Stradivari's "MacDonald" viola, poised to make history as the most expensive instrument in the world, has three bodyguards and its own white-gloved handler. But David Aaron Carpenter was going just a little crazy on it.
For an informal recital Monday at the Manhattan headquarters of Sotheby's, which is handling the viola's multi-million-dollar auction later this spring, Carpenter, an acclaimed violist, had chosen to play Isaac Albéniz's 1892 "Asturias." The piece is fast and intense, with passages that sound like nothing so much as heavy-metal shredding. It's more modern than most of the music the 300-year-old MacDonald must have encountered during its lifetime. Which is just what Carpenter was after.
"Of course you can play Bach on it. But you can also play a more contemporary work and have an instrument so old and unique make it sound incredible," Carpenter explained later. (Hear him play it in the video above.) "I wanted to showcase this instrument for what the viola could be. The fact that it's been sleeping in a vault for about 30 years -- I just wanted to wake it up and give it a voice."
Carpenter’s fingers danced across the neck of the viola, one of just 10 in existence made by the master craftsman Antonio Stradivari, and one of two that date from the peak of Stradivari's career. (By comparison, Stradivari made some 600 violins). Of the two remaining violas from Stradivari's "Golden Period," one belongs to the Russian government, which has failed to preserve the viola's fine exterior. The other is the so-called "MacDonald" viola, which will fetch at least $45 million, almost three times the price of the world's next most expensive instrument, when it goes on sale later this year.
The MacDonald is said to be in impeccable condition -- "it's as if Stradivari handed it to you from his workshop," Carpenter observed. But after being kept in a safe for several decades, the sleeping beauty will need several years to develop its voice. Carpenter predicts its sound will only improve with time: Even in the five days since he first picked it up, he said, he's heard the viola "[open] up tremendously."
"This week, it has been a joy to get to understand it," Carpenter said. "And even though has an incredible sound at a moment, it has so much more potential than what it is."
Lesser fiddles tend to have a more muscular and muted sound, or develop a less pleasing voice over time, said Carpenter. What distinguishes the MacDonald is the "very sonorous," "very vibrant" quality of its melodies, as well as its ability to project a clear, strong song.
The MacDonald has been owned by a marquis, a duke, a baron and, most recently, the violist of the Amadeus Quartet, Peter Schidlof. He called the viola "utter perfection" in an interview shortly before his death.
One clumsy step during Carpenter's performance earlier this week, and the historic MacDonald could have been just that -- history. Yet the violist insists he wasn't nervous cradling the equivalent of 375 college tuitions under his chin.
Really? Are you sure? Not even a little bit?
No. It feels "like an extension of your body," Carpenter said.
"It's the pinnacle of my career," he added. "Every moment up until this point has prepared me to get to this moment and show the world what an instrument of this caliber can really do."