Author Topic: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)  (Read 11552 times)

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Joe Barron

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Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« on: July 22, 2008, 06:10:21 AM »
After the four concerts I have attended in the past few days, I can no longer entertain any doubts --- that is, doubts from others --- about the cogency, coherence, and, yes, lovableness of Elliott Carter's music, especially when it is performed with the enthusiasm I have seen from the Tanglewood fellows. Mr. Carter. who has attended all of the performances so far, appears delighted. He was beaming Sunday morning at Megan Levin, the harpist in Luimen, who gave a confident account of her solo passages. I'm going to miss the kids when the BSO takes over Thursday night. it seems unfair that they should be shouldered aside by some jaded professionals after all they've been doing.

The past two days have gone by quickly, but they've felt full once they're over. I lot has been going on. There were two concerts Sunday. Yesterday morning, I attended Knussen'a rehearsal of Carter's Concerto for Orchestra. The rehearsal was closed, but Jerry Kuderna, a pianist from the West Coast whom I met in Minneapolis in 2006, received an invitation from Knussen and brought me along. Knussen started at the finale and worked backwards, fine tuning the musicians' phrasings, then ran through the piece twice from begining to end. Unfortuanely, I heard only the last two thirds of each, since my car had broken down, and I had to keep running to the parking lot to call my auto service and await the tow truck. (The car is fine now. in fact, it was fine the whole time. The problem was a small one--- a loose connection on the battery.) What I heard, however, was brilliant, and wonderfully loud, and I'm looking forward to the performance tomorrow night.

With so much going on, it's hard to pick out highlights, but a few do stick in the mind. Sunday evening, Stefan Asbury led a powerful, sweeping performance of the Variations for Orchestra. Jerry, who performed the Piano Concerto in Berkeley in 2005, fell in love with the conductor's control and was thinking of asking him to collaborate. Some of teh phrasing wasn't as sensistive as I would have liked, particularly in the brass and winds, but it hardly mattered in light of the music's momentum and the huge, glorious orchestral sound.   

Asbury also led the premiere of Sound Fields, a brief work for string orchestra. The title comes from Helen Frankenthaler's color field paintings. The music is marked mp throughout. There is no vibrato, no crescendi, no climaxes. Dynamics occur solely through the thicking and thinning of the textures --- adding an subtracting instruments. It's a lovely piece. Frank Oteri referred to it as Feldmanesque, but as I'm not familiar with Feldman, it reminded me of The Unanswered Question, but without the questions, and without the answers. I predict it will be the first of Mr. Carter's pieces ever to be used in a commercial  movie. Asbury repeated the performance, gfranting our wish to hear the piece twice.
« Last Edit: July 27, 2008, 04:33:03 PM by Joe Barron »

Offline Brewski

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #1 on: July 22, 2008, 06:22:37 AM »
Thanks for the vivid report, Joe!  (And sorry that automobile woes intervened.)  I've heard Asbury conduct a number of times and he's terrific--that Variations would have been great to hear.

And I don't think I've heard Sound Fields at all.  Yet another item to get to know...

All sounds like a fantastic weekend.  Sorry I couldn't join you!

--Bruce
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karlhenning

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2008, 06:24:49 AM »
Splendid, Joe!

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #3 on: July 22, 2008, 06:54:15 AM »
I read this with great interest. Could you or another Carter aficionado recommend a work to start with?
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #4 on: July 22, 2008, 07:07:59 AM »
There are so many! 

What genre(s) are you most likely to enjoy?  (I.e., orchestral, chamber music, song cycles, etc.)  That might help narrow it down a bit.

--Bruce
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Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #5 on: July 22, 2008, 07:16:03 AM »
I like all genres, basically. I love a string quartet as much as a symphony or a song cycle. Perhaps you could name some of the peaks in these genres? Or is the quality so even that it's difficult to choose? I guess that in such a long composing career as Carter's there will be stylistic changes - are there more approachable works and more recondite ones? That could give you another means of 'narrowing down'...

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« Last Edit: July 22, 2008, 07:17:51 AM by Jezetha »
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

Joe Barron

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #6 on: July 22, 2008, 07:24:20 AM »
I'm going to have to do this report in sections, because I'm working at the Lenox Library, and I get only 30 minutes at the computer per sitting. You'll notice the reports seem rushed.

Sunday was hot, but after a thunderstorms in the evening, it has been cooling off. The temperature is expected to go up only to 80 today. The library music room, where I am filing this copy, is not air-conditioned, but I'm sitting in front of an open window, and I'm not at all uncomfortable.

For the Berkshires in summer, Mr. Carter favors brightly colored pullover shirts with wide suspenders. At last night's performance, he was wearing blue shorts. He looked all set to move to Florida.

