A life in music might have been easier for David Aaron Carpenter ’08 had he decided to embark on a solo career playing violin, instead of viola.There’s a longer and deeper tradition of virtuoso violinists and a larger repertoire from which to choose. And he wouldn’t have to hear all the viola jokes, like this one: How do you keep a violin from getting stolen? Put it in a viola case. Or this: What’s the difference between a viola and an onion? No one cries when you cut up a viola.

No matter.

Carpenter played both instruments for several years, but by the time he entered Juilliard’s pre-collegiate division as a senior in high school, with a double major in viola and violin, he had fallen in love with the deeper tone of the viola, the larger of the two instruments. His violin playing slowly slipped into the background. “I began to see the viola in a new light,” he says.

Since then, Carpenter has begun to make his mark as a solo violist. In November, he exuded an easy confidence as he performed to a packed house at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, his most significant recital to date and a reward for winning the prestigious 2006 Walter W. Naumburg Competition — which has launched many a solo career in violin, piano, and voice, but few in viola.

A politics major at Princeton, Carpenter has chosen a daunting path: a career as a soloist on an instrument whose solo appeal long has been overlooked. In his best-known book, Orchestration (1914), the late English composer and musicologist Cecil Forsyth — who himself played and wrote for the viola — described it as “a betwixt-and-between instrument imperfect in construction, ‘difficult’ and somewhat uneven in tone quality, and undeniably clumsy to manage.” He went on to say, surely intending to be charitable, that his observations “must not be taken as pointing backwards to the bad old days when viola players were selected merely because they were too wicked or senile to play the violin. Those days are happily gone forever.” Though there is indeed a substantial solo repertoire for viola, the options do not stretch nearly as far as those for the violin. Even classical composers who played the viola themselves — including Mozart, Schubert, and Dvorak — wrote more for its high-pitched sibling.

Carpenter knows the jokes; he understands well how the viola has been neglected in the musical world. He is emerging as an artist who might help bring the viola its due.

The lanky young violist has studied and worked with some of the finest musicians in the world: Roberto Díaz, former principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and now president and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; violinist, violist, and conductor Pinchas Zukerman; Robert Mann, president of the Naumburg Foundation; and Christoph Eschenbach, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Zukerman chose Carpenter for a two-year mentorship through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative; Carpenter was the first American to be selected in that program, which pairs rising stars with world-famous musicians.

Carpenter started with the violin when he was 6; he took up the viola at 12 when a music teacher suggested he try the viola in order to play in a chamber group. He was drawn immediately to the viola for its warm and “mysterious” sound, and still is. “The viola is so malleable in terms of the different voices,” he explains. “You can get so many colors.”

Carpenter certainly isn’t the first person to promote the instrument’s solo potential. William Primrose began to bring the viola into the spotlight in the 1940s, and contemporary composers have added to the repertoire, with important pieces for solo viola and viola with orchestra. There is a small but growing group of viola virtuosi, led by the Russian soloist and conductor Yuri Bashmet. Carpenter sees himself as part of a trend: Conductors, composers, musicians, and the public, he says, are developing a new appreciation for the viola. He aims to bring to the world stage the instrument’s “less-trammeled” repertoire — by performing both classical and contemporary “treasures” written for the viola, such as Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante” for violin and viola and Alfred Schnittke’s “Viola Concerto.”

Roberto Díaz, one of Carpenter’s primary teachers, is more cautious in his appraisal of a new public appreciation of the viola. “That usually depends more on the violist than the viola,” says Díaz. “In music history, you will see that every instrument at some point has taken off as a solo instrument because there was a certain personality behind it. And David certainly is positioned at this point to help the cause of the viola.” Usually the “super talents” concentrate on the piano, cello, or violin because they hope to become soloists, and there are more concerts for those instruments, Díaz says. But Carpenter, he adds, has the technical ability and talent that other viola players envy.

On stage, Carpenter is a natural performer. He plays at times with eyes closed, his long, agile fingers flying over the viola’s neck. “Never before have I heard the piece played without a considerable and constant sense of physical effort. ... Here was a flawless and disarmingly easeful performance,” wrote Michelle Dulak Thomson in the San Francisco Classical Voice, reviewing Carpenter’s rendition of Paul Hindemith’s “Sonata for Viola and Piano.” Carpenter explains: “In front of an audience, I feel grounded.”


At Carnegie Hall in November, Carpenter played a solo by the American composer Quincy Porter, a Paginini quartet, and — with pianist Julien Quentin — works by composers Henri Vieuxtemps, Paul Hindemith, Johannes Brahms, and Efrem Zimbalist. New York Times critic Allan Kozinn called the program “extraordinary,” writing, “It would be a loss to the music world if Mr. Carpenter disappeared into a policy-research group or a university job.” (A reviewer in The New York Sun was more critical, and described Carpenter as “on his way to becoming a fine violist.”)

Carpenter points out that Kozinn’s article was the first review that did not mention his teachers. He sees that as a turning point — recognition that he was an artist in his own right and not simply a student of great musicians. He has come to realize that he must trust his instincts when weighing advice from his teachers and mentors, noting that Díaz, Zukerman, and Mann all offered different ideas about what he should play in the Carnegie Hall concert, and in what order. “I was torn between three of the most prominent musicians in the world telling me what I should program,” says Carpenter. “I ended up doing what I wanted to do.”

