By Patrick Sullivan
The musicians gathered around. The instrument case opened. Then all hell broke loose. “Some of them screamed,” recalls luthier David Rivinus. “A couple ran off the stage. A few uttered expletives. And some people were just stunned into silence.”
The year was 1993, and Rivinus had just unveiled a new viola to members of a Canadian regional orchestra. But this was no ordinary instrument. It was a radical, lopsided new design—a prototype of an ergonomic viola that took more than a year of experimentation. And it featured what Rivinus himself calls a screaming red varnish.
“In retrospect that varnish was probably not the right move,” he says ruefully. “It did not go over well.”
Rivinus was there at the invitation of one of the orchestra’s principal violists—a petite woman in her 40s. She was starting to feel the effects of a long career playing what may be the string world’s most awkward instrument. “She told me, ‘I’m not injured yet, but I can see the writing on the wall,’” Rivinus says. The violist asked Rivinus to make an instrument that was comfortable to play but still had the power to reach the back of the hall. “I told her, ‘I can try, but it may not look like a traditional viola,’” he says. “That turned out to be the understatement of the year.”
Today, decades after that disastrous debut, the 67-year-old Rivinus’ provocative approach has achieved success. The luthier—who is based in Portland, Oregon—has now sold almost 100 ergonomic instruments. He certainly never set out to be a revolutionary. Rivinus had been a traditional maker since the early 1970s, when he began working for Indianapolis violin maker Thomas Smith and then apprenticed with legendary Los Angeles–based restorer Hans Weisshaar.
Still, when Rivinus took aim at an ergonomic viola, he was forced to set tradition aside. Encouraged by the likes of Michael Tree of the Guarneri String Quartet—who gave him honest but supportive feedback on early prototypes—the luthier fought through design challenges and negative reactions to the viola’s unorthodox appearance. He gradually and incrementally found his way to a model that minimizes strain and maximizes sound.
The result is the astoundingly asymmetrical Pellegrina (“pilgrim” in Italian). The instrument sports a number of unusual features, like a banked fingerboard that fights strain by reducing supination in a player’s left arm. But what truly draws the eye—and drops the jaw—is the viola’s off-kilter layout: It has been stretched on the diagonal to some 20 inches to maximize the vibrating surface area. Because it has also been shortened from top to bottom, it feels like a ¾-size viola to the player’s left hand.
Some say it looks like a viola that’s been left out in the sun or melted in an oven.
Yet this unorthodox instrument has helped treat injuries and save careers. Don Ehrlich may be the most prominent example. In 1996, Ehrlich was a principal violist with the San Francisco Symphony. But he had been contemplating retirement over painful, chronic tendinitis in his elbow. An early version of the Pellegrina helped. “It allowed him to take a playing posture that was natural enough that it eased the problems that he had,” Rivinus recalls. “He not only maintained his status but got better.”
Ehrlich’s embrace of the ergonomic viola helped open the floodgates. Rivinus’ instruments have now been purchased by symphony players around the world, from Houston and Philadelphia to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The need seems clear. Almost 70 percent of string players develop musculoskeletal problems, according to some research. Violists appear to face elevated risks because of the greater weight and size of the instrument compared to a violin. Yet string players are reluctant to entertain new designs. Rivinus attributes that conservative attitude in part to the fact that many successful musicians take up their instruments around age five.
“In your formative childhood years, you get this physical design branded into your brain—that’s what a violin looks like,” he says. “And then along comes an instrument that looks like it was designed by Salvador Dalí.”
In the early days, Rivinus often had to talk people into playing his viola—and others wouldn’t even try it. He recalls the father of one interested young musician yelling at him. “He was screaming, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Rivinus recalls. “As though I had robbed a bank or something.”
But such negative reactions have diminished greatly over the past ten years. Rivinus even recently had a customer complain that nobody seemed put out by his new instrument. “He said, ‘Gee, I was sort of disappointed—nobody said anything,’” Rivinus says with a laugh.
Innovation has always been part of the luthier’s craft, Rivinus notes. “Vuillaume did tons of experimenting,” he says. And he has continued to push the envelope by producing additional ergonomic instruments, including a violin and a five-string viola. But he feels that more luthiers should be responding to the need for designs that reduce injury. “There are a lot of people out there in pain,” Rivinus says. “It’s beyond unfortunate that more isn’t being done. It’s criminal that we have all this brain power but we’re stuck in our anal-retentive tradition.”