Following Carter's music is like following the Grateful Dead. No matter where you go for a festival, you always see the same faces --- David Schiff, frank Oteri, John Link, Charles Rosen, Ursula Oppens, and of course, me. It's like a private club, but one with so much clout that James Levine organized a five day festival for them. The performances have all been well attended. The back wall of Ozawa Hall opens like a carriage house door, and many listeners have been sitting on the grass behind. The audiences seem weighted toward musicians, however,  and talk during the breaks is usually erudite, which is fine with me. After Sunday evenings concert, I mentioned that I seem to be the only nonmusician in attendance, but I was quickly corrected by a man who teaches psychology at Harvard. His wife, too, deined any special knowledge.

Yesterday, Monday, Oppens and Rosen played Carter's two big piano pieces at a 5 p.m. recital. Oppens also played Ma-tribute, a two-minute bagatelle written for James Levine's mother. Levine was scheduled to  play it, but with his health problems he had to pass it off. It reminded me somewhat of 90+, with singel isolated notices poking through a sonic matrix.

Much as I liked the Night Fantaises and the Sonata, but I was beat from worrying about the car and standing in the sun all day, and I wasn't listening and judging as much as letting the music wash over me. Afterward, I went back to my motel for a nap and returned, refreshed, for the 8 p.m. performance. The conductor Stefan Asbury shone once again. In the first half, he led the Triple Duo and Syringa, two mature but emotionally contrasting works Carter wrote only four years apart. The one is playful, almost bouncy, the other cathartic. Some of the familiar Carter hands I saw during intermission seemed humbled afterwards. All they could do was marvel at the performance. The effect stayed with us throughout the intermission.

I was seated in a side box, level with and to the right of the stage, which turned out to be the perfect position for listening to Syringa. In my perspective,  the mezzo-soprano, Kristen Hoff, was in the foreground, with the bass, Evan Hughes, across the stage angled slightly in front of her. Since the bass comments, in Greek, on the English poem (by John Ashbery) sung by the mezzo-soprano, the visual line complemented the musical intention. I could see both singer's faces without shifting my glance, and I rarely took my eyes off them for the entire piece.

In the second half, Lucy Shelton appeared in Temp e tempi, Carter's brief song cycle on Italian poems. It contains some of the most sensuous vocal and instrumental music he's ever written, and the contrast with Syringa was  illuminating. The songs that make up Tempo e tempi are miniature gems, some no more than a line or two long. They nake their point succinctly and delightfully and then stop. At twenty minutes, Syringa is much more spacious. It starts small and begins to roll slowly, gathering momentum to the great climax at the passage for bass that begins, "Apollo, Apollo." Last night's reading was so overpowering, though, that the second half of the program almost seemed like an appendix.

The evening ended with Asbury back on stage leading the fellows in the Penthode for twenty players, which feels like an expansion of the Triple Duo, or maybe a calmer, more intimate version of the Concerto for Orchestra. The oldest person on stage was Virgil Blackwell, who took the part for bass clarinet. Surrounded by all the young players, he reminded me of a substitute teacher.

The level of playing has been consistently high. In a panel discussion yesterday, Oliver Knussen said the young musicians, who are devoting a full three weeks to Carter's music, are having a blast. The acoustics in Ozawa Hall are very live, so much so that percussion has been drowning out other instruments on occasion, but that's a minor problem when the sound is so three-dimensional, so present. During the intermission Sunday morning,  after a performance of the Asko Concerto, David Schiff observed that there's something poignant about seeing Carter's music perfromed. The stage not only gives the sound  more space to occupy, in a way a a pair of stereo speakers does not, but the distances also emphasize the isolation of the solo instruments within the larger group. Two instruments playing a duet from opposite sides of the platform might want to connect, but they can never succeed completely.

Joe Barron

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #7 on: July 22, 2008, 07:30:35 AM »
And I don't think I've heard Sound Fields at all.  Yet another item to get to know...

Well, it was a premiere, Bruce.  ;)

Jezetha, I always recommend starting with the music Mr. Carter wrote in the 50s and late 40s: the piano, cello and harpsichord sonatas, the Etudes and a Fanstasy for wind quartet, and the Variations for Orcehstra. They're fully mature pieces, but they have enoough traditional sounding elements keep you grounded. They'll accustom you to Mr. Cater's idiom and prepare you for the more radical works that follow.
« Last Edit: July 25, 2008, 05:30:14 PM by Joe Barron »

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #8 on: July 22, 2008, 07:33:07 AM »
Thank you, Joe (if I may call you that). I am enjoying your letter very much, they bring the whole thing alive. GMG is fortunate.

Johan
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

karlhenning

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #9 on: July 22, 2008, 07:38:31 AM »
Following Carter's music is like following the Grateful Dead.

You mean, he's a British agent? (<-- obscure Mel Gibson reference)

karlhenning

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #10 on: July 22, 2008, 07:39:45 AM »
Joe, you are (in the finest sense) an animal!

