And now, it might be asked, should we pity the viola? It is after all consigned to an unglamorous middle range, and is ever on the receiving end of all that merciless skewering (if you don’t know what I mean, type “viola jokes” into Google, or ask anyone who has played in an orchestra).
Not so fast, was the essential message behind Friday’s ambitious Jordan Hall program, assembled and deftly performed by conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Its title — “Voilà! Viola!” — played off the status of an instrument essentially hidden in plain sight, always present on the symphonic stage yet seldom given much time in the spotlight.
Composers beginning in the 20th century, however, became more interested in exploring the instrument’s untapped potential, the distinctively dark colorations in its tone, the unique contours of its lyricism, and its proximity to the range of the human voice.
That last quality is often cited as among the instrument’s virtues, yet it has seldom been exploited as resourcefully as it was in Friday’s premiere of Chinary Ung’s “Singing Inside Aura,” a work that demands that its soloist both sing and play simultaneously. A Cambodian-born, American-trained composer resident in California, Ung has in fact written many works that place similar demands on its performers yet opportunities to hear his music performed live are all too rare.
For this newest work, Ung surrounds an amplified soloist with a large orchestra spiked with unusual instruments. The soloist — in this case violist Susan Ung, the composer's wife — vocalizes a text drawn from a mixture of languages including Khmer, Pali, and Sanskrit. The music’s pacing is stately and ceremonial, the textures are luminous and precisely imagined, and the sense of emotional journey over the course of the work’s 15 minutes is palpable. On Friday night, in Susan Ung’s riveting performance, the piece felt like an avant-garde court ritual from a vanished world.
The evening’s second premiere, coincidentally, also featured a husband-wife team: composer Donald Crockett and viola soloist Kate Vincent. The wide-ranging four-movement work, titled simply Viola Concerto, is an expansion of Crockett’s earlier work, “To Airy Thinness Beat” written for the Firebird Ensemble, of which Vincent serves as artistic director. The solo writing is complex and inventive yet leaves room for some traditional lyricism, its second and fourth movements full of singing lines of the strictly instrumental variety. A certain thickness of orchestration in the third movement, marked “Heavy and energetic,” poses a challenge to the audibility of the soloist, but Vincent, a fiercely skilled and committed player, proved more than equal to the task.
Chen Yi’s viola concerto of 1983 titled “Xian Shi” closed the program, in a potent and athletic performance by soloist Lizhou Liu. It is, simply put, a knockout piece — arresting in its muscular virtuosity and in the beauty and mystery of its polyglot sound world. Included in the evening’s mix was George Perle’s Serenade No. 1 of 1962, with the young soloist Wenting Kang delivering an impressively nimble performance. And a Suite for Eight Violas, written in 1975 by the British composer Gordon Jacob, occasioned the rare sight of eight violists standing alone proudly at center stage. Given the evening’s agenda, it also served, with the earthy and rich-veined lyricism of its first movement, as the perfect curtain-raiser.