What makes a good viola? My viola is a fine example.
Its sound is clear and mellow, with a balanced depth and brightness. 16 and ¾” inches long when measured without the scroll and the neck, it is considered large by viola standards. Yet it is easy to play for its size: an alto design, its upper bouts are narrow, its neck thin and shapely.
This viola has carried me through my entire career, yet it is time for a new one: I am searching for my next viola, and seek to sell mine, to aid my search. This is not an easy decision, yet to grow as a musician, I need a different, even better instrument A faithful, stalwart companion, I am its sole owner for its years serving music.
Looking through the f-hole on the left or bass side, the label reads:
Faciebat Anno 1990
The two-piece back, sides, and scroll are made from hard maple, medium-curly with a not-too-pronounced flame. The two-piece top is softer spruce, with a narrow-width grain growing wider towards the flanks. The varnish is medium-golden brown on top of a golden yellow ground. This viola is built after a model of Andrea Guarneri, one of the great luthiers of the ‘golden age’ in Cremona, Italy, in the early 1700s. Its corners around the middle bouts curve outwards voluptuously, like wings.
This viola was crafted with techniques passed down for hundreds of years. It is the product of handmade wisdom from a great, storied tradition practiced by master craftsmen.
Its maker, Michael Weller, grew up in the Netherlands. I met him at his shop in Pennsylvania. Michael moved to the United States after graduating from the Mittenwald school of violin making in Germany. After emigrating, Michael restored and repaired many priceless and old instruments at Moennig and Sons on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia in the 1970s, a violin house that was a cornerstone of the American violin trade and known internationally for three generations of the Moennig family. Beginning in the early 1980s, Weller made and restored violins, violas, and cellos at his own shops near Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. until his retirement in 2020. His instruments are owned and played by many fine musicians and he was widely known and admired by fine musicians in his time.
I remember Michael well from the time when I was considering violas. He knew, and I knew, that I needed a larger instrument, but he gave me the space and time I needed to make the decision that was right for me. He was affable, genial, and fascinating to talk with about music. I still have a cassette tape he gave me of a composer and a wonderful piece I have yet to run across in my career: the Gyula David viola concerto.
A few weeks before I left for music school, I performed a recital with a friend on this viola, and Michael Weller came to our concert. It was a warm and sincere gesture by a very accomplished, yet very kind man.
To pay the thousands of dollars this viola cost, which was more than a few, I sliced many cuts of meat and grilled many cheesesteaks on a hot griddle, manned a cash register, and mopped the floor at the end of shifts at midnight at a convenience store chain called ‘Wawa’ the summer before my freshman year at the Eastman School of Music. My parents gave one-third, my grandfather gave another, and I paid for one-third myself by working full-time.
A few years ago, I was lucky to have a new bass bar crafted and installed for my viola by Michael Purcell, one of the better luthiers working today. Mike has been maintaining and restoring many violins, violas, and cellos played by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra for decades. He is deeply respected in the world of violin-making and repair.
Under my fingers, this viola has played all the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and many by Mahler. It has played Mozart and Puccini operas, and the great quartets of Bartok, Haydn, and Shostakovich.
I learned how to play viola well on this instrument, persisting through 100 hours of one-on-lessons with the great Joseph DePasquale, principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony for 50 years; 50 hours of lessons with Richard Young, violist of the Vermeer Quartet; and 50 hours of lessons with the great artist Jesse Levine, one of the finest violists and musicians anywhere, of any time.
Those gentlemen played great, not just good, violas. Joe played on a Gasparo da Salo, made in the last decades of the 1500s in Bresica, Italy, the cradle of violin making. Richard played on a viola that started life as a ‘da braccio’ viol but was later adapted – it was made by Peregrino di Zanetto, also at the end of the 1500s, in Brescia. Zanetto, Peregrino’s father, is the earliest known violin maker, predating even Andrea Amati, who founded the Cremonese school. Jesse played a massive 18th-century instrument by Giovanni Francesco Leonpori, said to belong at one time to Leopold Mozart, Amadeus’ father.
While my viola doesn’t have that kind of a pedigree, it was made with the same dedication and passion.