The Fickle Finger of Fate

Ode to Viola

Photo by Sarah Wijzenbeek

Why so much negativity about the viola? How does that even make sense? Great composers played the much maligned instrument: Bach, Beethoven, Britten, Dvorak, Haydn, Hindemith, Mozart, and Schubert—just to name a few. It is almost worth asking who didn’t play the viola? And there have been (and are) famous violists throughout the last century including Primrose, Tertis, and Bashmet —who is still very much alive, and many more living violists, too many to make mention of. So why the big stigma associated with it? And the jokes! Terrible references to every possible demeaning association have been made. What is the best way to insure your violin won’t be stolen? Keep it in a viola case. And hundreds more. The butt of so many jokes. Undeserved, really, if you ask me.

On the positive side, violists learn humility and are better for it. Humility being a sign of grace, I mean violists are practically divine! Of course, there are some defensive violists around, but on the whole, they are like everyone else, they just want to be loved for who they are. So take a violist to lunch. Send them greeting cards to show you care. We should have a Viola Appreciation Day!

Another positive is that with all that humility aside, they don’t have to play those wickedly high piercing frequencies of a violin, or carry around a case that has to travel as a second person. A viola is that perfect in between that Goldilocks made famous. It’s the one that is not too squeaky and not too cumbersome. It’s just right.

So let’s end the second-class label that has followed this instrument.

One way to do this is to have protagonists who create a new perception of the instrument. After all, freed from all the expectations that violinists experience, and the need to be deeper than the next guy that cellists have to contend with, the viola is a kind of liberating experience. Violists have the freedom to create an entire persona that is detached from all that judgment. Violists can lead the way to a higher consciousness in string playing, music making, and more. So Viva la Viola!

And lucky us, we have a living example of all those great and admirable qualities right here! Meet Marc Sabbah, violist extraordinaire!

Kathy Geisler: What is your current job in the field of classical music? What are you currently working on?

Marc Sabbah: At the moment I’m the principal violist of the Belgian National Orchestra and a professor of viola at the Royal Conservatory of Mons, in Belgium. I’m the founder and artistic director of the Kâsteaux Chamber Music Festival. A festival dedicated to good music, food, wine, interesting events all in a beautiful Belgian castle. I am often playing recitals and chamber music concerts throughout Europe and South America. I recently released a new disc with pianist Eliane Reyes entitled AppassionAlto. I teach extensively and enjoy giving masterclasses. Teaching in public and to a student who can make quick progress is always rewarding and educational.

Kathy: What were some of your early lessons or experiences in classical music?

Marc: I grew up playing at the Third Street Music School in lower Manhattan. My fondest memories are playing in group class with 30 other kids then going outside to play handball against an old wall with my friends.

After moving on from the tried and tested Suzuki method, I started studying with a Russian (Azerbaijani) teacher. The result was that I was surrounded by other young musicians from the Eastern bloc and confronted with another approach and level of playing, and was exposed to a long tradition of music making. This certainly gave me a different feel for the instrument and my early interpretations. From there I went the Juilliard Pre-College division and was exposed to the best of the best. A structured school with excellent facilities in the heart of New York, what more could I have asked for? Of course I would have preferred if my teacher there wouldn’t have dropped my viola…Thankfully, no serious damage befell my beloved instrument of 20 years.

Kathy: What is one of your favorite places and why?

Marc: The stage. I feel most alive on stage. Time stops and I get to properly introduce myself to you through my craft. If that sounds too fluffy then I’d have to say Israel. Its rich cultural history, cuisine, relaxed yet chaotic charm lends itself perfectly to me for short vacations and musical explorations. Food and music speak directly to the heart…I either follow the music, or follow the food.

Kathy: What is one of your favorite pieces and do you have a favorite performer or experience of it?

Marc: This is a question I hesitate to answer since it isn’t fair to all the other pieces. I’d have to say the Six Cello Suites by J. S. Bach will always have a place in my heart. Every time I play them, they change, they evolve, and playing them live is like a new experience each performance. Music that gives me chills would be chamber music by Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dovràk; orchestral music by Richard Strauss and play any aria by Giacomo Puccini and I crumble.

Kathy: Is there an artist no longer living who somehow made an impression on you?

Marc: There are too many to name but if I had to chose, it would be guitarist Jimi Hendrix. He was a huge influence on me. He taught me how to be emotional, wild, and reserved on stage. His rock / blues style mixed with psychedelic flavor of the 60s exposed me to colors I was searching for but couldn’t find in classical music. Now I get to apply them to my interpretations. The Beatles too were an enormous influence on me. Beauty, groove, and compositional excellence were their trademark. I’ll never forget hearing Eleanor Rigby for the first time and memorizing the lyrics and music, as they were both masterpieces. The ‘I Am the Walrus’ and we’re back to the psychedelic experimental era.

Need I mention John Coltrane, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Rostropovich, Glenn Gould, Maria Callas, James Brown, Umm Kulthum, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B. B. King, Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald…? The list goes on.

Kathy: What is one thing you think will be different about classical music 100 years from now?

Marc: The only thing I’m certain of is that tastes change with time. Yet sometimes taste is cyclical. With today’s lifespan, maybe some of us will live long enough to answer this question in 100 years.

Kathy: What is something about your work that you think most people have no idea about?

Marc: Right after I finish playing a concert, I have almost no recollection of how the performance went. I have a general impression but only once I have gone back and looked at the video can I make a decision if I played well or not. It’s like waking up from a dream, the longer you’re awake, the more fleeting the dream becomes until you forget it almost completely.

I think there are many people who dislike what they do professionally and they can’t wait to get home. My profession is my life and I love pursuing a career. While it is physically and emotionally demanding I don’t consider music, performing, or teaching to be work. It’s all the traveling, emails, phone calls and paperwork that’s taxing both on the mind and body. I know we’re not supposed to talk about this but it’s no secret: there is a political element to the music world, meaning that sometimes who or what you know might be more valuable than how you play. This can be frustrating but doesn’t discourage me from achieving my goals. Hurdles build character, and character is priceless.

Kathy: Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on the path that led you to be doing what you’re doing today? Please explain.

Marc: I have been playing violin since I was three years old and later switched to the viola at the age of 11. I was talented, but up until that point I had a mixed relationship with my instrument as it demanded practice, patience, and discipline — all challenging concepts for a child. At the age of 11, I fell off of a skateboard as most pre-teens do, only I broke my middle finger. The first thought that passed through my mind was ‘oh my god, my career!’ I hadn’t had a career yet but in that instant I realized what my calling was. Till this day, my middle finger is a little crooked and hurts if I play too much. I learned about priorities that day and what was and wasn’t worth it. Skateboarding wasn’t worth it.

Kathy: Is there anything else you would like to say about yourself, your work, or classical music?

Marc: I’m a professor of viola and while I pass on information, practical skills, and collective knowledge to my students, I often find myself learning and discovering new things myself. I then return to my students and show them this new discovery. It’s nice to know that if one is curious enough, with humility, that if they keep challenging themselves, they will in turn learn more about themselves and their art form. It shows that our profession is alive and can offer an endless world of discovery and self improvement. I love to cook, grow vegetables, and travel. I enjoy swimming and playing tennis when I get the opportunity. A good drink with friends and a lively conversation is always welcome and one day I’d like to open a restaurant. Hopefully you’ll come sample my food.

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Humans of Classical Music is an inclusive look at all the many people who make up the myriad of facets of the field of classical music.

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Kathy Geisler

Kathy Geisler

Recent projects include creating a classical music festival in Havana (2017), and launched in 2021, Mozart’s List - visit mozartslist.com

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