Monday, December 15, 2008

Concerts with Carter: The Birthday Celebration Continues

Since I was unable to attend any of the concerts this past week in New York celebrating Carter’s 100th Birthday, I was glad to receive an e-mail from my friend Dan Guss (on the right in the photograph taken by John Clare last January when the Pacifica Quartet played the five Carter String Quartets in one concert), especially about one program I didn’t even know was happening, an all-Carter concert that took place in Zankel Hall the night after the official 100th Birthday (Zankel Hall is a smaller recital hall in what would be the basement of Carnegie Hall: real estate being what it is in New York City, these days you either go up or down if you’re going to build an addition...).

UPDATE (12-16-08): Here is Steve Smith's review in the New York Times.

Here is Dan’s report from the festivities which he has allowed me to share with you:

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On his actual birthday, in the main hall upstairs, the Boston Symphony had celebrated by playing the NYC premiere of his "Interventions" for piano and orchestra (Barenboim as the pianist, Levine conducting), completed in 2007, and they had rolled out a huge birthday cake afterwards, with a sparkler in place of the customary 100 candles... Carter mimed swiping his finger through the frosting and tasting it... he was clearly in good spirits.

But [the next] night, as part of the "Making Music" series, where composers are present and interviewed during the course of a concert of their music, he sat on stage before the start of the concert with Jeremy Geffen (Carnegie's Director of Artistic Planning) interviewing him, and one could see he was wearing red socks. My first thought was to flash back to the musical "Damn Yankees", where the character of Mr. Applegate (a/k/a the devil, a role I played in a summer camp production at the age of 11) wears red socks, the only betrayal (at first) that he might have something diabolical about him (that, and being able to snap his fingers and light peoples' cigarettes). But then I decided that, for my 100th birthday, I want a pair of socks just like that.

[There's a women’s group, “The Red Hat Society,” partly inspired by the poem “When I am an old lady, I will wear purple.”] A friend of mine who is an active member told me about it, and it has turned into something of a national movement. Well, recalling that last night, I decided that there are three charter members of "The Red Socks Club" [not to be confused with a certain baseball team – ras] only one of whom is actually alive (much less actively composing): Elliott Carter, Leo Ornstein and Irving Berlin (the latter two will receive their membership posthumously, of course). And we have a pair on order for Milton Babbitt...

Carter seemed to enjoy himself last night. He told some amusing stories, including one about how Nadia Boulanger, upon hearing he was going to hear Salome that evening and didn't know what to expect, took down the orchestral score from the shelf and played and sang through the entire thing at the piano, interspersing comments about how ugly it was ("C'est terrible!") while her other students waited outside and wondered what all the noise was about.

There were a couple of moments that actually made me laugh out loud. In one of them, he referred to the Ravel Duo, which he studied in preparation for writing one of the pieces being played that evening (Duettino for violin and cello, given its world premiere), as being a piece that was very good... mostly.

Even better was the moment when Geffen recalled to him his attendance at the New York premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps back in 1924, which he has acknowledged was what made him want to be a composer. Geffen mentioned that a large portion of the audience walked out that evening, and questioned Carter about why he found that attractive.

"Well, you know how young people are," Carter quipped.

And then, Geffen cheekily asked him how he felt about all the appreciation he had been receiving over the last season of celebratory concerts. Carter's response: "Well, you know, after experiencing the opposite for so long, I begin to wonder if somehow I had made a mistake." And then went on to say it was gratifying nonetheless.

He didn't reappear on stage for a second interview before the second half of the concert, but filmed interview segments were shown periodically throughout the evening, obviously done at different times (here he seemed to be in his late 80s or early 90s; there, much closer to his current age). But they served to humanize the instinct behind some very abstract music, as he explained how (for example) the flute was a woman and the cello a man (Enchanted Preludes) [the work was commissioned by Harry Santen as a tribute to his wife, Ann, both ardent supporters of American music - ras]; how he was interested in the challenge of balancing the harp in an ensemble (Mosaic, here given its NYC premiere); how, as Stravinsky once said, the music is about the music, and that he doesn't strive to convey emotion, although he assumes it's in there; how various dedicatees influenced his choices (many of the works were homages - Lutoslawski, Boulez, Calvino, etc.) and so on.

It really would have been a good program for people unfamiliar with his music, as it tried to provide a frame of reference. But, of course, the hall wasn't full (though the concert still was well attended), and those who came were the converted anyway.

