. Britten was eleven when he studied with him, and had much affection for his teacher.

What was his family life like?

When Bridge was six, his father started teaching him violin. Later he played in and arranged music for his father’s theater orchestra.

Three Idylls for String Quartet was dedicated to Ethel Elmore Sinclair, an Australian violinist who sat next to Bridge in the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra. Later he and Ethel got married.

Fun fact

Bridge’s father, William Henry Bridge, had three wives and twelve children. Frank Bridge was the first born of the third wife, ranked tenth in the family.

A Case for the Schnittke Concerto by Jill Valentine

I was riding in the car once with a friend who loves classical music. She had volumes in her car with titles like Classical Chill Favorites, Serenity Classical, and 100 Classics for Relaxation. A dose of Zen in the car was how she survived her daily grind. I was happy to take off the analytical ears myself and enjoy our drive as well. Besides a little too much reverb, it was a well-rounded sampling of major works musicians know well and audiences always love. But it got me thinking.

I had my own music on shuffle once on the highway, and appallingly, after a Jack Johnson track, came the second movement of the Schnittke Viola Concerto. As the buzz kill subsided, I considered what a Classical Not Chill or 100 Best Overwhelming Classical Pieces collection would have on it and how well it would sell. Very often I’ve observed that musicians’ lists of favorite pieces don’t include many purely “relaxing” works. We seem to love the works that emotionally exhaust us from listening, be it from the level of romantic emotion, struggle, despair, joy, etc.

If you’re looking for something to add to that playlist, I would recommend the Schnittke highly.

Nobody should be able to drive down the open road with the windows down loving life while listening to this concerto, but the Schnittke is not made for that. I would argue that it’s made not only to disturb you, but to also make you laugh (uncomfortably) and to drain your energy. It’s one of those rare works when a composer pours his autobiography and his fear wholeheartedly into it, and a work where the viola‘s “weakness,” especially in projection, is rhetorically valuable in itself. Schnittke wrote the concerto in the 1980s while he suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes that eventually took his life. He essentially died and lived to write about it, knowing his time thereafter was limited. It reminds me a lot of the Bartók concerto in that way, but in Schnittke‘s case, we know this is him talking the entire time, and we see his own death in his own words at the end of the piece.

The three-movement rollercoaster is all levels of disturbing and heartbreaking, rich with “should-I-be-laughing” humor and very toneful throughout. It is’‘t serial, and it has enough Romantic influence that I’‘s accessible once you get past the intensity. There’s a melody at the onset, and it even comes back a few times!

The concerto is incredibly difficult to play in many respects. I don’t want to think about how long I have worked on it, and I still can’t play it. But I’ll put it down for a few years and try it again later for sure.

Technical problems include the typical modern-music issues like large jumps, connecting disjunct lines, extended left-hand technique, and endurance with minimalist rhythms that tire your bow arm. Here are some clippings to illustrate:


This is an example of the disjunct, but very connected phrases that happen a lot in the outer movements, which involve big shifts, string crossings, and double stops with awkward replacements. This is also one of the most beautiful moments in the piece, if you ask me 🙂

Not only are the technical aspects challenging, but memorization is also incredibly difficult. The outer movements have many long notes that extend over mixed-meter bars, so anyone with photographic memory will have a huge advantage. I struggled with memorizing the order of time signatures/rests as much as the notes and rhythms themselves.


This note at rehearsal 19 lasts for many beats over many meter changes, and the piano plays straight quarter notes the entire time. It’s very easy to lose count! Cues, such as the (blank) bar where the piano rests, are a good things to have.

The second movement is an overload of chords and notes. Visually, some pages look like a black wall. The chords move in patterns that make it easy to skip one or play one too many times. It’s the most terrifying movement to play without the music, especially the passages that have 16th-note chord accompaniment.


Here’s the first page of the second movement. There are three or four more pages later in the movement that look very much like this one. The notes aren’t hard, but there are a lot, and every restatement has a slight pattern differences.

