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The Incredible Lightness of Being Elliott Carter

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/12/2008 -  
Elliott Carter: Canon For 4 – Enchanted Preludes – Duettino for Violin and Cello (World Premiere) – Mosaic (New York Premiere) – Con leggerezza pensosa (With Thoughtful Levity) – Gra – Esprit Rude/Esprit doux (With stern and gentle spirit) – Duo for Violin and Piano

Tara Helen O’Connor (Flute), Charles Neidich (Clarinet), Stephen Taylor (Oboe) Stephen Gosling (Piano), Rolf Schulte (Violin), Hsin-Yun Huang (Viola), Fred Sherry (Cello), Kurt Muroki (Double Bass), Bridget Kibbey (Harp), Donald Palma (Conductor), Frank Sheffer (Film interludes), Jeremy Geffen (Series moderator, interviewing Elliott Carter)

Elliott Carter (© Meredith Heuer)

On the first evening of his 101st year, Elliott Carter sat on the stage of Zankel Hall, eyes twinkling, face shining, a happy man who’d been celebrated Thursday with the Boston Symphony and tonight would hear, with us, a whole evening of his chamber music. His interlocutor, Carnegie Hall’s Director of Artistic Planning, Jeremy Geffen, asked the right questions, but Mr. Carter rarely gave the correct answers. He was charm personified, filled not with the anecdotes of a man above his prime, but with the most lucid analysis of music, and life today.

That was the beginning of the Carter evening. A well-made film showed Carter in New York with insights into all the music to be played last evening, as well, as showing him in a garden, on a train, in his apartment. We were as delighted to see him, as he was delighted to talk.

But for this listener, who never really studied Carter’s music, but simply put up with it, the film and the conversation gtadually opened a door of enlightenment. First, one must get over two challenges. A) His music is of no school to which we can attach names. He is no neo-classicist, no dodecaphonist, certainly no minimalist. He doesn’t quote from himself or other composers. He is Elliott Carter. B) This music must be hell to play, and not that easy to hear.

The enlightenment was that, whatever the technique, whatever the complexities, whatever the brilliant philosophical realities behind the composition, of space, time, and changes of moods, Elliott Carter has written music which has an absolute joy. Joy of composition (“I have never written a note which I didn’t feel emotionally”, he said), and – ignoring the barriers – a joy to hear.

Mr. Carter was fortunate last night to have had some of New York’s finest musicians at his disposal. Cellist Fred Sherry, who has practically made a career of working with new composers. Orpheus clarinetist Charles Neidich, who practically danced through the solo work, pianist Stephen Gosling and conductor Donald Palma are all colleagues in New York’s musical scene. Nor are the others listed above anything but top-rate.

Seven of the eight works were almost bagatelles in length. Yet, oh, what massive amounts of music they contained. The beginning Canon For 4 is the equivalent of his feeling about musicians being a “society”. His explanation that the flute, clarinet, violin and cello take the theme, and each instrument turns it upside-down, inside out, backwards and all four at once, only detracts from its actual charm. It starts and ends with a sharp chord, continues through the canon, and then in a tranquillo section interplays the instruments to a kind of musical conversation. (Not, though, like a Janacek literal “talk”. It was sheer music.)

The Enchanted Preludes is taken from a Wallace Stephens poem which exemplifies the Carter notion of duration: “Time is the hooded enemy,
The inimical music, the enchanted space/ In which the enchanted preludes have their place.” Flute and cello contrasted, imitated each other, can came together in fervent concord.

The one world premiere was written this year, a Duettino, where violin and cello start off at opposite ends of the register, come together, continue in a series of “dueling pizzicatos”, “dueling harmonies”, all in the happiest spirits.

Of the remaining works, Gra (Polish for “play”) was given the most amazing performance by Charles Neidich, whose clarinet literally played games with itself, spiriting through various registers, jumping around, masquerading at seriousness. And while I am certain Mr. Carter had many a technical trick to make it work, such were the wonders of the player that the musical calculus was forgotten.

The final piece was the longest and most touching. In the film, Mr. Carter introduced his wife, to whom it was dedicated. But one didn’t need to know that to understand its so soulful beauty. The violin, emerging slowly from its cocoon to enjoy a vivacious moto perpetuo of control and improvisation, the sounds of the instrument drawn out. And for the Carter contrast, the piano, glacial, icy, each dissonant short chord dying away until the pianist began to pluck up the speed and continue with explosions and bursts of activity.

The performances were extraordinary, but obviously the one who enjoyed them most was Elliott Carter. Again he came on stage, applauded, was applauded, was lauded, probably would have given even more lucid explanations…

But so many notes in one evening were enough. The Carter Weekend was drawing to a close. And the writer Matthew Guerriri summed it up best: “The flurry of activity is a welcome opportunity – not to look back, but to catch up.”

The Elliott Carter Centenary Website

Harry Rolnick



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