David Aaron Carpenter has been busy. The 32 year-old viola player has just released a new album called <em>Motherland</em> – a generous two hours of music recorded over three months. He’s been touring Malta and Germany to premiere
a new viola concerto by the Maltese composer Albert Garzia. On his travels, he popped in to Tate Modern in London, where a Picasso owned by his family forms part of a major new exhibition about the painter in the year 1932. And just
for fun, he walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, with some friends from the fashion and film business.
This may not be an entirely typical month in the life of this lively and driven character. But it does reveal the way in which he believes that there should be more to the life of a classical musician than simply standing on a concert
stage and playing. Or, come to that, standing in your room practising for perfection.
“It is amazing to go out and perform for so many people,” he says, his words pouring out in a rush of enthusiasm. “I am very blessed to be on tour and promoting my recording, but I realize I don’t want to make it a point to stay in my
room and just keep on practising.
“My theory is you can’t practise more than two to three hours a day because after a while your hands are going to be wrecked. You must do it the smart way. If there is a big recording or a big project then, yes, maybe the week before,
you practise four to six hours a day. But otherwise, if you practise in the early morning, you have the rest of the day for yourself. That’s a fundamental difference I have with some other musicians about how to use my time.”
This attitude to life in part sprang from Carpenter’s participation in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2006, when as a young violist, then studying at Princeton, he was mentored by the great violin and viola player Pinchas
Zukerman. At the time, he wasn’t absolutely sure that he was going to pursue a career in classical music. “Being a protégé at such a pivotal moment, when my future was being shaped, changed my life,” he says, simply. “It opened my
mind to the idea that you had to be more than one thing as a musician and opened my mind to the arts in a different context.”
This isn’t just an expression of gratitude. The year of mentorship made an impact on Carpenter in two very specific ways. One is technical. Among other qualities, the legendary Zukerman is famous for his expansive sound, generated by the
way in which he holds the bow while playing. “I was so excited to get to know how he does it,” Carpenter explains. “He changed my bow arm. I wouldn’t say I was doing it the wrong way before, but it was a completely different approach
and it absolutely helped me. It gave me a fresh take on how to play.” He is still in touch with his mentor, although given Zukerman’s extraordinary schedule, he does not see him as often as he would like.
The other way in which the year expanded Carpenter’s vision was that he met artists such as John Baldessari and David Hockney and they triggered a passionate interest in art that led him – and his older siblings, sister Lauren and brother
Sean – to start collecting and building an art collection. This interest has grown and developed to encompass work by artists such as Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly and Picasso (hence the Tate loan), but it also represents Carpenter’s
expansion of the mind, and his willingness to commit to all aspects of a cultural life.
“I think having this ability as a musician to cross the border into so many different fields made me who I am today. It is about understanding your goals and principles and following them to the fullest.”
No one could accuse Carpenter of not doing that. His life is multifaceted. He lives and works with his siblings, who are accomplished musicians themselves. They share an apartment in New York from where they run a business selling rare
stringed instruments. Both his brother and sister are accomplished violinists. Carpenter jokes that he chose to play the viola because they told him to; they needed a viola in their string quartet. They still regularly play together
and he hopes to record with them next year.
But with his love of performing, it was David who pursued a career as a professional musician, making his Carnegie Hall debut as a viola soloist in 2013. His recording, <em>Motherland</em>, released by Warner, is another step
on a successful trajectory, bringing together a performance of Dvořák’s famous cello concerto (rearranged for viola by Carpenter himself) with the Walton and Bartók viola concertos, rounded out by a selection of pieces by the contemporary
composer Alexey Shor.
All the works are bound together by the fact that each composer was away from his homeland when he wrote the piece and used folk music to recall the land he missed. But they are also joined by Carpenter’s determination to expand the viola
repertoire, transcribing concertos written for other instruments and commissioning new music from composers such as Shor. He has long wanted to play the Dvořák piece – “arguably one of the greatest works in the history of classical
music” − particularly since Dvořák himself (like Haydn, Beethoven and Paul Hindemith) was a viola player.
It is a controversial view, inciting much heated discussion, particularly with cellists, but Carpenter holds his corner, arguing that these issues of sonority are partly a result of historical accident. “You can really play anything on
the viola,” he says. “And being able to play these amazing cello works adds another dimension.” He contends that classical composers wrote the pieces they did mainly because they were commissioned or because they were asked to write
for a particular musician. “If there had been more viola soloists at the time of Beethoven and Mozart we would have a completely different repertory,” he says.
Viola soloists such as Lionel Tertis and William Primrose in the 1950s and, in more recent times, Yuri Bashmet, have opened up the music. It is possible for a violist to play by transcribing concertos for different instruments – or by
commissioning new pieces. Carpenter sees himself as following in this honourable tradition. “This new concerto by Garzia is another great piece for the repertory,” he says. “I am trying to be a great ambassador for my instrument.”