By David Templeton | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine
The Chicago Sinfonietta’s principal violist, Marlea Simpson, 26, was born in the town of Allen, Texas, where she marked her solo debut with the Allen Philharmonic in 2012. At that time, she’d been playing her beloved viola since she was a teenager. “Fun fact,” Simpson said in December, as the Sinfonietta was preparing for its annual Martin Luther King, Jr., tribute concert in January, “I’ve actually had my instrument longer than I’ve known most of the people in my life!”
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Simpson tends to describe her relationship with her viola in strongly affectionate terms, using words like “fun,” “beautiful,” and “ready for anything.” A gift from her stepfather, the instrument has been a constant collaborator through countless performances, from playing with the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra as a teenager to performing with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra as a Project Inclusion Fellow in 2014.
During our exchange, Simpson spoke of becoming enamored of her instrument’s sound the first time she heard it, what she’s come to see as its many strengths (and one or two weaknesses), and what they might talk about were she ever able to have a tea party conversation with her viola.
Tell me about your primary viola and what you know about its history.
The label inside my viola says Kraemer and also that the instrument was made in 2008 at a factory in China. That’s pretty much all I know about the viola’s history before it was given to me, which wasn’t long after it was made. My stepdad, who is a luthier in the Dallas area, gave me this viola when I was in high school, which means the majority of this instrument’s life has been spent with me.
What do you remember about the first time you played it?
I remember my stepdad got this instrument in his shop and he was excited about letting me try it out. Once I started playing it, I fell in love with it instantly, especially after he worked on it and set it up for me to make it sound even better. One of the things I loved about the viola—and still love about it—was the sound! It has a rich and warm tone that very much complements my music-making goals. It’s definitely a fun instrument to experiment with colors, making every practice session and performance a treat.
Does it perform better in certain situations or environments?
Probably like most musicians, I personally enjoy playing in spaces that are very resonant and “boomy.” My instrument tends to thrive in spaces like that and it seems to be the perfect environment to fully develop its sound in.
What is its greatest strength?
My instrument’s greatest strength would have to be its flexibility in different performance situations. I have the opportunity to play a lot of different types of gigs and performances, so having an instrument that is ready for anything is key.
What are some of its limitations?
I had the opportunity to play on a few different instruments over the last several years that were on loan to me for short periods of time, and after playing them I came to find some things that I was missing in my own instrument. The two that I can come up with would have to be clarity and depth of sound. While my instrument has a beautiful sound, I’ve come to the point where I might’ve reached the limit of what I’m able to do with it. And, of course, the right amount of clarity on a viola is always something we crave.
Just for fun, if your viola could talk, and you spent some time chatting, what do you think it would say to you, or you to it?
If I had the opportunity to sit down with my viola and have a chat over a cup of tea, we’d have a lot to talk about! I’m sure my viola would ask me to change my strings more often, that’s for sure. Other than that, I think we’d have so much fun talking about some of our favorite moments together. It would probably be similar to when you catch up with an old friend and talk about all of your favorite memories that you’ve made and shared—favorite concerts, big auditions, cool venues—and lots and lots of music!