The viola is an important musical instrument in a string ensemble, but rarely does it enjoy a moment of its own in the musical spotlight. Well, it gets more than just a moment in the spotlight when the Fine Arts Quartet is joined by guest violist Roberto Diaz for a Candlelight Concerts program on Saturday, Jan. 11, at 8 p.m. in Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.
These five musicians will perform three Viola Quintets by Beethoven that don't get heard very often in a concert hall. The specific pieces by Beethoven are his String Quintet in C minor, Op. 104; Fugue for String Quintet in D Major, Op. 137; and String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29.
A four-stringed musical instrument that's slightly larger than a violin and produces a somewhat heavier sound, the viola helps anchor a string section and yet generally isn't a featured instrument in compositions. However, the above-mentioned Beethoven works attest to the fact that there exists a repertory of compositions written with the viola in mind.
There frankly also exists a repertory of viola jokes about how little respect the viola has received within the classical music universe. That relative lack of respect in turn explains why generations of composers, writers and violists defensively have made a nonjoking case for the instrument.
The venerable American composer Aaron Copland, for instance, in his influential 1939 book "What to Listen for in Music," sang the praises of the viola: "It cannot sing notes as high as the violin's, but compensates for that by being able to sing lower. It plays a contralto role to the violin's soprano. If it lacks the light lyric quality of the higher instrument, it possesses, on the other hand, a gravely expressive sonority - seemingly full of emotion."
Although Copland long ago made a convincing case for what the sound of this instrument can achieve, violists nevertheless have had their work cut out for them in terms of receiving their share of the spotlight on stage.
In his 1956 book "A Popular History of Music," the American composer and music critic Carter Harman explained to his mid-20th-century readers why the viola traditionally received so little recognition.
"It has always been the curse of the viola to play fill-in parts, such as the 'after beats,' the 'pah' of an 'oom-pah' in waltzes and marches," Harman wrote. "Despite the fact that the viola's voice has a rich, haunting quality, the poor violist is only occasionally blessed with solo melodies or with doubling the violins an octave lower or sweeping along with the whole string section in unison passages."
Think of the upcoming Candlelight concert as a healthy corrective to that history of neglect. The long-established Fine Arts Quartet has many performances and recordings to its credit; and the Grammy-nominated violist Roberto Diaz has had a long career as a solo, chamber and orchestral performer.
Locally, the Candlelight audience heard Diaz as recently as 2012, when he was part of a Curtis on Tour concert that included students, alumni and faculty from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. As both the president of Curtis and a professor of viola there, Diaz was among the Curtis on Tour performers.
And Washington-area classical music fans with long memories will remember that Diaz was formerly the principal viola of the National Symphony Orchestra under conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. He's been making the case for the viola for quite some time.
The Fine Arts Quartet and violist Roberto Diaz perform Saturday, Jan. 11, at 8 p.m. at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia. There is a preconcert lecture at 7:15 p.m. Tickets are $32, $30 for seniors and $12 for students. Call 410-997-2324 or go to http://www.candlelightconcerts.org.