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Elliott Carter at 102

Isabel Bader Theatre
12/10/2010 -  
Elliott Carter: Flute Concerto – Tre Duetti – Nine by Five – Figment V – Poems of Louis Zukofsky – Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Ensemble

Patricia Green (Mezzo-soprano), Robert Aitken (Flute, Conductor), Virgil Blackwell (Bass Clarinet, Conductor), Fujiko Imajishi (Violin), David Heatherington (Cello), Keith Atkinson (Oboe), Max Christie (Clarinet), Christopher Gongos (French Horn), Fraser Jackson (Bassoon), Rick Sacks (Marimba)
The New Music Concerts Ensemble

E. Carter & R. Aitken (© André Leduc)

Here’s a unique event: a concert of works by a single composer all composed within the past two years and taking place on the day before his 102nd birthday. Who else but Elliott Carter? He intended to be present, but understandable health issues (“feeling wobbly”) intervened just a few days ago.

Toronto’s New Music Concerts were established in 1971 by Robert Aitken and composer Nora Beecroft. Elliott Carter, whose music they “admired and feared”, was first invited to Toronto by NMC in 1978, and he has revisited the ensemble on six subsequent occasions (the photo above was taken in 2006).

Remarks prior to the concert by long-time Carter collaborator and guest conductor/soloist Virgil Blackwell were of great interest. He recounted that Mr. Carter spends part of every day composing. He resists proposals to do more large works because he doesn’t want to leave anything unfinished, therefore his recent works tend to be on the short side. There is also a more approachable quality to more recent work although he has not abandoned his spiky style with his famous/notorious complicated tempi. While he composes his works for virtuosi, Carter isn’t bothered if tempi are slowed (or quickened) if that’s the best way for players to negotiate them. Part of a taped telephone conversation from the day before was played, revealing the composer in high sprits. The “wobbliness” is obviously physical, not mental.

The first item was the Flute Concerto, completed in 2008, played by Robert Aitken with Virgil Blackwell conducting an ensemble of 22 players. It features meditational musical lines with abrupt (and rather menacing) interjections from various instruments. At times it reminded me of Pierre Mercure’s 1964 piece Lignes et Points (“Lines and Dots”). One striking section features the ensemble’s flutist echoing and interweaving with the soloist’s part. The piece lasts about 15 minutes.

Next up was Tre Duetti, a 10-minute piece consisting of two separate pieces (Duettone and Duettino) and an intervening, very brief, adagio. The whole effect is that of a conversation, sometimes fractious, between the two players (Fujiko Imajishi on violin and David Heatherington on cello).

This was followed by Nine by Five (completed in 2009) for woodwind quintet. The title refers to the fact that the five players must play on a total of nine instruments: the flutist (Aitken) must also play the piccolo at some point; the oboist (Keith Atkinson) must also play the English horn; the bassoonist (Fraser Jackson) plays both a bassoon and contrabassoon; and the clarinetist (Max Christie) plays two types pf clarinet. Only the French horn player (Christopher Gongos) plays a single instrument. The performers all play at the same time but not really together and the effect is more like musical monologues that sail past each other. The 10-minute work was played a second time (a very good idea, giving the audience a better chance of grasping the work).

The next piece, the four-minute Figment V for marimba, was also performed twice. Marimbist Rick Sacks seemed bemused by it. It was composed in 2009 for the 17th birthday of the composer’s grandson and has a fitting bounciness (of course the marimba lends itself to this).

Poems of Louis Zukofsky (from 2008) is a song group (not really a cycle) set to nine short poems by US poet Louis Zukofsky (1904-78). The piece lasts just 15 minutes or so and contains a variety of moods closely linked to the content of each poem. It would have been a benefit to have had the text in the program (although this can be a problem when the works are still under copyright). For the record, the poems set are: Tall and Singularly Dark; Alba (1952); Finally a Valentine; O Sleep; The Rains; Rune; Strange; Daisy; and You Who Were Made for This Music. (The last one refers to the poet’s violinist son Paul Zukofsky, who incidentally has performed works by Carter.) The work seemed to be made to order for mezzo-soprano Patricia Green who gave a committed and ingratiating performance. The piquant clarinet accompaniment (Max Christie again) works fine.

Finally we had the world premiere performance of Concertino for bass clarinet (Mr. Blackwell) and ensemble (17 players), conducted by Robert Aitken. The low pitch of the solo instrument is deeply embedded in the orchestral sound much of the time and one gets the impression of something subterranean rising to the surface on occasion. String players, whose parts have a distant, rather ghostly sound, were seated behind wind players. This was once again a rather brief piece (10 minutes). Just as the listener is coming to terms with it, it ends with a pungent isolated note from the soloist.

If I had to sum up this concert in one word, it would be “playful”. A serious kind of playfulness to be sure, but playful nonetheless.

The concert was recorded for broadcast on CBC Radio 2 on the program The Signal. It will be interesting to hear all this again and to find out if the purely sonic experience is as engaging as watching the deeply involved performers.

Michael Johnson



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