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Primrose Viola Festival: Recital by David Aaron Carpenter; Viola Gems; and Canadian Graded Exams

Laurie Niles

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Published: June 14, 2014 at 6:25 AM [UTC]

Part of the fun of this week's Primrose International Viola Competition and Festival at The Colburn School has been the all the master classes, technique sessions, lectures and performances that have taken place alongside the competition, and the gathering of violists from all around the country.

The competition closes on Saturday, with final-round performances by the three finalists: Cong Wu, Manuel Vioque-Judde and Zhanbo Zheng. Those performances will take place at 2 p.m. PST today (Saturday) at The Colburn School and will be streamed live on the Primrose International Viola Competition website.

Meanwhile, here are some impressions from various sessions that I attended:

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If I had to name someone Viola Ambassador for the world, to show how incredibly cool it is to be a violist, I'd have to nominate David Aaron Carpenter, who wowed a good-sized audience of his viola colleagues with a performance that showed his flashy technique as well as his flair for drama.

David Aaron

Carpenter has tremendous stage presence, and the technique to back it up. Accompanied by a small ensemble that included several Colburn faculty and students, as well as his sister Lauren and brother Sean, Carpenter performed five pieces -- pieces like a souped-up Czardas -- during which he showed off his nice tone, great vibrato, speedy high playing, and dead-on harmonics. At times he looked like my concept of Paganini in skinny pants. Indeed, he seems to have an affinity for that composer; he closed his set with a buoyant performance of Paganini's "Carnival of Venice," which he closed by plucking away guitar-style as he blithely walked off stage and out the door. Of course he came back smiling, to thunderous applause.

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Do you ever long for a do-able yet modern-sounding piece for a student? On Thursday morning, April Losey shared some "Little-Known Gems of the Viola Repertoire" for the teaching studio. Here are the ones she presented:

violaWaltz for Betz, a 1999 piece by composer James Grant, was written as a valentine for his wife and described as "Eric Satie by way of Mancini." It's appropriate for viola students in Suzuki Book 6-7 or ASTA Level 7. Here is a recording of it by Michelle La Course, and you can find the sheet music at Potenza Music as of 6/15. The piece is good for stretching a student's ear with jazzy harmonies, working on a singing and cantabile tone and at the end "working on the deep viola tone we all love."

April also recommended "Lament," written in 1965 by Pamela Harrison. It can be heard on the album La Viola by Hillary Herndon, and music can be requested from the composer's son, Timothy Phillips. This piece is dark and sobbing; in fact she likes to ask students, "How many sobbing ideas can you discover?" (There are at least five "sobbing" motifs, maybe more!) "This is a great piece for the left hand," April said, referring to opportunities for continuous and also varied vibrato. And with some dissonance but not too much, "it can be a great stepping stone to more modern pieces."

She also described a set of pieces by Enrique Granados (1867-1916) called 11 Songs for Viola and Piano, which originally were written for voice but are available for viola and piano. The songs have interesting words that can inspire and appeal to the teenager: things like unrequited love, a guy too shy to talk to the girl he likes, etc. They have a Spanish flair, but they aren't crazy-difficult like Sarasate, so they can give an earlier introduction to this kind of music to the Suzuki Book 4-6 (ASTA 5-6) level student.

More recommendations by April can be found here.

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Though graded exams can help students stay motivated and ensure that they stay on track with accepted expectations for their level of playing, the United States does not really have a national standard; that is, a series of graded exams for music students that are widely accepted, consistently embraced and well-supported throughout the country. So I was very interested in the lecture Katherine Rapoport gave about Canada's Royal Conservatory Music Development Program, which just last year published new Viola, Violin and Cello Series.


Basically, this is an exam system with nine repertoire books, two graded etudes books, scales books and orchestral repertoire books, all in support of the nine levels of yearly exams that students routinely take when they study an instrument in Canada. The Canadian system, founded in 1907, had its origins in the British Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music system, which was founded in 1889 by Alexander McKenzie and George Grove (of Groves Encyclopedia fame). (Read about that history here.)

The graded exams "give people something definite to work for," and students receive certificates after testing for each level. Rapoport said about 100,000 candidates test at the various levels each year in Canada, and that these standards bridge geographic divides by creating the same expectations for a student in a rural area as for a student in a city such as Montreal. As for the creation of the new books, "access was one of our main goals," to provide trustworthy materials for teachers and students that allow them to learn the required material.

She also said that the books "can be used for preparation for exams, but also for teachers, as a pedagogical support system." (By the way, the Canadian assessments can be taken in the United States, here are locations.)

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For fun, here is "Four Seasons of Manhattan," performed by David Aaron Carpenter, from January 2014:

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