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December 11, 2009

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.

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:52 PM | | Comments (5)


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Carter remains a gap in my modern music experience, but I would go to any BSO concerts that included him in the program. Meanwhile, the BSO has flirted with a crossover composer who wants to create a new "American classical music" but who I doubt is aware of existing American classical music.

I don't think the situation is better for the NSO. I remember Ivan Fischer conducted the Elegy for strings in 2001, another work written "before Carter found his true, longlasting voice." And I don't remember Leonard Slatkin to be a particular champion of the composer - he may have programmed only one or two works if my memory is not failling me (the Variation for Orchestra is one work that I do remember but little else.)

Since you posted the YT clip of Nicholas Daniel at the Proms in EC's Oboe Concerto, you might find an April 2008 program that Robertson conducted in Saint Louis of interest, an all-Carter program, where ND was the guest soloist for the concerto also.

Thanks for the info. I'll check it out. TIM

A great piece to get people excited about EC is his Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (1952). Very accessible
and as fresh today as 1952.

Thanks for the suggestion. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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