Acoustic and Electric Violas in an Ingenious Program

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Hummel, Mooke, Fauré: Born Lau (viola), Martha Mooke (electric viola), Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia / Dirk Brossé (conductor),  Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 2.4.2018. (BJ)

Mozart – Symphony No. 38 in D major, K.504, “Prague”
Hummel – Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra, Op.94
Mooke Invisible Hands (Version I); Invisible Hands (Version II) [Chamber Orchestra commissions, world premieres];
FauréPelléas et Mélisande Suite

Looked at and listened to around the world today (as has been true at any time in music history), composers fall into either one of two categories. There are the ones that write real music, and then there are those that merely go through the motions without producing anything of genuine substance.

Having explored a number of her works in recent months, I am happy to assign Martha Mooke to the first of those categories. A virtuoso performer on the electric viola, and associated with a variety of more or less unconventional performing groups and performance venues, she is nevertheless by no means to be denied credit for forging a truly personal style and language that draw on fertile links with tradition.

Inspired by Joseph Campbell’s assertion, in response to a question whether he ever had the sense of being helped by hidden hands, that this happened to him all the time, the work she has created for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia partakes vividly of the mysticism that sits at the heart of Campbell’s thought and has also been a powerful element in shaping her own world view. Organized in two versions, Invisible Hands sets out its musical argument first without her contribution as soloist, and then adds the voice of the electric viola as what might be frivolously called the icing on the cake.

I am not sure quite how well its presentation in this manner across the two halves of a program benefits the work’s effect: I found it difficult to distinguish aurally, in Version II, between the sounds that were being produced by Ms Mooke’s electric viola and those emanating from the chamber orchestra. But the combined whole agreeably and often eloquently demonstrated her capacity for balancing luxuriantly saturated textures with zestful rhythmic vitality and a treatment of dissonance that never spills over from the stimulating into the merely torturous.

The other unfamiliar piece on Dirk Brossé’s characteristically ingenious program was a pleasant enough Fantasy for viola and orchestra by Hummel, known also in the longer of its two forms as ‘Potpourri’. It brought polished solo work on a standard acoustic instrument by Born Lau, a laureate of the 2012 Astral National Auditions and a prizewinner at the 2014 Primrose International Viola Competition. I regretted only that the performers had opted for the short version of the piece, depriving us of the operatic tunes that open the longer version as a charming homage to the composer’s adored Mozart and Rossini.

The Chamber Orchestra’s playing throughout the evening was typical of the warmth and musicianship it has shown all season. The Fauré suite was no less richly toned than performances I have heard from larger ensembles, and the ‘Prague’ Symphony took its place among the crisp and spirited accounts of Mozart that Brossé has consistently achieved with his disciplined forces.

Bernard Jacobson

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