Harold in Italy: A Musical Journey for Viola

January 19, 2017

Just as it can be difficult to categorize the viola (a big violin? a small cello?), it’s hard to label Berlioz’s viola showcase Harold in Italy. “It’s more of a symphony than a concerto for sure,” says Principal Viola Choong-Jin (C.J.) Chang. “But it’s just great music, period!”

Chang Choong Jin

Not great enough for the legendary string virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, however. After encouraging Berlioz to write the piece, Paganini decided it didn’t feature enough of him (and the fancy Stradivarius viola he’d just acquired). So he walked away, and never performed it. He later regretted his rejection of Harold, and paid Berlioz handsomely for it.

C.J. laughs when recalling this story of Harold’s difficult birth. “It’s absolutely wonderful music, but it’s not all about the soloist, which is fine with me. I’d rather play great music than something that is about me. I always enjoy playing it. It’s so incredibly written. The little twists Berlioz has … he is always very special.”

Don’t worry about the story line suggested by the title, based on Byron’s poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. “I don’t think the story of the poem directly translates to the music,” says C.J., “but the main viola theme of the piece is inspired by the character of Harold. He’s a melancholy hero. It’s a very beautiful theme the viola returns to again and again, in each movement.”

C.J. is thrilled to be performing with his beloved Philadelphia Orchestra, as part of its Paris Festival. These concerts also feature another composer with Parisian ties, Maurice Ravel, also drawing inspiration from the Mediterranean—Spain this time.

“It’s always an honor and a privilege to play with The Philadelphia Orchestra. I know how wonderful these people are. Each individual member is a great musician. Whenever I perform even a little solo in other pieces, I know my colleagues are always supportive of my playing.”

Back to the elusive nature of the viola: C.J. says that while the violin and cello are both the perfect size (in terms of physics) for their strings, the viola is several inches shorter than it should be. “That creates a very different kind of voice, compared to violin and cello. This is really why it’s not often used as a solo instrument. But it’s a very special kind of voice.

“As much as I’ve said Harold in Italy isn’t a virtuosic viola concerto, the piece actually showcases what the viola is all about very well. We violists are usually a little bit hidden in the orchestral sound, so it really is a dream for us to play Harold with a great orchestra. It showcases the special quality of the instrument.” He chuckles again. “So hopefully my performance will inspire more people to take up the viola!”

(C.J. Chang performs Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin Thursday-Friday, January 26-27. The program also includes Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Rapsodie espagnole, and Bolero. For tickets or more information please click here.)

Photo by Jessica Griffin