After you’ve learned the piece by memory (congratulations!!) comes the most important element. You need to sell this piece, a composer’s 40-minute lament over his own looming death. He uses the weak registers of the viola to show his own frailty, the shrill upper register to show himself screaming. Every shortcoming the viola has is used for what it is, and the very human element that results from that is chilling. After I played it in a recital, a friend from the audience said (as a compliment, he assured me) that he “wanted to walk out several times.” Another friend described it as a car crash you couldn’t look away from. While you’re pouring yourself all over the stage and your audience is shifting around uncomfortably, try to save enough energy to make it through the piece, because the structure provides no time for rest. The movements get progressively longer and harder. The second movement has all the notes, but in my experience the third movement is the hardest, because when you come off of the exhausting second movement, rather than relaxing, you have to regroup and get through the longest, slowest, most emotional movement yet.

I’m making it sound horrible. And it is, but it’s worthwhile. We play pieces like this and wonder why we love them so much, when they’re so painful for all parties involved. It’s an acquired taste, I guess, and of course not everyone will like it. But I highly recommend the Schnittke, especially if you are looking for something on the darker side of the repertoire. It won’t make it onto your car-jams or study playlist, and because of its structure it probably wouldn’t bode well in an audition. But the Schnittke will definitely challenge you and your listeners and invite you to appreciate a different kind of “beautiful” in music.

My Favorite Beethoven String Quartet Recording by Chi Lee

Beethoven’s string quartets have remained vital in the string quartet repertoire. No professional string quartet can escape including a number of Beethoven’s string quartets in its central repertoire. Why? There are a number of great composers who input much energy into the genre, such as Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Dvořák, Bartók, and Shostakovich. The string quartet performers surely have a wide range of repertoire choices, just like pianists and orchestras. Why can they not escape the fascination of Beethoven’s quartets?

If the works of a composer are reflections of his mind and soul throughout his life, then the string quartets of Beethoven are the crystallization of these reflections. Through the string quartets, we can see every aspect of his life experience, both physical and spiritual.

Because my quartet group is learning one of Beethoven’s quartets, I recently decided to listen to lots of great recordings. My favorite recording is the Alban Berg Quartet’s live concert, which was recorded at the Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, in 1989 and it was published by EMI classics. In this recording, I especially love the quartet in C Major, Op.18, No. 4. For the Opus 18 quartets, I not only like their diverse color and the richness, but I also think that among all of Beethoven’s early works, these quartets are very Classical in their form while demonstrating the widest array of experimentation. They show a young Beethoven, excelling in the old compositional style, with tremendous drama and innovation, looking for his path. You will not want to miss the Alban Berg Quartet’s vivid playing with such passion in the third movement and the dramatic dynamic range combined with extraordinarily beautiful melody.

The Alban Berg Quartet is definitely one of the best string quartets in the world. Through their performances I feel their respect for the composers they interpret and the music they play. The recording paper insert says that “the ABQ had already made studio recordings of all the Beethoven quartets for EMI when, in 1989, the players thought they should risk remaking the cycle ‘live’ for both audio and video. They felt that any tiny imprecisions would be more than offset by the added frisson of the live occasion, and the result bore out their optimism.” I believe that is why this recording is really special, because they make you feel like they treat every note as if it were the most vital note they have ever played.

As a violist, even though we don’t get so many beautiful melodies like the first violin, we have an important role of giving the first violin support and blending the sound together with others. There are so many incredibly blended moments, such as the beginning of the Op.131 quartet’s fourth movement, that melt your heart. I really like how Mr. Thomas Kakuska plays even just a simple long note; he makes the note so round to support the melody.

The greatness of Beethoven’s string quartets not only lies in their wide palette of style and emotions and their spectacularity, the fascination comes more from the fact that they are so real and human. Through the quartets, one can almost hold Beethoven’s hand and speak with his soul.