It’s been said before: The viola is under-appreciated. The violin, the cello, even the harp and the double bass these days, attract more attention among the string family.
The instrument deserves more praise, especially when played as dazzlingly as it was by Paul Laraia of the phenomenally creative and well-honed Catalyst Quartet Nov. 30 at Portland’s The Old Church. The sound of the viola’s velvety alto in talented hands makes your heart beat harder and faster.
The ebullient Laraia, 34, who is married to Catalyst violinist Karla Donehew Perez, is out of his seat as much as he is in it when he plays his instrument. “Performance is 100 percent integrated with movement,” he said in a post-concert phone interview. “Movement also helps to avoid tension, and as a communicative device, it can turn the boat in a different direction,” meaning that he can encourage the group to extend a phrase or speed one up. In other words, the violist takes the lead. “We are an adamant four-person democracy. We don’t roll with one person leading the group. That is the beauty of a string quartet … we do not have a fascist style of governing.”
Catalyst’s other three members — violinists Perez and Abi Fayette, along with cellist Karlos Rodriguez–are equally expressive, though in different ways (an eyebrow lifted here, a foot stomp there, bows lifted high) in this 13-year-old group that grew out of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization in 2010. Catalyst has been Chamber Music Northwest’s ensemble-in-residence since spring 2022, spreading its music around to Portland-area schools, to youth orchestras and to concert audiences. I’ve heard three of their concerts during their residency, lucky for me, including two feauturing their 1- to 2-minute-long “CQ Minute” compositions commissioned from such composers as former Catalyst member Jessie Montgomery, Caroline Shaw, Andy Akiho and Paquito D’Rivera (his highly rhythmic “But Just a Minute” was played Nov. 30).
Laraia took up the viola at 9 years old in New Jersey public schools, after his mother discouraged him from the cello, saying it was too unwieldy to carry on the bus. Calling himself a late starter — “I didn’t grow up in a musical family like Karla (Perez) and Abi (Fayette), who started at 3 years old” — he got better and better, practicing three hours a day in high school, four in college at the New England Conservatory of Music, then five and six hours when he began entering serious competitions. He won first place in the 2011 Sphinx Competition and first prize in the 2019 Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition, which sponsored his recital debut at Wigmore Hall in London in 2020. All of that intense practicing, Laraia said, “was like training for the Olympics.”
So of course Laraia, who joined Catalyst in 2013, was a crucial member of Catalyst’s final Nov. 30 Portland concert, ¡Viva la Música!, which made the most of the group’s Latin roots. Laraia and Perez have Puerto Rican lineage, and Rodriguez is Cuban-American. They were right at home with the music of Cuban-born D’Rivera, which included “A Farewell Mambo,” a 2013 nod to fellow Cuban exile, comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes, whose signature onstage walk was to a mambo tune. Catalyst finished this part with D’Rivera’s better known 1970 “Wapango” infused with Latin, jazz and classical influences. Laraia loved playing those pieces. “Paquito played the clarinet and sax and those instruments lend themselves to viola color.”
Catalyst arranged the four-part “Angel Suite” by the late Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, who threw twists, turns, dissonance and angles into traditional tango music. In Catalyst’s arrangement, Laraia said, “the group passed the riches around” and everyone had juicy parts. “We were inspired by the meat and the Malbec,” two of Argentina’s notable products along with the tango.
Then with French Impressionist Maurice Ravel’s familiar 30-minute 1903 String Quartet in F Major, Laraia was able to truly shine, with its large viola part. “All those colors, there is so much interplay” among the instruments, Laraia said. Ravel is associated with French impressionist music but his heritage includes Basque ancestors, and in the second movement, the plucked strings (pizzicato) conjure up guitars, perhaps acknowledging his Basque roots.
The program added George Gershwin’s only music for a string quartet, his 1919 Lullaby for Strings. If not Latin, it melded classical and popular patterns, “putting a twist on the American popular music style of the 1910s by mixing popular rhythms and melodies together with a hushed sweet lullaby,” wrote Ethan Allred, author of the CMNW’s program notes. Latin or not, the Gershwin was beyond beautiful and rarely heard. The program ended with Caroline Shaw’s “Bittersweet Synonym,” another “CQ Minute” piece of candy.
The group is up for a Grammy this year in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category for its Uncovered Volume 3 with music by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, William Grant Still and George Walker. The Uncovered Project is Catalyst’s multi-volume set of albums on Azica records that showcases composers of color whose works have been mostly overlooked.
We’ll miss Catalyst with its ongoing outreach and flexible approach to new and older music. “No music is ever really dead,” Laraia said. “We’ve been playing a lot of Haydn lately. It’s so vibrant and engaging. We have a similar devotion to old-school teachers as we do to newer music. We try to get deep into the music and bring it off the page.”