An Instrument That Rarely Raises Its Voice

HANGING out with musicians now and then, I find that their jokes, like political jokes, go in and out of fashion. Lately, the viola has been the Dan Quayle of musical instruments, edging out the trombone. (What's the definition of an optimist? A viola player with a beeper.)

There are so many viola jokes that the New York Times put an article about a violist under the headline: ''Making a Career on the Viola (No Joke).''

The same day as the article I heard two superb violists in concert. They reminded me how much I like the mellow sound, no sharp edges, of the violin's big sibling.

The viola can be sublime in the hands of a master like Russia's Yuri Bashmet, whose New York performance last month was hailed by the Times as ''one of the most important Carnegie Hall debuts in recent years.''

Yet a longtime orchestra conductor told me that by last year viola jokes were circulating on both sides of the Atlantic. They reminded him of student days in Berlin when there was a standard remark for a violist under 30: ''So young and already playing the viola?''

I'm tempted to say, ''So young and already able to play the viola?''

But I can see how this instrument, which rarely raises its voice, becomes a target of opportunity for the current wave of humor.

It's not a hyped-up 15-minute celebrity. It's often buried in the inner, though indispensable, parts of a symphony score. For all its beauty, it's seldom in the solo spotlight. It's a minority that can be stereotyped like the butts of ethnic, gender, or light-bulb jokes.

Musicians' jokes depend on musicians' knowledge -- references to particular works and composers or terms like ''gig'' for a job and da capo (DC), meaning go back to the beginning.

So did you hear about the violist who dreamed he was playing Handel's ''Messiah''? When he woke up -- he was.

The latest disaster in Los Angeles? A drive-by viola concert.

Why a violist's fingers are like lightning? They never strike the same place twice.

Unfair. But fairness has nothing to do with fashion in humor. Before long another instrument could be plugged into the same jokes.

Good heavens, what if drums like mine, which some would call less self-effacing than the viola, are next? Did you hear the excuse of the drummer who was driving to a gig in Washington and never made it? He kept seeing signs that said ''DC.''

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