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Salvador Dali does violas

No, it’s not a nightmare nor a viola (pronounced “vee-o-la”) on drugs. Michael Tilson Thomas said he thought he was hallucinating when he first saw it, dubbing it a Salvador Dali viola.

The Pellegrina viola is an innovative ergonomic design by David Rivinus, an instrument maker in Vermont.

Like pulled taffy heated and then stretched from the top left and bottom right-hand sides, the surrealistic-appearing instrument has caused comments from [Isaac Stern] ”You shouldn’t have left it in the sun so long to [Edo de Waart] ”I thought it was my jet lag.” Rivinus himself has heard it called ‘The Hunchback,” ”The Beast, ” and ”The Gumby Viola” and even claims that someone in the orchestra screamed when they saw it for the first time.

The violin maker began working to the model in response to friends with injuries from playing conventional violas. He has been quoted as saying “I am most reluctant revolutionary you can imagine.” He says he was merely trying to put logical design –  something that worked – ahead of adherence to conventional design and the result was the Pelligrina.

Most violas are shaped like a violin, only larger. The increased size and subsequent weight makes a viola much more challenging physically than a lightweight violin. The shape works well ergonomically for the smaller violin sizes, but the viola’s expanded width and especially the extra length, present problems for even the strongest player. The weight pulls on the neck muscles. The need to extend the arm to the end of the fingerboard places the arm in an unnatural position and pulls on muscles from the shoulder all the way to the hand. If you didn’t have posture problems before playing viola you will after.

Size usually makes a difference with the viola—the larger the body, the deeper and richer the sound is the usual rule. But it is this very characteristic that causes the wear and tear on the violist. Acoustically perfect proportions would result in an instrument too large for anyone to handle in the normal violin position. My own viola is a little too big for me, but I have seen very few smaller ones that can equal its depth of sound and certainly not for anywhere the money I was lucky enough to acquire mine for. (There are some small Italian violas with a wonderful sound but the last I checked they were at least $175,000.00. No thanks.)

I am kind of old-fashioned, I like the tried and true, but since I smashed up my shoulder last year and haven’t been able to handle my sweet-sounding, but very heavy viola, I have been on the lookout for alternatives. There are all kinds of experimentations in the viola world and not a few viola jokes about the difficulties of wielding this large axe, but this model looks like it might have more possibilities than most.

David Rivinus’ viola purports to have solve some of these problems by providing a playing position that is less of a strain on the violist by shortening and lightening the instrument without sacrificing a deep rich tone. A slanted fingerboard and tapered sides are supposed to ease the effort required to play and the weight is reduced by the substitution of carbon fiber for the ebony fingerboard and balsa for the internal construction. Other elements are artistic designs to go along with the overall image.

Sounds like it might be a good idea. I have never played one of his instruments myself though, so I don’t know for sure. With a price tag of 12,800, I am not likely to either. 😦  Although that is a whole lot better than 175K!  I hear there are a couple of them in the Bay Area (San Francisco Symphony – where Tilson Thomas made his famous remark), so perhaps I will have to opportunity to at least see one someday.

See Pellegrina information,  picture gallery and animated rotation at


http://www.rivinus-instruments.com/DesignConcepts.htm shows the design layouts.