Life on the Alto Clef: An interview with Max Mandel, violist

Life on the Alto Clef

Violist Max Mandel (left) plays Carl Stamitz’s Viola Concerto in D major, Op.1 with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra this coming Tuesday, 26 Nov 2013.

Chay Choong interviewed him to find out more.
CC: How long have you been playing the viola?

MM: I started on violin when I was 6, and then I started viola when I was 17, and then I stopped playing the violin when I was 21-22.

CC: Why did you stop?

MM: I started playing viola because I wanted to have a string quartet with some friends of mine, and after looking around we realised there wasn’t a lot of great violists. So because I was tall enough, they said that I should try the viola. I never had a lesson on the viola; I took violin lessons, but taught myself the clef and everything.

So we went to a summer festival in Canada, Calgary where we had chamber music sessions. It was three weeks long, and I was supposed to go to another chamber music camp with my violin teacher, but he got sick, so I asked to stay for the masterclasses. I left my violin at home because I thought it was going to be only for three weeks, and I ended up being there for six weeks. Six weeks without the violin, only the viola. By the end of those six weeks, it was a transformation. You can be a very good violinist as long as you can be a very good violist, it’s totally possible, but I think to really get into the sound, and the way of projecting the sound, you need to spend time only with the viola, because it’s a different approach to the strings. So at the end of those six weeks I thought to myself, maybe there’s something more to this than I realised. It is not just bigger, but has more depth to the sound. After three or four months I realised I should just focus on the viola.

I still play the violin sometimes though!

CC: You have a lot of experience – you played in a Baroque group, and in orchestras, and solos. Where is your comfort zone?

MM: Chamber music is the majority of what I do, because I find it the most rewarding part of classical music. With a smaller group you can come to an understanding of the music, connect with people and have a real conversation. If you have a small group of five people, there is room for everybody to talk, and it’s the same thing if you are playing a quintet; there’s space in there for everyone to have their own personality. To me, that’s the most exciting part.

The repertoire is the best too, we have Beethoven String Quartets, or the Haydn Op. 64 String Quartets. For a violist, all the great classical music – from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – it’s in the string quartets. It’s not until Brahms, or viola soloists like Lionel Tertis, appeared that the viola became a solo instrument. So if you want to play classical music, which is the period I love, chamber music is where it’s most exciting.

But I like feeling uncomfortable, I’m always looking for fresh challenges, so every time I start to feel relaxed, I think I need a new challenge.

CC: Like the Stamitz.

MM: Yes! For the Stamitz Concerto, I wrote my own cadenzas and my own endings because that’s what Stamitz, or any performers of his day, would have done, but also the process of trying to write something yourself is a challenge.

CC: It is a tough piece, but you mentioned in your interview with FM92.4 this morning that it is in fact a very fun piece to play. How do you adjust yourself to this mindset on stage? How do you overcome the nervousness of approaching those tough passages?

MM: I think everyone has to know themselves well. For me, I had to accept that I will be nervous playing a concerto for the first 10 minutes on stage. That’s what I learnt about myself, that I need roughly 10 minutes before I breathe normally! That’s the reality. It is impossible to tell your body to not have adrenaline, or your heart not to beat faster. You can have a good night’s sleep, have a good meal, do stretches or breathing exercise, but you will be nervous, or at least that’s how I feel. It’s about accepting the situation that I will be nervous, not about trying not to be nervous.

So usually what happens on stage is: I try to listen. It seems really simple, but you’ll be tempted to think about your own playing, how to execute it perfectly, and forget about listening completely. Also it’s about practising in every different ways you can think of in order to conquer the technical aspects. Of course the goal is to relax so you can sound better, but just in case, you should practise tense once in a while, and try to recreate the concert.

You have to remember that everyone out there wants to hear something good, so when you look at the audience, don’t think that someone out there wants to see you fail. It’s not about you versus the audience. Everyone comes to hear you because they want to hear something good and to support you, so give them a good time!

CC: There aren’t many violists who started out playing the viola, many (in Singapore, at least) are forced to convert to the viola because of the demand. Give us your testimonial for the viola; how would you encourage more people to pick up the instrument?

MM: I feel that the voice of the viola is the closest to the human voice, because it’s in that middle range, it feels the most soulful and natural. The violin can feel so high pitched at times! Once you start playing the viola, you are just drawn to the mellow tone.

If you love a mellow, rich sound, then the viola is the right instrument for you. More and more people approach me, after I play in concerts, and tell me that they love the sound of the viola. And they always seemed surprised, saying things like, “Oh I love the sound of the viola, but I don’t hear enough viola music.”

There are a lot of violinists out there already, we don’t need more violinists! We need more violists! (laughs)

CC: You have much experience conducting masterclasses. What do you often impart to your students?

MM: One of my main guiding principles is: our job is to make music come alive, to make masterpieces live.

When you step into a museum, you see a Rembrandt, it will always be on the wall for us to look at. A Beethoven Symphony, on the other hand, needs us to come alive. We have a big responsibility to keep these music alive. We should always think, how are we going to get into Beethoven’s head? How do we figure out what he wants? We have to think of all the different ways to make him live, and be relevant today. That’s my overriding principle on music, it is a lifelong goal for me.

Max Mandel plays the Stamitz Viola Concerto at the ‘Musical Inspirations’ concert with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall

26 Nov 2013. David Commanday conducts. Other items on the repertoire include Weber’s ‘Oberon’Overture and Brahms’ Symphony No.1 

Tickets at S$9.00 each+ S$1.00 processing fee from


 7,937 total views,  1 views today