Jonathan Moerschel’s 1590 Gasparo da Salò Viola Is a Big Instrument With a Big Sound

Moerschel plays on the “ex-Adam” Gasparo da Salò viola (Brescia) made around 1590, on loan from the Stradivari Society.

By Leah Hollingsworth | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

Violist Jonathan Moerschel grew up in a musical family, and after studying piano and violin from a young age, he switched to the viola when he was 16. Moerschel is the violist and one of the founding members of the Calder Quartet, which was a recipient of the 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant. With the Calders, he has premiered new works by John Luther Adams, Andrew Norman, Tristan Perich, Daníel Bjarnason, Aaron Jay Kernis, and David Lang, and has performed around the globe in some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Moerschel is also a lecturer of viola and chamber music at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he currently teaches nine viola majors, coaches three chamber music groups, and runs the Ensemble for Contemporary Music. Moerschel plays on the “ex-Adam” Gasparo da Salò viola (Brescia) made around 1590, on loan from the Stradivari Society. 

You’re currently playing on a very special instrument. Tell me the story of how you came to play it. 

I first was introduced to the instrument because my viola teacher at USC—Donald McInnes—was loaned this instrument for about a year while I was studying with him. I was just astounded by its beauty—its looks—but also it felt like the instrument was my own voice, the sound that I had always wanted. McInnes didn’t play it for very long because it’s a very large instrument, and he found it too much of a challenge physically, so he returned it to the Strad Society. A few other players around the country played on it for short periods of time and also found it physically challenging. 

I knew the Fushis (of Bein & Fushi, the world-renowned dealer of fine instruments based in Chicago), and at the time (in 2007), Suzanne Fushi was the president of the Strad Society, and they reached out to me to ask if I would be interested in applying for the use of the viola. I have very long arms and huge hands. And so I flew out to Chicago and met with them and played it for a couple of hours. It was just perfect; it was amazing. It was the moment I had always dreamed of. I’ve had it ever since then. I originally thought that it would be temporary and just for a few years. The owner of the instrument and the society are both very happy with me playing it. I’m so thankful for the Stradivari Society—it’s wonderful that their instruments are being played and not just sitting in a museum somewhere. I’m really lucky to get to play this viola. 

Tell me about the instrument itself.

The viola was made around 1590. At the time, they did not write the date on the labels, and unfortunately, history did not keep track of the stories of violas like they did with violins. It’s called the “ex-Adam” Gasparo da Salò viola, which means it was from the Adam collection, probably from England. It is also physically very beautiful: it has three decorations on the back—two inlaid fleur de lis and a lozenge—and has double purfling all the way around. And everything is original! A lot of the large violas were cut down in size to be made more playable. The Gasparo is 17.5″ with a very large scroll. This viola is perfect for chamber music, but if I were a soloist or in an orchestra, I would opt for something that’s smaller; playing in higher positions is a challenge on this viola. It’s also a little uncomfortable if the space onstage is tight. 

Gasparo Da Salo Adam
Gasparo Da Salo Adam. Photo: public domain.

Does it perform better in certain situations?


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The only time that I have trouble is when there are extreme temperature changes like in the winter, traveling in cold climates when it’s very dry indoors because of the heat. The pegs don’t adjust well. There’s only one person in the world who is allowed to work on my viola—John Becker in Chicago. He’s been looking after this instrument for decades now, and he knows what it needs and takes a minimalist approach. There’s always an open seam every year, and so I see him, and he glues it back. 

What is something that playing this instrument has taught you?

I’ve learned that I have to let this instrument speak for itself; I can’t force my own ideas on it but have to collaborate with it. I can’t ask more of it than it’s willing to give, and I can’t play it in a way it’s unwilling to be played. It takes more energy from the player—from the bow arm in particular because it takes a lot of bow speed to get the air moving inside the instrument to make it ring. But it has tremendous carrying power. When it’s played in the right way, it can easily be heard at the back of a hall. As long as I keep the bow moving, the instrument will do the work.

I remember when I had just gotten the viola, we played in Berlin for a chamber music mentor of the quartet’s—Eberhard Feltz. The sound of the viola was so distinctive that he suggested that I move to sit inside the quartet (instead of on the outside) for a more effective group sound. Since that time, around 2007, we’ve sat that way.

What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? 

The sound has a chocolaty richness to it but with a vibrancy, too. It has the depth of a tenor but a brightness on top that helps it to project.


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Do you go back and forth between the Gasparo and your own viola? What is that process like, and when do play your own instrument? 

Some repertoire has technical demands that are easier on a slightly smaller viola. I own a Georges Chanot from 1871. Its body length is 17-1/4″—so it’s only slightly smaller—but the string length is a good bit shorter, and that makes a big difference. Sometimes I’ll use the Chanot for something really contemporary that I don’t want to subject the Gasparo to. Or if I’m playing for a film or TV soundtrack, I don’t take the Gasparo into those studios. For most live music concerts, I play the Gasparo. But sometimes, I just feel like it needs a little rest, so I’ll give it a couple of weeks off. Or when I have to take it to Chicago, sometimes I’ll drop it off and play my viola in the meantime.

But when I’ve been playing my own viola for a few weeks and then take the Gasparo out of its case, it feels like it’s gone to sleep, and it takes a few days to wake it up. It’s really interesting. It needs to be played, and then the sound really becomes more vibrant. It’s the happiest when it’s being played. I remember the quartet played in northern Italy, in Reggio Emilia and not very far from Bruscia, where the instrument was made. The viola sounded really amazing there. Maybe it was just in my head. 

Does the Gasparo have any limitations?


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I haven’t found any other limitations beyond its size. It is more fatiguing to play, so you have to get used to that. It’s not the kind of instrument where you want to hold the scroll really high for long periods of time. But when it’s played right, once you get the bow moving and the strings vibrating, the sound just sings out of it. 

Jonathan Moerschel’s Gear

Strings
“I’ve tried a lot of things, and now I’m Pirastro Evah Pirazzi stark on all four strings. For a while, I used the Pirastro Passione strings, which are wound gut. The instrument really liked this—they added a tremendous warmth and glow to the sound. I stopped using them during the pandemic when we weren’t playing that much at all. Gut strings don’t like to sit around, and I was finding that new packages of strings arrived, and I’d put the strings on, and they would break right away because they weren’t fresh. Those strings also did not travel as well. I’m still searching for the perfect string setup. I really like the gut strings on this viola, but I like the stability of the Pirazzis.”

Bows
“I have a few bows. I have a John Dodd, and it works great on this viola—it’s a heavier English bow. I also use a John Norwood Lee (a Tourte copy) a lot, and I use my wife’s bow, which I kind of stole from her. It’s a Jules Fétique, and it’s a lighter, more nimble bow, which is really nice for Mozart and Haydn and French music. The stick is more flexible, so for Brahms or late Beethoven it doesn’t work well, but I’ve been experimenting with it for lighter music or when I want a quicker bow action. It never would have occurred to me that a lighter bow like that would work on this viola. It’s still teaching me things. I also always have a carbon fiber bow in the case for col legno or things I don’t want to do with a regular bow, so I travel with four bows all the time.” 

Rosin
“I don’t pay much attention to the type of rosin. For 20 years, I’ve used AB rosin, and I’ve never thought much about it.” 

Case
“I’m using a Gewa oblong case. It can be difficult to find a case that these larger instruments will fit into, so there’s not a huge number of options. It has a slim profile and is pretty light and can accommodate my bows.”