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Monday, July 21, 2008

Honoring Elliott Carter

Something unusual is happening in the Berkshires this week...

From Sunday July 20th to Thursday July 24th, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Music Center are mounting a monumental tribute to the distinguished American composer Elliott Carter in a coordinated and impressive celebration of his centenary year. It includes five days of concerts (12-hours of music) drawn from representative periods of the composers' creative output. The concert series includes several American and World Premieres of his work.

I was fortunate enough to attend the two opening concerts on Sunday July 20th.

The 10 AM concert included the following pieces:

Call for two trumpets and horn (2003)

Asko Concerto (2000)

Luimen (1997)

Refléxions (2004, American Premiere)

Double Concerto for piano, harpsichord, and chamber orchestra (1961)

(featuring Ursula Oppens on harpsichord and Charles Rosen on piano. The 81 year-old Rosen played up a storm).


And the 8 PM concert featured the TMC Orchestra with soloists in the following works:

Dialogues for piano and orchestra (2003)

Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Sound Fields for string orchestra (2007)

(an interesting 4-minute study, reminiscent the Farben movement from Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16).

Variations for Orchestra (1955)


This years' Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music is somewhat unusual, simply because events of this scale involving the music of a single composer do not occur with any frequency. Such is not the norm for a modernist composer who writes in an atonal and complex idiom. Yet, Carter is a unique phenomena for several reasons, and an anomaly in the context of our American musical landscape.

To his benefit, Carter has had the support of many superb musicians who have persistently championed his music over the decades: from conductors such as Lenny Bernstein, Oliver Knussen and James Levine, to the Juilliard, Arditti, and Pacifica String Quartets, to pianists like Charles Rosen, Paul Jacobs, and Ursula Oppens. To my knowledge he has been awarded every major honor and musical distinction possible (including two Pulitzer's), and is one of the few American composers to have truly made an international impact - particularly in Europe where his colleague Pierre Boulez has advocated for him.

The performances by the young fellows at Tanglewood were remarkable, informed, and of phenomenal quality too. It would appear that many of Carter's works are now securely positioned as permanent fixtures in the standard repertory of today's elite musical organizations. He has practically become a household name.

I can say from personal experience having seen Carter in action (when I as a student of his briefly at Yale Norfolk in summer of 1981), that his achievements are justifiably earned. He has worked extremely hard all of his life to create amazing musical works that excite and inspire us. His work will always be of great significance to thinking people interested in the music of our time.

The capacity audience at Seiji Ozawa Hall was energized. They sprung to their feet often to honor the 100 year old composer with spontaneous and enthusiastic standing ovations. I met someone there who is working on an definitive autobiography of the composer. He compared the intellectual and distinguished-looking crowd to a group of "Dead Heads" who travel around the country in a cult attending "Grateful Dead" concerts. (I've heard that Grateful Dead fonding member and bass guitarist Phil Lesh is one of Carter's biggest fans).

Other activities this week include a panel discussion with the composer and musicologists who have made a career specializing in Carter scholarship. I ran into Anne Schreffler who mentioned that her new book about Carter is due out. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon:

The Boston Globe reported today that the BSO has dipped into its' Horblitt Fund to help pay for and promote this year's annual Festival of Contemporary Music. Normally, the festival runs a deficit of about $50,000. This year it will run about $250,000, and the in the end the BSO will probably spend around $400,000 from its' Horblitt fund on this concert series to compensate soloists, publicise it, and record the events for future video release.

Last November I went to the official Horblitt award ceremony for Elliott Carter at Harvard's Paine Hall. It was a small and impromptu function. About 20 people - largely consisting of friends and family - showed up to watch Carter receive an envelope from BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe with a check for an undisclosed amount. This was in fact Carter's second BSO Horblitt over the course of many years.

Professor Shreffler remarked about the history Carter's Harvard connections, and James Levine spoke passionately about the planned upcoming Carter festival at Tanglewood. I assume it was his idea and leadership that forged the Festival of Contemporary Music this summer to be entirely devoted to the music of Carter. The vision at that time was for the festival to last for two entire weeks and include 45 works (this obviously was scaled back), and Levine planned to conduct a significant number of the larger pieces.

Then, in a surprise gesture, the BSO's Music Director walked over to the piano to deliver the world premiere performance of a piano piece written in 2007 by Carter as a birthday present for his mother: Matribute. It is a really elegant piece with all of the Carter-isms we have come to know and love. It also seems to be a quite difficult work to bring off, but Levine performed it superbly. Unfortunately, because of Levine's unexpected surgery of recent weeks to have his liver removed, he could not attend the Carter concerts at Tanglewood this summer. Replacements had to be found in short order to cover for his absence. As a result, the piano piece Matribute will be performed by Ursula Oppens rather than by Levine.

Carter spoke a little at the Horblitt presentation at Harvard too, but as could be expected at his age, his hearing has deteriorated, so questioning was limited. But he did speak on his own rather coherently, and explained that his pieces (and the many thousands of notes in each of them) seem to be spewing out without much conscious thought on his part in recent years. So, he accepted the Horblitt award on behalf of his compositions, and added "my music thanks you." Carter seems to be picking up his musical stride.


This is all inspiring, a wonderful achievement for the composer individually and for everyone involved with new music collectively. As an audience member, I was certainly in new music heaven. I can't even imagine the excitement that Elliott Carter feels this week.

But, while buried in the thick fog and heavy rain during my long drive back to Boston, I thought about the magnitude of Carter's career. It defies logic in some ways. Modernist composers just don't become superstars. It's just unheard of (Boulez became famous for his conducting, not for his work as a composer alone).

Carter almost seems to be a force of nature. Even the weather seemed to agree and chime in with fireworks in the sky, a cooling wind, and a soft percussive rumble to accompany the Variations for Orchestra at just the right moments of the concert last evening.

In the everyday vacuum of the contemporary music world, there are very few who are able to crash through the glass ceiling of the new music ghetto and make it on to the manicured green lawns of Tanglewood. I wonder if Elliott Carter will be the last living composer of any value to achieve this major distinction. It's taken him a 100 years of hard work to get to this point, and he has had a lot of good luck and support to help him along the way.

Carter's singular career seems a little like the concept of a black hole in astrophysics. Its' gravitational force is so strong, that nothing around it can be seen. Light can't escape. I had to wonder to myself if the young composers in residence at Tanglewood this summer feel at all slighted that their music is not being publicly performed. For many years it had been the norm, since the mission statement at Tanglewood has always been to expose young talent, including up-and-coming composers.

Hypothetically, I wondered what would happen if a nameless composer (let's say Composer X), submitted one of the complex scores penned by Elliott Carter to any major orchestra in the US. Typically those orchestras receive hundreds of unsolicited scores every month. Would the score ever get a serious review, and be read for its' true value? Or, to put it another way, would Elliott Carter ever get a major orchestral performance if his name were not Elliott Carter? Remember, this is a hypothetical question, not simply an exercise in my own cynicism. I don't know the answer, but it would be an interesting experiment.

For composers working today, there is much to be optimistic about.

There is also much to be pessimistic about.


7/26/08 Postscript: Jeremy Eichler, music reviewer for the Boston Globe, wrote a fine article about the entire Elliott Carter festival. "At Tanglewood, a modernist oasis" appeared in today's edition of the paper...

I found it interesting that his opening sentence of the article is virtually identical to the opening line of my post which appeared five days earlier. He began his piece: "Something remarkable happened this week in the Berkshires." I began my post: "Something unusual happened this week in the Berkshires."

Interesting coincidence. :-)

8/29/08: The Tanglewood "Carterpalooza" has been posted on the web at:

Good stuff!