Breaking “Brahms”: Jerzy Kosmala, Viola Virtuoso

By Javier Burdette

UCI is home to one of the world’s premier violists: Dr. Jerzy Kosmala. When he’s not lecturing at Irvine, he’s serving as an adjudicator for one of any number of illustrious competitions and councils, ranging from the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition to the the International Primrose Viola Competition.

Dr. Kosmala has found his calling in an instrument the layman might not recognize: the viola. To put it in terms the uninformed can understand, the viola is a violin, but bigger. According to Kosmala, it has a much darker timbre, or distinct sound quality, than the violin. Kosmala calls the sound “rich” and “warm.”

But don’t kick yourself for not knowing anything about the viola. Even Kosmala’s relationship with the instrument came about by chance.

Before he became a professional musician, Kosmala had aspirations of becoming a lawyer and an architect. He started playing during his teens, a time he refers to as “after the war.” The viola wasn’t even his primary instrument. He was a violinist.

Then he got married. He needed a means to support his young wife, and Fortune presented him with an opening in a local orchestra: a spot in the viola section. He made the transition from one instrument to the other in a matter of days.

“When I first switched to the viola, I played like a violinist,” recalled Kosmala.

When he finally realized the instrument’s unique merit, he fell in love.

After finishing his studies in his native Poland, he came to the U.S. and got his doctorate.

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Dr. Jerzy Kosmala, an acclaimed violist and scholar of music, performed in “Mostly Brahms,” a concert highlighting the composer. Photo courtesy of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

Despite the success of Kosmala’s efforts to get more violists into the string department at UCI, he is of the belief the viola doesn’t get enough recognition. This is due to a pretty interesting piece of musical history.

A great deal of classical composers were very familiar with the violin. They wrote their compositions for the instrument they knew best. This being the case, the viola wasn’t shown much love.

In the 20th century, things got a little better. Some great pieces have been written for the viola. Kosmala calls it a renaissance. However, musicians still avoid the instrument. The supply of violists is low. The demand is high.

Ask anyone who’s ever been part of an orchestra, and they’ll tell you that there are two groups of musicians that nobody likes: violinists and violists. When it comes to  violinists, the animosity is borne out of the instrument’s ability to hit uncomfortably high notes. The violist, on the other hand, is the redheaded stepchild in the family that is an orchestra. They don’t get solos. They’re easy to pick on.

But every once, in awhile, the viola gets to shine.

Last Saturday night, Kosmala and his friends pianist Loran Griffit, violinist Haroutune Bedelian and cellist Maggie Perkins took the stage at Winifred Smith Hall and treated the audience to a concert made up of  mostly Brahms, as its title so aptly puts.

That night, the viola’s capabilities were put on full display as a variety of ensembles of the aforementioned musicians played “Scherzo in C minor” and “Piano Quartet in G minor, op. 25,” among others.

The audience rose to a standing ovation in appreciation of an instrument that doesn’t get nearly enough, thanks to one of its foremost experts. A round of applause for the little viola that could.