Many might assume that Cynthia Phelps’ quest for a new viola was an instrument shopper’s dream. The principal violist of the New York Philharmonic since 1992, Phelps learned at the start of her tenure that the philharmonic would purchase the instrument that she would play. One surprise was how confusing the process became. “Because a lot of people knew that I was looking—a lot of dealers knew that I was looking—my phone was ringing off the hook,” she says. “All of a sudden I was inundated.”
Phelps shares that it was difficult to judge what felt right. Thinking long-term, she also strived to find a viola that wasn’t too gigantic and unwieldy. After four years of searching, she found the viola: a Gasparo da Salò, circa 1560–80. It’s a “monster,” she says, at 17 3/16 inches. But, it’s the one for her. “I thought I’d start with something I thought I could handle easily . . . . It evolved into a bigger instrument that I love the sound of.”
The violist took time to speak about her viola in China, where she was teaching at the Shanghai Orchestra Academy. Phelps detailed its warm, throaty sound, how she combats any tubbiness, and how swimming, tennis, and red wine complement the viola more than you’d think.
Strings Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold for C and G, Jargar A. “And I like the Jargar D. I like it because sometimes in the middle registers, violas can sound a little tubby, and because it’s a big instrument, I like using a steel D,” Phelps says. “It takes away that little tubby factor in the sound.”
Bow Tubbs. “I got it when I was playing on my Tonini. I’m not sure it’s the perfect marriage with this instrument but it does work well . . . Tubbs are very, very sturdy, kind of heavy, which suits me. One day I’ll get another bow. Maybe.”
Case Custom cello-shaped fiberglass Tonareli outfitted with wheels and a luggage handle.
What were you playing before?
A beautiful [Giovanni] Tononi. It’s just 16 inches. It’s the instrument that I won every competition, every audition on. It’s beautiful. I had two students play on that consecutively before they got jobs. My one student, who was my TA, played on it for about five years, and she got into the Baltimore Symphony. When she made enough money to buy her own, she gave it back, and my other master’s student is playing on it now and she’s taking auditions. She actually got a one-year position in the Baltimore Symphony with my other student. They all said, “Oh! That’s the viola!” It’s really nice.
Tell us about how you found the Gasparo da Salò.
When I first learned that I would have the opportunity to play on an instrument that the philharmonic would buy for me, it was very exciting. I thought, “This is the chance of a lifetime. I’m going to find something I just can’t live without.” And as it’s a very heavy orchestra schedule, I didn’t want something so big that I’m going to kill myself. I started out moderate. I thought, “Oh, Amatis!” I do love Amatis, but I just wasn’t finding something that fit my sound priorities until I got a little bit bigger.
What do you know about its history and others who have played it?
I know that the principal in the Detroit Symphony played it. Abe Skernick, who was a professor at Indiana University, played it. I’m not sure of the provenance behind that.
Can you describe its sound?
It’s very chocolatey. It’s very warm and dark, very mellow. It’s very special. It’s got cello qualities. Sometimes when I’m warming up backstage, I’ve gotten the comment before: “What cellist was that? And then I saw it was you!” [Laughs.] I really like that. I love the cello; I just love that burnished amber warmth. I’m a sun girl—I grew up in California.
What are its strengths and limitations?
Its strength is that it’s a cannon. It’s really got so much power. I love that.
A weaknesses is that it’s big. I have to be careful not to start doing this [slumps]. I really have to be very, very aware of my posture and that I’m not slumping and letting it drag me down. I also have to stay pretty fit [because] it’s big. I swim, I play tennis. I do anything to stay fit. [Laughs]. And I think it’s really important anyway as a player. This is a very unnatural position to put yourself in for hours and hours and hours a day. To sound lithe and very fluid and quick, that’s a little bit of a challenge on this instrument because it’s so big. On my smaller instruments it’s much easier to toss things off and be sparkling.
In what situations does it perform best?
Well, it likes sea level. So, when I’m in high elevations like Vail—the orchestra goes to Vail, Colorado—I have to be careful with it. It really opens up more when it’s humid. Some instruments, it’s the opposite. They start squeaking and squawking. I do have to say, I got a carbon-fiber soundpost put in. That’s the new thing . . . I would say that this used to be very temperamental and it’s not as temperamental [with the soundpost]. I think it’s great. People say, “Oh man! No way! The wood doesn’t vibrate with something that’s not pliable.” But I’m telling you, I love it.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea, or any drink of your choice?
[Laughs.] “Put me down once in a while!” That’s so funny. That’s a very creative question. First of all, it would definitely be red wine, you know? With this instrument, it would be red wine.
Red wine can pair well with chocolate.
That’s right. Probably, “Let me do more of the work myself,” because I tend to be very Type-A and I have to play so much music all the time—orchestra music, solo, chamber—I’m constantly having to switch gears. I realized, I can do so much more with this instrument. I feel that I need to be able to trust the instrument to respond, to help me use it more to be part of the process rather than just imposing myself on it. That’s what you do with a great instrument: It becomes a marriage. You become really good friends, because you know where to push and where to be pushed, you know?
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Strings magazine.