Thursday, December 11, 2008

Happy 100th, Elliott Carter!

Starting off the morning listening to his jubilant Holiday Overture – written to celebrate the liberation of Paris at the end of World War II – seemed to be a specially festive way to ring in this holiday. That’s how I feel about it. I’ve been more excited about Elliott Carter’s 100th Birthday than about many holidays and celebrations over the past several years and I suppose if there were ways of decorating the house for this like many other people do for Christmas, I would have done that... Yes, I could see it now, a twinkling image of Elliott Carter outlined in colored lights on my rooftop, his music playing continuously from speakers hidden discretely in the shrubs out front. And in my living room, not a pine tree but a lilac bush – syringa – in honor of one of his compositions – Syringa – which I’d heard at its world premiere on his 70th birthday. Mmmm, no – that doesn’t seem to be the way to celebrate anything, frankly, so I just have a photo set up on my desk and I’ve been playing a lot of his music on my CD player.

Officially the Centennial Year begins NOW – but everybody (well, almost everybody) has been observing Carter’s 100th Year while he’s only 99, because... uhm, because as Justin Case might observe, there’s always the chance, ya know... But not only did Carter make it into the three-figure range, he’s been busily composing a ton of new pieces as if to celebrate his own birthday, rather than just leaving us with the usual retrospective of past glories.

By the way, Leo Ornstein may have lived to be 108 or so (there’s some discrepancy about the year of his birth) but his last work was composed when he was only 97. So, Elliott Carter has managed to establish something of a record by becoming the oldest living composer who’s still writing at the age of 100. Just last week, he announced he had finished the Pisan Cantos, setting of poems by Ezra Pound. There are more recently completed songs being premiered at Lincoln Center on Saturday.

If you go to the official Carter100 website and click on Happening, you can find out how many pieces by Elliott Carter have been or are being performed around the world this past year and next – most of them, not surprisingly, in Europe where he has been more frequently performed if not more highly regarded than he is in the United States. You have to click through 20 pages of the works published by Boosey & Hawkes before getting to those listed for December 11th, 2008, his actual 100th Birthday (today!).

What is curious, as Frank Oteri points out at The New Music Box, there is no world premiere on his birthday itself! The major focus in New York is the guest appearance by the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall with James Levine conducting a program that features a new work that was premiered last week in Boston (well, they commissioned it) - Interventions for piano and orchestra, written for and performed by Daniel Barenboim - so when it comes to Carter’s home town turf, it’s no longer a world premiere, but still one of the newest pieces, hot off the press. That the rest of the program includes standards like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – the piece that proved to have such an impact on a teenaged Carter – and Barenboim playing Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto was designed more to bring Carter into a mainstream audience rather than segregate his music into an all-Carter Concert.

Still, ON his birthday, it might have been nice to do the retrospective thing, if not just the more recent works, something like the not-quite-all-Carter program Pierre Boulez is conducting in London – certainly, as Frank suggests, the Holiday Overture (1944) and maybe another one of his concertos (he wrote a knock-out Cello Concerto in 2000 and a Flute Concerto that was premiered in Jerusalem this past September). And if Barenboim and Levine could play Schubert’s beautiful Fantasy in F Minor for piano duet to open this concert, why not some of Carter’s chamber music, like the 3rd String Quartet (1971)? And for the “major standard rep” piece, I suppose, my favorite choice would probably be the Variations for Orchestra (1955). There’s certainly a lot of variety there, and an excellent sampling of all the stylistic periods that Mr. Carter has presented to us over the past century – from his Early, Middle, Late and Post-Late periods.

Another appropriate piece for a 100th Birthday concert would be a short work to follow the Holiday Overture: it’s one of a set of pieces written for the Boston Symphony and James Levine, a leading advocate of Carter’s music, a piece entitled Fons Juventatis – Fountain of Youth – written in 2004 when the composer was only 95!

Unfortunately, I missed Charlie Rose who had Elliott Carter as well as Levine and Barenboim on his PBS show last night – drat – but it’s now posted on-line. WNYC will be airing some special programs tonight which you can listen to on-line. Tomorrow, Elliott Carter’s birthday will be mentioned by Willard Scott on NBC’s Today Show.

The important thing is, of course, the music – not just the fact he’s still writing it – but if the 100th Birthday is a way to bring him into a wider public awareness, I’m all for getting out the lilac bush and decking the halls with different strands of lights flashing, of course, in simultaneously different tempos...

Happy Birthday, Mr. Carter – and many happy returns!

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Previous Carter-related posts:
Steve Gregoropoulos reminisces about college master-classes with both Messiaen and Carter
Duo Centennials
Only 5 Shopping Days till Carter’s 100th Birthday
Listening to All 5 of Carter’s Quartets with Pacifica Quartet in January
Hearing the World Premiere of Carter’s Clarinet Quintet

- Dr. Dick

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