All it took was three simple words — Beijing Viola Ensemble. Well, actually, it was really only the last two words — viola ensemble. Curious, I decided to skip the rest of my classes and go to the concert to see my first-ever viola ensemble performance.
As it turns out, the ensemble is made up of students at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Made up of 20 violists, one cellist and one pianist, the ensemble is directed by Wing Ho, an internationally acclaimed violist who is also the head of the viola department at the Conservatory. The group has performed in the U.S., Canada and throughout eastern Asia.
This year, the ensemble is making another tour through the U.S. with Ho and sixteen of its members. Over their two days at the Eastman School of Music, they toured the school and ate with students and faculty, experiencing life at an American conservatory.
Additionally, there were two master classes on Tuesday — one in the afternoon and one in the evening. These were taught jointly by Ho and Eastman professors of viola John Graham — who helped organize the visit — and George Taylor.
The final part of the visit was the concert that I attended this Wednesday.The concert was, for lack a better word, excellent. It was like a string quartet times four, and without the violins or cello. The ensemble played several short pieces, all variations arranging for viola ensemble and drawing from a wide range of music, including works by Bach to Shostakovich to Mendelssohn as well as two pieces by Chinese composers.
When the group first walked on stage, they seemed a little nervous at first, which resulted in a less than perfect bow, but the nerves quickly disappeared.
The first piece was “Slavonic Dance,” by violist and composer Dvorak. Without question, the melodies were played lyrically and flowed from instrument to instrument. However, the nerves seemed to show up in the faster passages, which felt a little off-balance, although they were still technically clean.
By the second piece, a Chinese song, the nerves had been replaced by a love of performing, and the concert only improved from this point. Opening with an enchanting viola solo, the melodic lines were smooth and connected and the faster sections were sharper and more together.
“I wasn’t crazy about the first piece,” one audience member from Pittsford said. “However, I thought that the second piece was really well performed, and I truly enjoyed the rest of the program, especially the Shostakovich.”
The third piece was conducted by Ho, who had previously joined the ensemble in playing. Written by French composer Henri Vieuxtemps, “Capriccio” had much rubato and Ho’s conducting helped keep the group together, although their playing convinced me that they would have played fine on their own. This piece also included a viola solo that was played just as well as the one in the previous piece.
At this point, the music turned to Prokofiev’s “Waltz” from “War and Peace” which included a cellist. As in all of the later pieces, the ensemble proved itself competent in its ability to play together and perform what the music demanded. They played with a rich, dark sound in all of the pieces, especially in the “Adagio” movement from Mendelssohn’s “Sinfonia No. 8.”
The gorgeous tone was maintained in both the softer and louder sections of the music. The musicians played lightly when the music demanded it and with a full sound when the melody needed to soar above the accompaniment. Not to mention that the intonation was almost impeccable — a feat I imagine to be extremely difficult for fifteen violists and a cellist.
Similar sentiments were felt by the audience. Unfortunately, the concert took place at noon, a terrible time for many Eastman students, but those who were there applauded loudly after each performance. The rendition of the rowdy “Galop” from Shostakovich’s “Cherymushki,” which included stomping, received hoots and hollers from audience members for the spunk and energy with which it was performed.
“I was impressed by the diversity of styles and repertoire that fit so well with a group of only violas,” usher Rachael Young said. “It really shows how talented they are as instrumentalists and musicians.”
Their next visit is to Boston, where they will perform at the New England Conservatory before continuing their tour.
Jansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.