Music we've been missing (part 15): Elliott Carter
The other day, I was one of five listeners at a cool piano recital that included the relatively early Piano Sonata by Elliott Carter. I don't know if the presence of Carter's music kept folks away; the whole program was contemporary, so it would never have caused a stampede at the box office anyway. But I know all too well that even a hint of Carter can send otherwise reasonable folks into tantrums or shock. It has long been thus. Yet, the composer is still hard at work, even though he has reached on this very day -- Dec. 11, 2009 -- his 101st birthday.
The music he has produced most recently has been met with great critical favor, like much of his output over the decades. Audience favor is something else again. There's no question that Carter's uncompromising atonality and complexity will always challenge people. Music doesn't get much tougher than his. Yet, I also firmly believe that when folks are willing to open their ears and minds to it, Carter's compositions can generate deeply satisfying experiences. He takes you on eventful journeys that explore the vast possibilities of music; he's never content to merely scratch the surface. Massive puzzles are worked out with startling skill; fabulous tone colors are generated.
Funny how some people will spend hours in a modern art museum, trying very hard to grasp highly abstract paintings, but they'll run screaming from a concert hall when a comparable creation of the aural variety is placed before them. I say bring on the Carter. Make 'em squirm. (Besides, if classical music is dying anyway -- the latest League of American Orchestras and NEA reports on audience participation in the arts is a real downer-- might as well make a stand for contemporary music while there's still a chance. Can't do much harm at this late date, and might even generate some fresh faces in the halls.)
Locally, we don't have any big advocates for Carter that I know of, certainly not like Boston has with James Levine (you can hear the grumbling and moaning from some Boston Symphony subscribers all the way down here). Carter's chamber music does turn up every now and then in our area, which is great, but the Baltimore Symphony has performed Carter's music on exactly two -- count 'em, two -- programs during the
past 61 years: Jan. 7, 1948, when Reginald Stewart conducted the first American performance of the "Holiday" Overture; and May 2/3, 1979, when Sergiu Comissiona led the orchestra in the Suite from "The Minotaur." (Thanks to BSO librarian Mary Plaine for the stats -- I hope she doesn't get in trouble for sharing them.) Both of those works, alas, were written in the mid 1940s, before Carter found his true, longlasting voice. So we're still waiting to hear the real deal at the BSO.
It would be great to see the orchestra take a giant step into Carterland, starting, perhaps, with the 1955 Variations for Orchestra; I've attached a clip of that work.
Or how about the 1987 Oboe Concerto? I bet BSO principal oboist Katherine Needleman would tackle it with distinction. I've posted a clip of the final movement (for you Carter-shy readers, please try to make it to the end -- those closing measures are really, really beautiful and powerful).
Also give a listen to an excerpt from the composer's Flute Concerto, composed just last year -- music that puts a fresh spin on the concept of lyricism (could be a great vehicle for BSO principal fluist Emily Skala).
There is a lot more, of course, and there may well be a lot more added to his repertoire, since Carter shows no signs of slowing down. His work deserves much more prominence throughout the country. Heartiest congratulations to the centenarian-plus-one.