Music Meets Murder

Yes, Althea Stewart, our favorite musician, hostess, amateur psychologist, and sleuth plays the viola. The viola, you say? Not the violin? Well, of course she plays the violin as well, has her undergrad degree from Conservatory in it as a matter of fact, but it’s the viola that won her heart many years ago. She’d vaguely noted the existence of violas and violists when she was a member of the violin section of various orchestras and when she was at school. Violinists used to be like that, oblivious to any instruments but their own, believing violin to be technically and spiritually superior to all others. It makes a certain amount of sense. The violin has always been a virtuoso instrument. It’s extremely difficult to master, a cruel mistress, and one needs an ego to match one’s ambition in order to justify the many hours a day since childhood required to play it well. Many people can name at least one or two great violinist, such as Jascha Heifetz and Itzak Pearlman, or Anna Sophie Mutter, but how many great violists can anyone name in a pinch eh? Lionel Tertis, William Primrose, and Yuri Bashmet, brilliant violists all, don’t come trippingly off most people’s tongues, but the violinist Joshua Bell is practically a household name these days. Not that there aren’t many, many brilliant young violists filling the concert stages today, but this is a fairly new phenomenon.

Years ago the viola section was made up primarily of not-so-great violinists who were coerced into learning alto clef. That’s right, violists read a completely different clef than any other instrument in the orchestra, the C or alto clef. Back in the 1990’s when I was playing principal viola of “Phantom of the Opera” in LA Civic Light Opera for what seemed like eternity, I ultimately became so bored that I took to writing viola jokes. My favorite, and an original of mine was: “What’s the difference between alto clef and Greek? Some conductors can actually read a little Greek.” I can actually read a little Greek too, which is why I thought of it in the first place. Several years ago I came upon my very own viola joke being circulated by an unknown violist on Facebook with a photo of a conductor! Hmm…

Anyway, from the moment our Althea picked up a viola, somewhere early in her career while she was playing in a Vegas show, she fell head over heels for that low, luscious viola sound reverberating under her chin. She’d had no idea there was anything like this available to her, the musical equivalent of molten chocolate or a velvet cape. Of course she still loves playing the violin, but the viola grabbed her hard and never let go. Nowadays, you can throw a rock at a bus in LA and hit a really fine violist. Wonderful pieces are being written for viola all the time, and there are plenty of brilliant violists to play them. So yes, Althea Stewart is a violist, and proud of it!

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