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Monday, December 8, 2008

Concert Review: BSO Carter Interventions

Elliott Carter

American composer Elliott Carter will be 100 on Thursday December 11th and will be celebrating it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the NY première of his Interventions for Piano and Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Willemien and I attended the World première of Interventions at Boston's Symphony Hall on Friday afternoon December 5th (actually the first performance was the night before). The concert - which included Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (Daniel Barenboim was soloist in both works), Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schubert’s Fantasie for piano four-hands with Barenboim and Levine at the keyboard - was sold out weeks in advance. Fortunately we were able to obtain "rush tickets." This was the last concert in Symphony Hall for the BSO in 2008. They return to Boston again after the "Boston Pops" season on January 22nd, 2009 with guest conductor Kurt Masur.

The line for rush tickets started forming early, around 9 AM.

We joined in line after a quick breakfast at Au bon Pain. It's a lot of fun talking to others waiting in the queue with you, and we met some very interesting (and eccentric) people.

The onslaught of the masses into Symphony Hall on a Friday afternoon begins long before the 1:30 downbeat. We walked past an impressive parade of chartered buses parked on Huntington Avenue. They had just dropped off their cargo of symphony patrons.

Arriving early at Symphony Hall, we took in the 12:15 pre-concert lecture by BSO Publications Associate Robert Kirzinger (there is a link to his program notes for the Carter piece at the bottom of this post).

And then, having some time to pass, we visited the crowded and bustling BSO gift shop. There was a holiday tree with "musical" ornaments, such as a little plastic flute for $9.00.

I was entertained by the musical dolls, which included (left to right) Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini, and Richard Wagner.

Their tag reads "Wind me up. I'm Musical." The dolls are made by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild (how appropriate) and sell in the BSO gift shop for $21.93.

I was more interested in viewing the many documents on display in the Cabot-Cahners room in an exhibit titled Celebrating the Life and Music of Elliott Carter. It contains fascinating photographs, letters, and manuscript scores from Carter's personal collection and from the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. Unfortunately, the room was full of ambivalent symphony patrons blocking my view. They were more preoccupied with chatting and consuming over-priced wine than studying Carter. I couldn't navigate very well around the Boston Brahmins to view the display close up, but I did manage to snap a photo of the manuscript score to the Carter's Figment for solo contrabass.

Before the concert got underway, as I looked around at the capacity house in Symphony Hall and as I thought about the demographics of this crowd, I had to feel in the minority. For one thing, even with my white hair, I was among the youngest in the auditorium. I also had a strong sense that the average net worth of the core subscription crowd is well-above mine. Doing a little quick math, I estimated that if the average net worth per concert goer is a million dollars (I suspect that it could be MUCH higher), and there are 2000 people sitting in the concert hall for this concert. That means that the combined net worth of people in the hall amounts to 2 billion dollars! The high-end nature of the advertisements in the concert book lend support my theory. Man, the world of classical music is one of princes and paupers, and it has probably always been that way.

The concert began with Schubert's Fantasy in F minor, D.940, for piano four-hands. Maestro Levine had snuck out on stage immediately after Kirzinger's talk to warm up on the humongous Steinway. Barenboim and Levine make a good piano duo. Levine played the secondo part, but was very attuned to the leadership role Baremboim took in interpreting the piece. Their timing was well-synchronized, but tastefully diverged as a pianist would naturally do when playing romantic music with "hands apart." In the scherzo, Barenboim pumped the pedal like the two of them were teenagers in a stolen sports car drag-racing down Main Street at midnight. The sound they created on the grand piano was very orchestral.

Of course, composers don't listen to music like "normal people." My mind began to think of ways to orchestrate the Schubert Fantasy for orchestra. I found a solution for most of it, except how to orchestrate the long trills?

Next came the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3, in C minor, Opus 37. It was done very nicely, with a reduced-size orchestra to partially mimic what Beethoven would have heard. The tempos were different than I am accustomed to, and the Allegro of final Rondo sounded slow - but I was pleasantly surprised when the coda went lick-i-ty split.

As a side note, Barenboim had been a guest on the WGBH TV talk show "Greater Boston" with Emily Rooney just a few nights before. He was interviewed by Rooney (daughter of commentator Andy Rooney of "60 Minutes" on CBS) about his new book titled Everything Is Connected - The Power Of Music. I found her questioning to be absolutely clueless about music and surprisingly naïve. But it perked my interest in the book, and I found a copy at Barnes and Noble and read the chapter about Pierre Boulez in the bookstore cafe. