STEVE INSKEEP:

And next, we'll listen to the way that an orchestra's sound is built. We've been listening to one of the musicians of the New York Philharmonic. Her name is Cynthia Phelps, and she plays viola. It's an instrument that's often expected to keep to the background. For our series Musicians in Their Own Words, Cynthia Phelps explains how her instrument gives texture to the music. A small gesture can affect its full sound, like whether you're pulling the bow up or down.

Ms. CYNTHIA PHELPS (Principal Violist, New York Philharmonic): People don't know what bowings are, what they mean, or why are string players spent so much time on them. I went to my daughter's youth orchestra rehearsal - she plays the cello - and they kept rushing. And the conductor said, don't rush. But I looked over, I saw half of them were doing the upbeats on down bows and half of them were going down up, which gave them all a different rhythmic sense with their bodies. I sidled up and said, maybe if they all do the same bowing - which is what I have to decide in my capacity as principal viola. And, of course, it worked.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHELPS: It's a very live musical experience when you sit in the body of that sound.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHELPS: Oftentimes, 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.

A lot of what I have to say has to do with how our rhythm is fitting into the texture of the group. Beethoven five, the slow movement, the viola and celli are together playing the tune. And it's an audition lick because it can be rhythmically slurred inappropriately.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHELPS: Which makes it sound sluggish. This is the actual excerpt.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHELPS: That almost sounds exaggerated, but you practically have to do when you have a whole section playing it like that.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHELPS: So much of what is required of us is rhythmic, We are the middle voice. We maintain a base of rhythm for the melodic instruments. Dvorák's New World Symphony, which was written for the New York Philharmonic, has a glorious opening with the celli and the violas. The celli have the tune, but the violas are in charge of how they actually play that tune.

(Soundbite of viola strings being plucked)

Ms. PHELPS: The celli go…

(Soundbite of celli)

Ms. PHELPS: That's the cello part. We go…

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHELPS: They play the melody off of that.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHELPS: So however we pace it, all of a sudden they have to play the second phrase softer. They have to wait longer. It's subtle, but it's exciting. And it's the kind of thing that is great about being the inner voice. You have a lot of control over how you allow the tune to be played.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PHELPS: I think that I'm good as a mediator. I try and create a balanced middle ground. It really resonates with the way I am as an individual.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: That's Cynthia Phelps of the New York Philharmonic, in her own words. You can hear some of her recitals and other features in this series at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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