Coming from a musical family in Great Neck, Long Island, Carpenter credits his unusual success in music to his siblings, Sean ’03 and Lauren ’06, who paved the way on the violin, and their single mother, Grace Carpenter. His mother, now retired from her job teaching English to students who spoke other languages, studied piano herself when she was 16, and was told that she had the potential to become a concert pianist, if only she was willing to practice eight hours a day. She was not, and she stopped playing after a year.

Grace Carpenter’s children, however, kept at it. She started them in music as a healthy alternative to watching television, and they took to it immediately. Sean, the oldest, captivated the younger children when he practiced; they wanted to play as he did. Despite their shared passion for music, there was no sibling rivalry, they say. And their mother, David Carpenter says, encouraged them but didn’t push them to practice; she had no intention to groom them to become star musicians. Still, within several years she found herself driving her children to New York City, to Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music for their lessons. Soon their talents took them even further: to Europe during the summers, for workshops and competitions.

All three Carpenter siblings went on to win Princeton’s concerto competition, which offers a much-sought-after opportunity to perform as a soloist with the University orchestra (Sean and Lauren each won it twice). Both Sean and Lauren served as concertmaster of the University orchestra. Today, Sean, who majored in politics, is an analyst for an investment fund in New York; Lauren, who had the same major, works in sales at Google in New York. They both continue to perform and accompany David when he needs a violinist. In the Carnegie Hall concert, Lauren played violin in the Paganini quartet. And when Eschenbach, the conductor, invited the Carpenter family to the New Year’s Eve party at his Paris apartment, Sean joined his brother in playing chamber music by Brahms.

David Carpenter had entered Juilliard playing both violin and viola, but found himself drawn more and more to the larger instrument — not just for its rich sound and deep timbre, but also for the way it felt. It was a better fit for his 6-foot-2-inch frame; in comparison, the violin felt like a toy. The viola, he says, was more comfortable — it “was a part of me in every way.” Each summer for four years, he attended the Verbier Festival, an international music festival in Switzerland at which Carpenter studied in master classes taught by some of the best musicians in the world; it’s there that he met Díaz, who would become his teacher. After Carpenter arrived at Princeton, he was invited to give a solo performance at the festival. It was a turning point: He stopped playing with the University orchestra to have time to prepare a solo repertoire. Soon after that, in 2006, he won both the Naumburg viola competition and first prize in the 2006 Philadelphia Orchestra Young Artists Competition.

Like Sean and Lauren, David Carpenter considered attending a conservatory. Instead, he ended up applying to Princeton — a decision that has helped him in music, he says. Knowing that he soon will earn a bachelor’s degree provides peace of mind; he can fall back on his degree if a musical career doesn’t work out. As a result, he says, he is more relaxed during performances than his peers who went to conservatories — who, he says, have everything riding on each concert. Then there’s the intangible element of what a liberal-arts education brings to a musician. Carpenter struggles when trying to put this into words, but says that his Princeton education “does something to your perception of music and what it can do,” and affects the “way you look at and process a piece of data, whether it is a Shakespeare play or a Brahms sonata.”

Despite traveling to concerts within the United States and abroad on weekends and during breaks (he started performing in the United States and Europe while still in high school), and practicing three to five hours daily, Carpenter rarely misses classes or requires extensions for papers or exams. He plans ahead, getting papers done a couple of weeks before an important concert. This semester, he has skipped practice occasionally to hit the library to research his thesis on American polarization as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He sometimes wanders into Princeton’s Mendel Music Library and searches through the scores for unfamiliar works. “You see all these treasures,” just waiting to be played, he says. “It’s a goal of mine to present all the major [viola] works, so the public realizes that this is something special.”

Díaz, his teacher at Curtis, offers the kind of instruction that cannot be found in a library or classroom. “Teaching someone to be an artist takes a lot more than just teaching them how to play this or that,” says Díaz. He gives Carpenter advice about handling rejection and building relationships with the audience, managers, and conductors. Says Díaz: “We have a saying — anyone can play somewhere once. The trick is getting re-invited to concerts.” People must like you on and off the stage, he explains. Carpenter appears able to navigate those relationships and build audience appeal — he’s friendly and likable, and charismatic and confident onstage, and he knows when to ask for advice — though he doesn’t always take it, his teacher says.

With the positive reviews he has been gathering recently, Carpenter admits that he feels pressure to live up to his potential. A few weeks after his Carnegie Hall appearance, he acknowledged that he was “having a hard time dealing with [success] right now. What do you do next?” If music ever stops working for him, he’ll move on to something else, he says. He did not have to dwell on this possibility too long, though, because he soon received a contract with Columbia Artists Management Inc., becoming the only viola player currently on the music giant’s roster. Not long after that, he was asked to fill in for world-famous violist and violinist Maxim Vengerov in two performances scheduled in Lucerne in June, playing viola and electric violin.

Carpenter intends to make the most of the opportunity. Although one of his teachers told him that he easily could secure a position in a major orchestra, he doesn’t see that in his future; his sight stays fixed on the more difficult path of a solo career, of making an “impact on society” with his music. He has an interest in demonstrating the appeal of classical music to young people, who tend to eschew classical concerts. In this, he already may be succeeding: His Carnegie Hall concert, reviewers note, attracted a decidedly young crowd. Still, he has a tough road ahead, his teacher points out.

Katherine Federici Greenwood is an associate editor at PAW.