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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Elliott Carter's Flute Concerto

Elliott Carter (b. 1908) is still going strong. Really strong.

Last evening I heard the American premiere of his new 14-minute Flute Concerto (2008).

He composed the piece on a joint commission from the Berlin Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra. The world premiere took place in Jerusalem in September of 2008, and it later performed in Berlin in June of 2009.

Carter worked on his Flute Concerto in his Greenwich Village apartment from mid-September 2007 to March 2008.

It is a very lucid and carefully constructed piece. The flute writing is both expressive and virtuosic. Great care was taken to prevent the soloist from being drowned out by the orchestra (an all too common issue with flute concerti).

As his followers have come to appreciate, Carter's music progresses on layers of evolving time lines and contrasting tempi. Non-pitched percussion sounds (including lots of wood instruments) logically tick and tok away in the Flute Concerto. Pointed staccato orchestral events - from isolated solo notes to blaring full-frontal tutti - mark the temporal ictus of a magnificent celestial clock constructed by the composer to represent the patterns of the Universe against an almost perceptible grid of Einsteinian time-space.

There is everything you'd want in a 21st century flute concerto: Fast music, slow music, rapturous romantic tunes, angular virtuosic modernism, orchestral transparency, tone color, a sense of direction and form, harmony, rhythmic excitement, and some just plain old cool riffs for the flute. This concerto was the showcase work for the BSO's new Principal Flutist, Elizabeth Rowe. It was her coming out party as a soloist - and she did a spectacular job.

Elliott Carter is not going to take it easy. He's got a tall stack of commissions on his desk to satisfy. Carter recently completed a new work, Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra written for his friend and assistant Virgil Blackwell. It's so new that a premiere has not yet been scheduled.

The composer seems to be exploring some new areas too. In 2008 I heard his fascinating string orchestra work Sound Fields at Tanglewood. The word is that Carter scripted a new piece in the same vein titled Wind Rose.

Other Carter works "hot off the press" include On Conversing with Paradise which was premiered in June of 2009 at the Aldeburgh Festival, and Poems of Louis Zukofsky for mezzo-soprano and clarinet. The later work was premiered at Tanglewood this past summer.

In a few days, on February 11th, Carter's new wind quintet Nine by Five will receive its world premiere in New York.

Look too for a brand new Carter piece to be premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival this coming June. It's a work for soprano and orchestra titled What Are Years and based on poems of Marianne Moore. If you can't make it to England, James Levine and the BSO will give the US premiere of the work this summer at Tanglewood.

The Tuesday evening audience at Symphony Hall was rather sparse. I estimate that only one third of the seats were filled. The only composer I spied in the crowd was Gunther Schuller, but others could have been lurking in the dark nooks and crannies of the voluminous building. Of course, this was the last of a series of concerts with this selection of works, and many of Boston's composers may have attended earlier in the week when Carter himself was sitting in the historic old concert hall.

The BSO also performed works by Schubert (excerpts from the incidental music to "Rosamunde") and the Brahms 4th Symphony. The Brahms was super, and Levine and the BSO practically blew the roof off of the house. I found myself making comparisons between Brahms and Carter, and see some similarity in their technique and relationship to music. Perhaps that's why Levine paired these works up on this week's program.

Elliott Carter is clearly "on a roll." My late father (who was born the same year as Carter) use to say jokingly in his old age, "the first 100 years are the hardest." Perhaps he was right about that. 110 is the new 50.

Here is a YouTube of BSO Principal Flutist Elizabeth Rowe discussing her performance of the Carter. Enjoy...