There were eight works on the program, only one of which (Esprit rude / esprit doux) I had heard before. There were nine players in total, four of whom played in many of the pieces (cellist Fred Sherry, clarinetist Charles Neidich (once my downstairs neighbor) and violinist Rolf Schulte each played in five; flutist Tara Helen O'Connor played in four). One piece (Mosaic) required a conductor, Donald Palma.

The oldest work on the program dated back to 1974, when he was a stripling of 65, but most dated from the last three decades:

Canon for 4 (1984; fl, cl, vln, vc) [dedicated to Sir William Glock]
Enchanted Preludes (1988; fl, vc) [birthday present for Anne Santon]
Duettino (2008; vln, vc) [homage to Milton Babbitt]
Mosaic (2004; fl, ob, cl, vln, vla, vc, cb, hp) [influenced by Carlos Salzedo]
Con leggerezza pensosa (1990; cl, vln, vc) [homage to Italo Calvino]
Gra (1993, cl) [80th birthday present for Lutoslawski]
Esprit rude / esprit doux (1985; fl, cl) [60th birthday of Pierre Boulez]
Duo (1974, vln, pno) [dedicated to his wife, Helen Carter]

The oldest work was the thorniest; there's something to the idea that his more recent music is a little more transparent (though he's having none of it).

As I listened, I realized something that hadn't quite hit me before: there are certain instruments I like more than others, and when he uses them, I like the piece more than those of his when he doesn't. Those instruments include flute, clarinet and harp. So I found a lot to like on this concert, in that the flute is used in four of the pieces, and the clarinet in five (the harp was only in one, but it was featured). At one point, it also occurred to me that some of the music reminded me of Webern, with some of the rests filled in.

All in all, whether one liked the music or not, it had a tinge of historical import about it, as did Thursday's BSO concert, which dragged out until nearly 11:00 p.m. despite there being only about [appropriately enough] 100 minutes of music. It opened (late) with Barenboim and Levine performing the Schubert Fantaisie in F Minor for piano 4-hands (Barenboim upper, Levine lower), which was sort of slapdash (Levine's performance with Kissin only a few years earlier was more deliberate). There followed one of the best performances of Beethoven's C Minor Piano Concerto I had ever heard. Lots of applause, a long intermission, then the Carter work... and by the time they started Le Sacre, it was later than most concerts let out. Excellent performance of that, too (and I was sleep deprived going into the concert, and stayed awake for everything), and quite different from the Boulez/London and Salonen/Los Angeles performances I've heard in the last few years.

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Dan and I have been close friends ever since we met in the mid-70s at the University of Connecticut where I was on the faculty and he was a graduate composition student and teaching assistant. I was amused by Dan’s response to the Duo for Violin & Piano which he felt was the thorniest (and oldest) of the pieces on Friday night’s program. While I imagine it will be a long time before anyone comes up with “The Most Relaxing Elliott Carter Disc Ever,” it took me a bit to warm up to the Duo after a first hearing back when it was new, but with repeated listenings, it quickly became a piece I could say I loved. Even today, it’s probably still my favorite work by Elliott Carter. On the other hand, I also remember another of our teaching assistants who dismissed the Duo as “the most obvious piece Carter ever wrote”: certainly it was less technical than the 3rd Quartet with its two duos each playing a different number of movements (if I recall, they were both on the same LP). But I’ve just heard “Mosaic” for the first time and find it a very striking and completely different kind of work, whether it’s a more distilled or transparent style or not (I’m not sure I’m buying that concept, either). There’s a new recording of it on Naxos with several other pieces which I’ll blog about it, with any luck, later today or tomorrow.

Another fond memory – when I’d go into New York, I’d stay at Dan’s apartment in upstate Manhattan and at the time, one of his neighbors was a young clarinetist named Charles Neidich. I was very impressed: I’d heard him playing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In the past, there had been new neighbors who would assure me, when I told them I was a pianist, “oh, I love classical music, you can play all day, if you like” who do not realize “playing all day” is not the same as “practicing all day.” Especially if they’re expecting Beethoven and Mozart and I’m composing my own music instead. So here I was, listening to Neidich practice the Weber Concertino (as I recall) and thinking after a couple hours, “okay, I think I’ll go out for a walk, now.” After hearing him most recently performing Carter’s “Gra” for solo clarinet and the new Clarinet Quintet written specifically for him, I can’t imagine what it would be like for his neighbors to have been listening to hours and hours of his practicing Elliott Carter. Except for me – I would have preferred that over Weber any day...

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