The viola is slightly larger than a violin, which gives it a lower pitch.
“If you took the top string off the violin and added one lower string, that’s the viola,” said Mark Berger, who plays viola for the chamber ensemble Music at Eden’s Edge, which has three upcoming concerts in Danvers and Essex.
But the differences don’t end there, and they leave the viola a bit of an outcast among musical instruments.
“Its unique timbre has a very special sound,” Berger said. “The cello and violin were acoustically perfected hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The viola never was. It has an awkward range. It represents a challenge, and that gives it a unique voice.”
Which isn’t to say the instrument hasn’t had its admirers.
“There’s quite a few composers that preferred viola,” Berger said. “Mozart himself played viola, when he would read through his own string quartets. In modern music, the viola has sort of come into its own.”
Among modern composers who have written music for the viola are Martin Boykan, who taught composition at Brandeis University for more than 50 years, and numbered Berger among his doctoral students.
Boykan has written a piece for Berger that will have its world premiere at the upcoming Eden’s Edge concerts, which open the ensemble’s new season.
“I have always admired his playing,” Boykan said. “He’s a wonderful musician.”
Berger also produces a unique sound on the viola, Boykan said, which inspired him as he wrote.
“I actually had Mark’s sound in my head, I heard his viola,” he said.
Berger will perform Boykan’s Sonata for Viola and Piano with Eden’s Edge pianist Naoko Sugiyama.
“It’s a three-movement sonata; it’s very lyrical,” Berger said. “Sort of the standard pattern for most sonatas is fast, slow, fast, but this is kind of the opposite. It has a very meditative last movement titled ‘Prayer.’”