5/4 of a String Quartet

August 21, 2011, 9:03 AM ·

 Last year some friends from the Arlington Philharmonic and I got together over the summer and played string quartets.  We played some Mendelssohn and Haydn and worked on those enough that we could play them at the Farmers' Market.  I hadn't thought the group was organized enough to be named, but my friend Marianne, who played 2nd violin, came up with the name "Mystic String Quartet," after the Mystic River and lakes, which are local to the area.  

This year, at my Franck recital, the rest of the Mystic String Quartet was in the audience, and the pianist for the Franck was also a violist who has sometimes played with the Arlington Phil but who has now taken on a new role as a viola student a Boston Conservatory.  After the Franck was over, they had a new idea:  we should play viola quintets.

IMSLP is a great thing.  You can look through music and decide if there's something you might like, if it's appropriate to your level, to your audience.  We chose Mozart viola quintets No. 4 in G minor (K. 516) and No. 5 in D major (K. 593).  

Well, although in theory, you can look through music and make an informed decision, I have to admit that I was busy at work and with travel and kind of abdicated the decision-making responsibility to my more knowledgeable friends.  I said "Mozart, great!"  And when one of the violists said to the other violist, "I'll take 1st on #4 and you can take 1st on #5," I said the same thing to Marianne, the other violinist.  

At the first rehearsal a few interesting things became apparent.  One was that #4 sounded quite Mendelssohnian.  Maybe because it was in a minor key.  The other was that the 1st violin part was pretty challenging.   I've been told by violists, and especially cellists, that Mozart can be boring for the lower voices, as the 1st violin gets all the good stuff.  This is, theoretically, nice for me, but it also sounded  like it was more challenging than the 1st violin part to #5.  Well, that's what I get for picking a part sight unseen.  And really, it's only fair that I take on the more challenging part since I've been playing longer since my extended break from the violin than Marianne has.  

The other thing we decided was, that the Adagio movements were maybe not quite the thing for a Farmers' Market.  They are beautiful, but they are quite long and slow and quiet.  They don't really lend themselves to vegetable shopping, wind, and kids on bicycles.  For that, we need sprightly and active.  

By the second rehearsal I had noticed something else. I really needed to be paying attention to viola I.  Hmm, this is a quintet, we don't outnumber them anymore. Then we discussed every string player's favorite topic:  seating.  We rearranged ourselves, violin I and viola I across from each other, violin and viola II across from each other, cello in the center.  

From violinist.com blog

After being with two these quintets awhile, I start to realize it's not so much Mozart vs. Mendelssohn, but 2 different sides to Mozart. The quintet #5, on which I am playing 2nd violin, is more in the style of what I traditionally think of when I think of Mozart.  It is elegant and Viennese.  You can imagine long white gloves and high powdered wigs.  You can also imagine people buying strawberries, whipped cream and organic, sulfite-free wine.

The quintet #4, although it was written first, is more unruly and, well, mystic.  As the 1st violin on that one, I am surprised--pleasantly--to pass the opening theme to viola I and sometimes take a supporting role.  This is a viola part that is worthy of our conservatory-trained violist's skills. As a violist, was this the kind of thing that Mozart really wanted to write all the time?  Back then, was the viola more equal to the violin in general?  Did music have to evolve in the direction of putting the violin more central and the lower voices more supporting, or did it just happen that way?  

At the market, the first violin and viola seats become, literally, the hot seats, as the sun shines into our tent.  And for a little while, our performance becomes a sextet (string quintet with bicycle) as a kid rides around and around us in circles.  Around us, people buy, and do not throw, vegetables. There is some applause between movements, which is fine with us because we need time to adjust our clothespins and turn our pages. At two years in a row this is almost getting to be a tradition.  


August 22, 2011 at 03:13 PM ·

Delightful blog, Karen!  I like "Mystic" a lot.  But not a blog to read while I sip my morning tea and try to wake up.  Maybe the v.com editor should turn "violin" and "viola" into different colors when the number of "viola"s reaches some threshold. ;-)  You said the addagio of #4 was too sedate for the Farmer's Market.   What movements did you end up playing?

August 22, 2011 at 03:38 PM ·

Mozart's Quintets are wonderful. How lucky you are to get to play them.  In terms of the lower instruments, Mozart was by preference a violist and wrote probably the most interesting viola parts for chamber music (not to mention the Sinfonia Concertante) of any composer during the high classical period.

August 22, 2011 at 05:14 PM ·

Fran, we played the other 3 movements of both pieces, which were an allegro, minuetto, and another allegro of some kind.  Each one took about 30 minutes when you counted the clothespin shifting, page turning, water breaks, etc, and we took most of the repeats.  So we played for an hour.  My kids' babysitter, who took the picture, had to leave soon after and take the kids to karate, so she couldn't make a recording.  

But here is one on YouTube with period instruments:  


(Mozart's in his powdered wig and everything)

You can hear the 1st violin play the opening theme and then it's taken over, echoed, and elaborated on by the 1st viola.

The comments on this recording are interesting--many people are commenting on the lack of vibrato because of the period instruments and style.  I used a little more vibrato than this, but not much more.  In my case, it was not really a conscious period-instrument-type decision, but it did seem like the way the piece wanted to be played.  A few of the commenters don't like this style, but I do.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Violinist.com Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

The Wallis Presents

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop



Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine