New Classical Tracks - Exploring with the Viola

by Julie Amacher
July 31, 2012

Listen New Classical Tracks - Exploring with the Viola
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Kraus: Viola Concertos - David Aaron Carpenter, viola/Tapiola Sinfonietta (Ondine 1193-2) (Courtesy of Ondine)

Five years ago, at age 21, violist David Aaron Carpenter burst onto the music scene when he became the first American and the youngest person ever to be mentored in the Rolex Mentor Arts Initiative. That award gave him the opportunity to study with conductor, violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman. "That was really a great dream, to study with my idol, and really to learn so much from him." The following year Carpenter was preparing for his final exams at Princeton University when he was called at the last minute to fill in for Maxim Vengerov with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland. Carpenter jumped at the opportunity without realizing what he had gotten himself into. "At the time, Maxim was dating an Argentinian tango dancer," Carpenter explains. "He asked Benjamin Yusupov to write a concerto for him for five-string electric violin/viola and also to dance the tango in front of thousands of people in Lucerne." David had to learn the tango, a new concerto, and how to improvise when he and his partner got out of step., "During the performance she started spinning really, really fast and her elbow accidently went up and sort of knocked me down but I made it part of the act, and made a very passionate scene and just brought it right back to her and completed the whole concert while my face was becoming red."

David Aaron Carpenter isn't afraid of a new challenge. When the president of Ondine Records approached him about recording three newly discovered viola concertos by Joseph Martin Kraus, David was immediately on board. Kraus was born in 1756, the same year as Mozart. Joseph Haydn, who knew both composers, considered Kraus to be on the same level of genius as Mozart. David Aaron Carpenter says Kraus was a very innovative composer. "He was very harmonically progressive in his movements. It's very dramatic music sometimes and then you have these embellishments that you would hear in Mozart's or Haydn's works. I think he was one of these composers that really understood the balance between virtuosic performer — the violist of that time — and the orchestra — to have this play of different instruments, timbres. sounds that many composers of his time really didn't understand. He was almost like Mozart in that very progressive thinking."

Carpenter takes a few liberties of his own with these concertos. As you listen to the cadenza in the first movement of the concerto in G major for viola, cello and orchestra you'll hear what sounds like a familiar line from a Haydn cello concerto. "I made that cadenza up and that was exactly what I was framing at that particular point. It was pretty much my homage to Haydn at the time." From a technical standpoint, Carpenter says this work is incredibly challenging for both soloists. "If you heard the third movement, it's this rondo section where the cello just goes up into the stratospheric point. I don't think you can go any higher on the cello at that point, with the violist playing triplets and really fast passages underneath. It's quite remarkable how he understood to put out this extreme virtuosic writing to make it sound almost breathless and very carefree and easy.

"This composer is quite dear to my heart," Carpenter says of Kraus. "Just to know that he regarded the viola as such a high instrument. But it's also interesting to note that composers such as Beethoven, Britten, Hindemith, even I think Monteverdi and Haydn, all played the viola, as well as Mozart. I think all these major composers always heard the viola as sort of a middle voice, right between the violin and the cello, and to really understand that we had the best of both worlds. We could go up in the highest passages and play like a violin, as well as go to the lowest depths and play like a cello. And I think they understood this quality, which is another reason I just don't know why the viola is not more of a solo instrument."

With his new release premiering three recently discovered viola concertos by Joseph Martin Kraus, David Aaron Carpenter's dream to continue to promote the viola as a major solo instrument is being realized.