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #11 on: July 22, 2008, 07:40:37 AM »
Bravo, Joe!  You are just a fountain of good reading today.  I like this comment:

The stage not only gives the sound  more space to occupy, in a way a a pair of stereo speakers does not, but the distances also emphasize the isolation of the solo instruments within the larger group. Two instruments playing a duet from opposite sides of the platform might want to connect, but they can never succeed completely.

And doh  :-[...didn't realize Sound Fields was a premiere.  ;D

Johan, since you mention string quartets an inexpensive CD (released just last January) is the Pacifica Quartet in Nos. 1 (1941) and 5 (1995).  Joe has a very comprehensive review on Amazon, here.  (I have the Composers Quartet in No. 1 and the Ardittis in No. 5, both good, but the Naxos is a bargain.)

I would second Joe's recommendation to start with his earlier works, just so you get a feel for the "platform" from which he launched his career.

--Bruce
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Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #12 on: July 22, 2008, 07:46:05 AM »
Thanks, Bruce! I was just checking eMusic, and listened to a few snippets of the First Quartet only moments ago...
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

Offline some guy

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #13 on: July 22, 2008, 08:17:32 AM »
Well Joe, I must say, if I weren't already a big Carter aficionado already (since around 1972), I would be in the store already, buying all the Carter CDs I could find.

I've only had two chances to hear his music live, and those were both just as splendid as what you're describing.

Hurrah for good music, eh?

karlhenning

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #14 on: July 22, 2008, 08:23:55 AM »
I just hope they're warning off all the pregnant mothers, Michael, lest their unborn babies be irritated by all the unseemly dissonance, which they are "hard-wired" to get the fantods over  ;)

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #15 on: July 22, 2008, 09:15:31 AM »
For the Berkshires in summer, Mr. Carter favors brightly colored pullover shirts with wide suspenders. At last night's performance, he was wearing blue shorts. He looked all set to move to Florida.

The idea of Carter in blue shorts would have been worth the price of admission. (I've never seen him in other than suit and tie.)

I enjoy your good fortune, my man. Were it not for deadlines at work and lack of funds, I would have come up myself. Can't tell you how much I'd love to hear the Concerto for Orchestar live.  :'(
"I don't know what sforzando means, though it clearly means something."

Joe Barron

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #16 on: July 23, 2008, 06:56:56 AM »
I just hope they're warning off all the pregnant mothers, Michael, lest their unborn babies be irritated by all the unseemly dissonance, which they are "hard-wired" to get the fantods over  ;)

The earlier you start them listening, the better. I've always thought exposure to Carter should begin in the womb.

Wednesday

Steady rain today, which scotched my plan to go for a bike ride in the Berskhires. Brining the bike was a mistake. I got out only once, on Sunday afternoon, and got two flat tires.

Oliver Knussen said: I wrote Carter a fan letter years ago that I wish I could forget. This during a panel discussion Monday with Fred Sherry and the critic from the Boston Globe. He hid his bearded face in one of his beefy hands when he said it. I thanked him for the comment, since the first time I ever met Carter, in 1976, I made a slight joke about the Duo for violin and piano. (The line itself will be lost to history.) Carter replied, "What do you mean by that?"  I've felt  self-conscious and gushy every time I've spoken to him, and  I haven't yet had the nerve to approach him this week.

David Schiff said: Some of Carter's work is lucid and easy to grasp on first hearing, and some is difficult and requires repeated listening before it becomes clear. The Triple Duo accessible and engaging to him immediately, but the Fourth Quartet was a puzzle, and to some extent still is. (John Link, sitting next to him, said his impressions were just the opposite.) What is strange, he said, is that on a technical level, there is no difference between the easy and the hard pieces. The notes and the rhythms are all very much the same. The cause of the difference in accessibility is elusive.

Two strong programs yesterday. In the 5 p.m. chamber recital, Megan Levin, the harpist who delighted Carter Sunday in Luimen, and oboist Nicholas Stoval, gave an outstanding account of the Trilogy, one of my favorite of Mr. Carter's late chamber pieces. (As I've said in the past, it's astonishing how Mr. Carter manages to say something substantive with such a diaphanous combination, and at nineteen minutes, the piece is more filling than some of his other occasional works.) Levin approaches the harp in a way I can describe only as aggressive. She puts muscle into what is usually a delicate sound. The program ended with the crazy Catenaires, which Sandra Gu made to seem effortless. Jerry Kuderna, who was hearing the piece for the first time, said he never would have identified the work as Carter's if he hadn't known the composer beforehand. It reminded him of Ligeti, but it does strike me as Carterian, if not typical, recent Carter, then older Carter --- specifically, the one of the etudes for wind quartet in which the instruments play nothing but a rising half step, in eighth notes, followed by a rest. The whirling effect is created by the interweaving of a simple, repeated pattern. Catenaires follows much the same trajectory, only with runs up and down the scale.

