The viola is often the butt of musical jokes. Overshadowed by the weighty cello below it and the showy violin above it, the viola is bullied. And the boring loser-instrument joke goes on and on.
“If you don’t know what the viola is, you shouldn’t. There’s so much more to know,” said Isabel Hagen, the New York-based star violist — and comedian — Feb. 13 at The Old Church in downtown Portland. With this show, Fear No Music switched up things, and handed the stage to the oft-maligned viola–which, by the way, is FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch’s instrument.
Hagen and her viola took the lead in the concert/comedy show “Imagine I‘m Someone Else” created by Hagen, who was a student of Bunch’s for six years from when she was 12 years old. At the time, he was at Juilliard and she was in Juilliard’s pre-college program.
Bunch called Hagen a “shy, stand-out student,” but not one to “crave the spotlight.”
As Hagen told the audience a couple of decades after those student days, in previous years she was racked by performance anxiety, which likely made the spotlight undesirable. “Fortunately,” she said, she injured herself with a stress fracture from too much viola-playing, and that’s when she turned to comedy.
Using comedy is “an interesting way of becoming comfortable as a performer,” Bunch said in an interview in November when Hagen was scheduled to appear in Portland and canceled due to Covid. “She found that with comedy, she could put things into perspective, be more comfortable in her own skin, even when she bombed and the audience turned on her.”
When paired with Brahms or Bach or Reich, comedy loosens up the sit-up-straight earnest vibe of classical music. Bunch and FNM promote new music, but Bunch is clear-eyed that “new music” can be very serious stuff. And we can use a break from its gravity.
“Bringing humor into the music world is refreshing and healing,” Bunch said. “Laughter is healing, especially when we can laugh at ourselves and share the absurdity of existence.”
Hagen — who appears to have no stage fright at this point in her life, nor to give a hoot about glamor — stood in a gray t-shirt and black belt-less jeans, blonde hair in a pony tail and no makeup, with her viola for an hour. Looking like a teenager at the age of 31, she delivered jokes interspersed with snippets of Mozart tunes and other viola hits, including the gorgeous “Prelude” to Bach’s Third Cello Suite, which she played beautifully, convincing us that she was a talented violist. Some lucky Portlanders heard this piece Feb. 4 when star-powered cellist Alisa Weilerstein played all six Bach suites at First Baptist Church–not that Hagen would have wanted to know that.
Aside from setting up and landing jokes, Hagen played several songs she has written, turning her viola into a kind of ukulele, plucking away and singing in her resonant alto about female orgasms and self-care, along with riffing on therapy and self-acceptance, noting that she is “so mean” to herself. But she’s resilient and usually has a comeback: “I’ve been told comedians are super-depressed. Have you met musicians?” she fired back.
And which role does she prefer? Violist (yes, she’s played on Broadway, with various orchestras and composers, and had other top gigs) or comic?
“Whichever one is going worse, I pick the other.”
Now that she’s considered an up-and-coming woman comedian, she said she enjoys being part of a group. And this business of “sleeping yourself to the top?” she joked. “It’s a very difficult thing to do.”
Hagen, who has been compared in looks to film director/writer/actor Greta Gerwig, was a hit, her unassuming delivery and self-deprecating routine cures for the pre-Valentines blues. At the end of her show, she and Bunch joined in his duet, ShadowBox, a three-movement piece with a second movement that “has elements of improvisation, but I wouldn’t say that it’s improvised,” Bunch explained after the show in an email. “The first viola has specifically notated rhythms but no pitches assigned to them, so that player needs to decide which notes to play. The second viola then has to try their best to repeat the notes the first viola plays, but again with a specifically determined rhythm.”
The complex duet, written in 2017, made it clear that these two musicians love their instrument. They brought the viola out of the shadows and into the bright lights.