Celebrating the viola, really

The Baltimore Sun

What's the difference between a viola and an onion?

Answer: Nobody cries when a viola is sliced up.

Question: How do you know a violist is playing out of tune?

Answer: His bow is moving.

Question: How do you keep a violin from getting stolen?

Answer: Keep it in a viola case.

Larger than a violin, with a dark chocolaty sound that places it between the fiddle and the cello in range and timbre, the viola is truly the Rodney Dangerfield of the orchestra -- the instrument that gets no respect at all. Not often showcased, its usual function is to provide the unglamorous interior harmonies that build musical textures but don't dominate them. There is, after all, the story of the violist who dreamt he was playing Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, woke up, and found out that he had been.

Kidding aside, the viola is an exquisitely beautiful instrument. And though called upon only infrequently to do solo honors in the symphonic repertoire, it comes across in spades when given the chance. In Hector Berlioz's Harold in Italy, the viola takes on a bardic role that propels it to center stage and keeps it there. Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola is a priceless jewel in one of music's most glittering crowns. Sir William Walton, Bela Bartok, Gunther Schuller, Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina are composers closer to our own day who have crafted concertos for the instrument.

So when a violist shows himself to be a master of the instrument, and at the age of 21, why shouldn't the music world get excited?

That's what happened last year when David Aaron Carpenter, a student at Princeton, was named the first-prize winner of the 2006 Naumburg Viola Competition in New York City.

For his superb playing, Carpenter received a cash award of $7,500, plus two subsidized New York recitals, as well as several other recital and orchestral performances. One of those concerts will take place in Columbia at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre under the auspices of Candlelight Concerts. In a highly diverse program that spans four centuries, the young violist will perform Marin Marais' Five Old French Dances, Brahms' F minor Sonata, Zimbalist's Sarasateanna, a suite of Spanish dances, and a sonata by Paul Hindemith who was a distinguished composer and violist.

Candlelight will be visited by many other distinguished musicians during the remainder of its 2007-2008 concert season. On Dec. 8, the Trio Solisti comes to Columbia for a program of Turina, Ravel, and Mussorgsky. The Brazilian Guitar Quintet brings music from Spain, Argentina and Brazil to the area Jan. 12.

Other highlights include the Enso Quartet performing the Schumann Piano Quintet with pianist Joel Fan on Jan. 26; pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel of the Emerson Quartet playing works by Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert on Feb. 16; the Pacificas Quartet, which will perform Beethoven's Opus 130 String Quartet complete with its impenetrable "Grosse Fugue."

Candlelight Concerts presents a performance by violist David Aaron Carpenter and pianist Julian Quentin at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow in Smith Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $29; $26 for those ages 60 or older. Full-time students to age 24 pay $12. 443-367-3123.

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