Other pieces on the program were Figments I and II for solo cello, Esprit rude I and II, Au Quai for basson and viola, and the Intermittances, all memorably performed.

We were sorry Carter did not attend the afternoon performance, but he was on hand in the evening, as was the poet John Ashbery, for the premiere of Mad-regales, Carter's first piece for a capella voices in 60 years. It's scored for six singers, and it felt like a set of 21st century madrigals (hence the word play in the title, I suspect). It lasts about nine minutes and consists of three Ashbery settings: eight of the 37 Haiku, Meditations of a Parrot, and At North Farm. In the first piece, one or two of the haiku are assigned to each singer, with the others vocalizing sustained chords. In Meditations of a Parrot, the lines again are shared among the soloists and duets, and the parrot's catch phrase, Robin Hood! Robin Hood!, is repeated throughout. Some members of the audience gave an appreciative chuckle at the end. At North Farm is the first vocal piece of Carter's I can recall that breaks up the text. Normally, he aims for a conversational effect, setting poems straight through from beginning to end with no repetition.  Here, lines and fragments of lines recur, as in a baroque aria, or more accurately, a madrigal. The singers did it twice, at the request, conductor Jeffrey Milarsky said, of a special person. He didn't say who, but I assume it was Ashbery. It's a delightful piece. I wish Carter would write a few more, and that they will be recorded soon.

The program also included two major song cycles: In the Distances of Sleep, on poems by Wallace Stevens, and A Mirror on Which to Dwell, on poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Mezzo in the first was Kate Lindsey. The soprano in the second was Jo Ellen Miller. Both sang beautifully.  Lindsay was the more dramatic and in character, I thought, but Miller was the more lyrical. I was most impressed with "Re-statement of Romance" in Distances. It's a sort of love song with a string accompaniment that is as romantic as Carter ever gets, like distilled Wagner.

(Have you noticed how all new, unfamiliar music must be described in terms of the familiar? Schiff said he heard echoes of Mahler in Sound Fields, though Link agreed with me that it reminded him of The Unanswered Questions. He said he considered asking if Carter had considered adding a trumpet and woodwinds, but he lacked the courage.)

Yesterday's program also included Mosaic for harp and chamber orchestra, with Ann Hobson Pilot as soloist, and the Sonata for Flute, Oboe Cello and Harpsichord, which was the only piece on the program older than I am. Of course, A Mirror on Which to Dwell is also a little older, but it didn't seem out of place, since it was the first of the great song cycles Carter has written over the past thirty years, the direct ancestor of In the Distances of Sleep. Still, the sonata is a wonderful piece, and it's always good to hear, even if it is being used as a appetizer.
« Last Edit: July 27, 2008, 04:36:44 PM by Joe Barron »

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #17 on: July 23, 2008, 07:08:32 AM »
And thanks for this update, Joe!  As an aside, it's great that a few pieces are being repeated on these concerts, a good decision when dealing with music that may be unfamiliar to many in the audience.   

Here is Allan Kozinn's review in today's New York Times of the concerts on Sunday and Monday.  Nice photos, too.

--Bruce
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Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #18 on: July 23, 2008, 07:18:52 AM »
My thanks, too. (And to Bruce for the link.)

P.S. As a Stevensian I have to ask - which poems have been set in In the Distances of Sleep?!
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

karlhenning

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Re: Letter from Tanglewood (Elliott Carter)
« Reply #19 on: July 23, 2008, 07:23:08 AM »
(Have you noticed how all new, unfamiliar music must be described in terms of the familiar? Schiff said he heard echoes of Mahler in Sound Fields, though Link agreed with me that it reminded him of The Unanswered Questions. He said he considered asking if Carter had considered adding a trumpet and woodwinds, but he lacked the courage.)

Consider this exchange in an interview with Charles Wuorinen:

Quote
Is there anything an audience should know before listening to Syntaxis, especially if it is their first encounter with your language?

First of all, what is the audience? People talk about the public, but the public consists of so many different kinds of people who are separated by age, by economic status, by geographical location, not to mention musical knowledge. A knowledgeable listener does not have to be concerned with “technical details,” because such a person can follow the musical discourse, whether it is an old one or a new one. What is necessary for someone sitting in the audience is familiarity, and that is, by definition, ruled out for a new piece. I always say to people, “Just relax, and don’t worry about anything,” because there is nothing I can say in a couple of minutes, or a couple of hours for that matter, that is going to substitute for familiarity, with my work, or with new music in general.

No substitute for familiarity . . . hence, perhaps, the tendency to describe what we are hearing for the first time, in terms of similarity to that with which we are already familiar.