David Aaron Carpenter & the Viola Sing Out

These past two months have brought something not typically widespread – wonderful releases from talented violists, and excellent reviews to follow! The LA Times recently did a viola feature on this very topic, citing two of my latest favorite violists, Eliesha Nelson and David Aaron Carpenter. As a violist myself, I love to see such regard and praise come to the instrument, and am excited for the opportunity to help bring attention to these brilliant violists. In late September, I interviewed Eliesha Nelson, and graciously, David Aaron Carpenter recently answered the same questions concerning his experience as a violist. His debut album from Ondine, “Elgar & Schnittke Viola Concertos,” has received much critical acclaim, most recently winning the Gramophone Editor’s Choice Award in October 2009. He is one of the brightest viola talents to come along in many years. It’s wonderful to have such a star associated with the viola, and it makes me very optimistic we will continue to see more of this type of excitement towards viola releases. In Mark Swed’s words: “The viola…is the future.”

How did you first develop a love for music? What inspired you to begin playing?
I am fortunate enough to have an older brother and sister who play the violin. Growing up in a musical environment helped me obtain a passion and love for music. I never had a one-track career in mind to become a soloist, and my mother always believed in a well-rounded education for her children. I never would have foreseen that I would be making a career as a viola soloist, especially after attending a liberal arts college and majoring in political science and international relations.

Although this is not the case for myself, like many violists, you began your musical instruction on the violin and later switched to viola. What ultimately made you stick with the Viola, and what do you enjoy most about playing Viola as opposed to the Violin?
I started playing the violin at age 6 and gravitated to the viola at 11 years of age. In my opinion, the viola can sometimes be a very clumsy instrument to begin with for young players, and I always recommend starting on the violin to develop good habits for technique. I attended pre-college at Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music as a double major in both violin and viola and it was very liberating for me to approach different works on both instruments. In the process, I was always more inclined to the complex tone of the viola. Also, the repertoire on the viola is unique and the possibilities are endless.

Artur Nikish believed that ‘a player’s psyche depended upon the instrument he played,’ and he characterized violists as being ‘calm and good-natured.’ It has also been often said that ‘viola players are the least troublesome’ in orchestral settings. Do you agree?
I agree, and think we need to change such a passive role! It is time that violists start to make a stand to change the status of the instrument. Violists have historically been the “least troublesome,” and I believe that if we had more virtuosi like Lionel Tertis and William Primrose living in the classical or romantic eras, we would certainly have more extant masterworks for the viola repertoire.


What are some of your favorite compositions to play? Do you have an era you prefer?
This really changes depending on the project and composer that I am studying at any given point in time. I like all eras of music, which include the baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary periods, although I have been recently focusing more on 20th century compositions. I am also interested in sensible transcriptions for the viola, especially those that are sanctioned by a particular composer.


As you have just recently released your first album, what did you enjoy most about the recording process? Least?
It was more than a dream to record the Elgar and Schnittke Concertos with the
Philharmonia Orchestra directed by Maestro Eschenbach. The synergy of all parties involved was truly magical, and I am extremely proud of the product and outcome of the recording. Although there wasn’t any particular aspect that I enjoyed least, I must say that playing for 2 days straight was quite a strenuous undertaking.

If you could choose one composer, conductor or artist, deceased or living, to meet who would it be? Why?

Jacqueline Du Pre—to this day, I have never encountered in person or heard on record an artist who was the embodiment of musical intuition, emotional connection, and raw talent. Her artistry was the primary reason I gravitated towards the deeper sound of the viola.

When you’re not performing or practicing, what activities do you enjoy?
I enjoy playing tennis with my brother and sister, and also like to read and keep apprised of world events, financial markets, and international diplomacy. When I am traveling, I try to make it a priority to attend museums and special cultural events that are occurring in each city.


Which composer would you most like–or would have liked–to contribute to the instrument’s repertoire?
One of my favorite composers who never wrote but sanctioned a viola concerto will be featured on my next recording. I won’t disclose the composer’s name yet, but I am sure it will stir up some controversy!


There are countless viola jokes. Can you share a few of your favorites?
I have never heard of one before. ;-)

To see videos of David Aaron Carpenter’s playing: http://www.youtube.com/user/violarocks45

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PORTER Complete Viola Music

Podcast: Eliesha Nelson plays Quincy Porter

Although Quincy Porter is better known as a teacher, he was also a fine composer, violist and conductor. A rediscovery of his music is overdue, and what better place to start than with this CD of his complete viola music, … Read More →


ELGAR and SCHNITTKE Viola Concertos

Podcast: David Aaron Carpenter plays Elgar and Schnittke

With his CD of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Alfred Schnittke‘s Viola Concerto, New York-based violist David Aaron Carpenter puts himself onstage as one of the leading violists of the new generation. His performance of Edward Elgar‘s Cello Concerto also makes … Read More →


From Viola to Voila: Eliesha Nelson shares on Quincy Porter, motherhood & jokes

When I first learned of Eliesha Nelson’s upcoming release of Quincy Porter’s Complete Viola Works from Dorian Sono Luminus, I was overjoyed to have such a wonderful release from a violist. As a violist myself, I find we tend to band together as a group more so than many other instrumentalists. I can’t be sure why this is the case, but as a result I find myself rooting for violists, and particularly one who brings such excitement to the repertoire and instills respect for her instrument. Eliesha Nelson’s performance of the Quincy Porter works does just that. Since she plays the instrument closest to my heart and we share unique spellings of the same name, I found myself very attached to this recording! With a brand-new album coming out, being a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and motherhood on the way, she is an inspiration to many, including myself. After contacting Eliesha to tell her how much I enjoyed her new recording, her kindness and enthusiasm for the music made me want to learn more about her background and what led her to this point in her career as a musician. So I went straight to the source to learn more about this talented violist and her passion for music.

