Hear selections from Phelps' solo CD, 'Cynthia Phelps, Principal Viola' (Cala Records).
As the principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, Cynthia Phelps is at the pinnacle of her field. But leading a group of viola players, even at one of the world's great orchestras, isn't exactly glamorous.
Unlike the higher-pitched violins, the violas rarely get the tune. They're politely referred to as an "inner voice." But Phelps says that her section, which she has headed for 15 years, plays a key role in the texture and feel of the music.
"It's subtle but it's exciting, and it's the kind of thing that is great about being an inner voice," she says. "You have a lot of control over how you allow the tune to be played."
She says that expressing a conductor's grand musical vision often comes down to some obscure details, like whether you're pulling your bow up — or down
"Often times, a conductor will just lean down and mutter something while he's in the middle of traffic-copping everything else, and it's up to me to translate it to the very back stand to make sure they heard it," Phelps says.
"A lot of what I have to say has to do with how our rhythm is fitting into the texture of the group," she says.
The violas don't often play the lead, but they exert control over the overall sound, she says. Their task, Phelps says, is to "maintain a base of rhythm for the melodic instruments."
As the leader of her section, Phelps plays the role of a mediator of sorts. "I try and create a balanced middle ground," she says. "It really resonates with the way I am as an individual."
Features in this series are produced by David Schulman and NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr.