Singing With Strings

Hong-Mei Xiao in the studio.

Photo by Anthony Mongiello.

You’ve probably never held a viola — the middle member of the string family — and you may even be confused about its role, or how it differs from its smaller and bigger siblings in the orchestra.
But the viola is an incredible instrument, mimicking the human voice more closely than the cello (an octave below) or the violin (a perfect fifth above). It is an integral part of string quartets, and the pantheon of composers who have played it in chamber ensembles includes Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Josef Haydn, Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Felix Mendelssohn, to name just a few geniuses.
If you’re a composer and you want to soar to the heights, but still present a strong resonant quality that portrays passion, heartache, joy and longing in equal measures, you write a solo for the viola. It even turns up in rock classics such as The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
And if you want a musician who can brilliantly bring a viola part to life, you pick up the phone and call someone like Hong-Mei Xiao, a professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Music, and a world-class performer who has played solo and orchestral pieces around the globe, and recorded several very highly regarded albums. Her instrument of choice? A 16-inch viola made in 1765 by Pietro Giovanni Mantegazza in Milan.
Ask her about the viola, and the Shanghai native observes, “Often people come up to me after a performance and say, ‘This is the first time I’ve heard the viola, and I love the sound … it’s so beautiful.’ Every violist feels the same way. We are drawn to the instrument because of the soulful quality of the tone — so touching, deep and rich. It’s a very unique sound.”
That wonderful timbre is fully on display in her recordings of Bartók’s Viola Concerto (Naxos 1998) and Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra (Naxos 2013), both with orchestras in Budapest. The albums have been warmly received by critics, and the Bloch even received the Critic’s Choice Award from the American Record Guide.
Her latest CD project showcases three distinctive but somewhat related works by English composers, each piece having been created during that fertile period between the World Wars. Anchoring the program is William Walton’s Viola Concerto, which Hong-Mei notes is “One of the most important concertos in the viola repertoire. It’s a very poetic and beautiful piece.” It’s also a composition that if most concertgoers have heard it, it’s not in the original arrangement, but a revision that Walton crafted much later.
“The concerto was composed in 1929,” Hong-Mei explains. “Walton revised it in 1962. He made a lighter version with reduced winds and added a harp. Since the later version requires fewer players it’s more convenient for performances. That’s the one that most violists play. Because the original version has very rarely been recorded or heard in concerts, I wanted to present it to violists and listeners so they can compare for themselves and thus gain a broader understanding of this masterpiece.”
Also on the recording will be Arnold Bax’s Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra. Though Bax was a Londoner, he lived for a time in Ireland, and even delved into the Dublin literary scene that produced writers such as George William Russell and James Joyce. Not surprisingly, his seldom performed 1920 piece for viola and orchestra bears the imprint of the Emerald Isle. “It’s an intensely lyrical and dynamic work,” says Hong-Mei, “and the slow movement is based on a particularly enticing Irish folk song.”
The CD also will include a composer whose chamber and orchestral works include a number of audience favorites — Ralph Vaughan Williams. His Suite for Viola and Orchestra, which was composed between 1933 and 1934, is dedicated to violist Lionel Tertis, one of the virtuosi of his day, and for whom Walton’s concerto was originally written (though Paul Hindemith actually premiered it). Written with eight movements that are combined into three groups, it’s a very accessible and listener-friendly piece, yet it contains challenging components for a performer. It also follows the lead of giving a nod toward its land of origin. “It’s very virtuosic and delightful, with elements of English folk songs,” Hong-Mei observes.
The CD is slated to be released by Delos sometime this fall, setting the clock in motion for Hong-Mei to wrap up the project quickly. Editing the various components of the recording and preparing it for the label took up her summer. “Normally I go to festivals, tour in Europe, teach and perform, but I decided I’d better work on the CD!” she relates with a laugh.
Tour plans definitely are not off her schedule, however. In the coming year she will be touring China, and traveling to Brazil for a music festival. She also will be performing a recital in Tucson, although at press time a date had not been set.
Being at UA, which she joined in 1999 after a stint at the University of Michigan, has been an exciting opportunity to dip into an incredible talent pool, and not just within the School of Music. “We always collaborate on recitals and chamber concerts, as well as with composers,” she says. “Craig Walsh, who is on the faculty here, is writing a viola concerto with electronics for me. We’re also encouraged to collaborate with the other schools and departments within the university. It’s a great environment for us to develop our working relationships with other faculty members.”
Collaboration is something that may well be in Hong-Mei’s DNA. Her father was a film composer in China, and she grew up seeing how instrumental each department is, as well as every person, in making a movie.
Given her extensive knowledge of so many aspects of performing, recording, touring, and teaching, her students reap the benefits of getting not only the best instruction, but also valuable advice on having a career in the field of music.
“A lot of my students are working really hard,” she comments. “They’re very dedicated musicians, and many have won competitions, taken positions at universities, in orchestras, and are performing solo and chamber music concerts. That’s really the best part of teaching — helping them grow and reach their utmost potential as musician. I think it’s the responsibility of any performing artist to pass on what they’ve learned in their career as a performer. That’s what my teachers did for me, and that’s my obligation, as well as my joy.”
When she’s not packing several of her beautiful gowns and heading out on tour, practicing a new piece, or working with her students, her schedule still remains full.
“I enjoy doing yoga,” she says of her downtime activities. “It’s very beneficial to me mentally and physically. I like to take walks in the late afternoon and watch the beautiful sunset over the desert. I find it very calming and inspiring. I enjoy going to movies because I grew up in a film studio. I developed an appreciation for movies, especially art films.”
But whatever she’s doing, she remains an impassioned ambassador for the viola. “Since the beginning of the 20th century it has been developing and getting more and more recognized as a solo instrument,” she concludes. “Now there is a substantial solo repertoire produced for it by many composers, as well as additional recordings because more players are drawn to this beautiful instrument. It has certainly brought further public interest and greater appreciation for the viola.” — Scott Barker