How did you first develop a love for music? What inspired you to begin playing?

My parents come from a generation where learning an instrument, usually piano, was commonplace. It was considered part of being a well-educated, well-rounded individual irrespective of one’s economic status. My mother played violin and piano, so I and my sister did too. Viola came later, in my early 20′s.

I began playing the violin when I was 6 years old. I was raised in the interior of Alaska, and when I was first learning violin, the Suzuki Method was being introduced to the area. My first violin teacher was a cellist, but she must have done her job well because I developed a love for playing. I think that’s the most important thing a young child gets with a good beginner’s teacher. No one wants to play an instrument if it’s tedious, boring or too academic.

Although this is not the case for myself, like many violists, you began your musical instruction on the violin and later switched to viola. What ultimately made you stick with the Viola, and what do you enjoy most about playing Viola as opposed to the Violin?

I began playing viola out of curiosity and a desire to learn something new. I stuck with viola because I got an orchestral job as acting principal viola of the Florida Philharmonic immediately after getting my master’s degree, so I needed to play viola! Now I’m happy it turned out that way. I’m researching and learning a lot of fantastic viola repertoire that has been lost or underplayed, plus I love learning standard repertoire I “should” have learned as a kid.

I view the violin and viola as two separate instruments with different sonorities. I don’t necessarily value one over the other, but I do prefer the sound of the viola. I also find it more physically difficult to play, and sometimes when I’m feeling tired, I wistfully recall how much easier technical feats are on the violin. Paganini Caprices are much easier on the violin than the viola!

Artur Nikish believed that ‘a player’s psyche depended upon the instrument he played,’ and he characterized violists as being ‘calm and good-natured.’ It has also been often said that ‘viola players are the least troublesome’ in orchestra settings. Do you agree?

Hmmm. That’s what I’m told, that all violists are calm and good-natured. However, I have certainly met high-strung, very competitive and supremely self-confident violists! I think it takes all types, even in a viola section.

What are some of your favorite compositions to play? Do you have an era you prefer?

I love to play whatever pieces I’m performing at the moment. I prefer variety in repertoire. So far, I’ve had the luxury of not being told what repertoire I must perform for most solos with orchestra and recitals, so it’s been my choice. I use the opportunity to learn new music as well as perform pieces in my repertoire I love.

My favorite era is Renaissance music, so that means I listen to a lot of vocal music. There’s something about the purity of the voice and the use of intervals that I find captivating. I have Josquin des Prez, John Dunstable and Orlando de Lassus among others on my iPod. However, I have a wide range of musical interests from Appalachian folk music to Balinese gamelan.

Your first album Quincy Porter’s Complete Viola Works, is coming out at the end of September. What did you enjoy most about the recording process? Least?

My friend and colleague
John McLaughlin Williams who plays and conducts on the album, suggested several years ago that I do a recording. It took a while for me to come around to the idea. My assumptions were that the process is boring, tedious and interested primarily in note and ensemble perfection. I found it to be quite the opposite. This is not a competition, but a foray into creativity. I found myself more interested in exploring the types of sounds I could make, and aiming to play in a manner that best represents the purpose of the music.
There’s nothing I really disliked about the process. It is physically taxing to play so many hours a day with such intensity, so that is one challenge.


If you could choose one composer, conductor or artist, deceased or living, to meet who would it be? Why?

There are so many fascinating artists and composers, but I would especially love to meet the Chevalier de Saint-George (1745-99). He was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, and equally well regarded during his life. What amazes me about him was that he was a true Renaissance man – not just a violinist and composer, but master swordsman and fighter for the French Revolution. He taught Marie-Antoinette, conducted and premiered Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies, and became the first “music director” of one of Europe’s great orchestras, yet very few know of him, and his music/life is all but a footnote in history. Perhaps if his mother had not been a black slave and his father a wealthy French nobleman, he would not have suffered from the French
code noir of that time, but his accomplishments and experiences are phenomenal for anyone.

When you’re not performing or practicing, what activities do you enjoy?

I enjoy physical activities like yoga, running, hiking and weight lifting. I’m also the “handyman” of the family, and I’m always finding things around the house to fix up. I have a book club that meets about every 2 months, but I do read quite a bit during the summer and when I travel. I’m expecting my first child early October, so motherhood will be the newest all consuming activity coming up!

Which composer would you most like–or would have liked–to contribute to the instrument’s repertoire?

It would be fascinating to see what a Brahms, Beethoven or Prokofiev viola concerto would sound like.

There are countless viola jokes. Can you share a few of your favorites?

The MIT web site has a fantastic list of viola jokes. One of my favorite shorter ones is about a violist and conductor. You see a violist and a conductor crossing the street. Which one do you hit first? The conductor – business before pleasure!
What projects or exciting events do you have planned for the future?


I’m in the process of researching new pieces by little known or neglected composers for future recordings. I have wonderful help from Victor Ledin, one of the producers I worked with on the Porter album. I would have liked to have had a release party for the album, but being that the release date is September 29 and I’m expecting a child four days later, I decided against it! I’m not doing much in the fall and early winter due to the newborn, but in January things pick up again with a talk at Trumbull College at Yale about the Porter Project. Later in the spring I have a recital and other performances.

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