Voila it's the viola

20:18, Feb 03 2014
RICH SOUND: Violist Alice McIvor will be part of the New Zealand Youth Orchestra, which performs a free concert at Te Papa on Waitangi Day.

Violas get a bad rap in the music world. Alice McIvor, who has played one in the National Youth Orchestra for seven years, is out to change that, she tells Diana Dekker .

It was by accident that Alice McIvor became enchanted with the much-maligned viola. She fell for it in her first season with the National Youth Orchestra. That was seven years ago. She's tuning up for her eighth time, for the orchestra's first performance of 2014, in Wellington on Waitangi Day.

McIvor, 22, had never even held a viola when she decided to audition for the orchestra. She was a care-free Hawke's Bay schoolgirl, barely 15, when two of her friends, who had dutifully learned the instrument, told her they were trying for it. McIvor had been learning violin since she was 8 but the whole viola idea, and trying for a place in the orchestra, ''was a joke''.

''I'd never played viola,'' she says. ''I had no idea of the viola clef. But I thought 'why not'. I learned the easiest piece I could think of, to memorise, to go to the audition with so that I didn't have to read the clef and get found out. It was in the Memorial Theatre in Napier and you had to go in and play your excerpts and they were recorded.''

McIvor, strictly speaking too young to contemplate the orchestra, which was looking for players aged 16 to 25, made the grade and only one of her two viola-literate friends went in with her. She has re-auditioned successfully every year since. The viola is no longer a joke to her and her mission is to change its woeful reputation as the poverty-stricken cousin of the violin and cello.

She dreams of creating a viola studio in Wellington. She has no time for viola jokes like: What's the difference between a viola and an onion? No-one cares when you cut up an onion. Or, even more meanly: What's the difference between a violin and a coffin? The coffin has the dead person inside. Or: How do you stop a violin being stolen? You put it in a viola case.


''I don't know why the viola is the joke of the orchestra,'' says McIvor.

''Violists are an endangered species. Lots of violinists would be suited to viola but there isn't the encouragement to swap. The viola has a really rich sound between a violin and a cello, rich and deep. It's all about sound and if you are a player and can't produce a viola sound, it's noticeable. There's an art to the viola and an art to the violin. They're definitely two different instruments and it's not that if you can play one, you can play the other.''

McIvor'S championship of the viola has matured over many years. And she didn't just drop into the National Youth Orchestra and play like a dream.

''It was a bit of a surprise to everyone. I didn't expect to get in. I had to buy a viola and we didn't know where to buy one. We got one off the internet from the States.''

When rehearsals began, ''I was so scared. We were playing quite a hard programme, playing The Firebird, which is decently hard. It wasn't something I could go in and wing. I definitely got a fright. If you can't play, everyone knows you can't play. It was fine, but I didn't realise what I was getting myself into.''

She managed. ''I loved it. It's an incredible orchestra, I think because of the enthusiasm and passion the young have for music, because it's so fresh and we haven't been playing for 20 years in an orchestra as a day job. The energy is what really grasps the audience, kids of 18 to 25, all going for it, creating something really different to the NZSO. I obviously love what they do really professionally, nothing raw about it. With the National Youth Orchestra you never know what will happen on stage.''

McIvor's viola teacher is Gillian Ansell but she didn't have a teacher until she was at university.

She tossed up between law, education and music and the New Zealand School of Music won - ''on a whim''. ''I'm very whimsical.'' She applied late, deciding at the last minute to play the viola for her audition.

''I'd been keeping the violin up and the viola came out of the cupboard once a year. I'm definitely seen as a violist now rather than a violinist.''

She is now ''fresh out of uni'' after a year of intense music, which included playing for the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington and at two chamber music festivals in Canada with string quartet Quadrivium, put together for the biennial Adam International Chamber Music Festival in Nelson.

She has a day job, as a receptionist in a car show room - so she can play at night, and contemplate the future. That might be in an orchestra, but it could be in a studio helping to change attitudes to the viola.

''It needs to happen.''

-  The NZSO National Youth Orchestra performs a free concert at Te Papa at 11am on Waitangi Day. It also performs at the Municipal Theatre, Napier, on February 7.

The Dominion Post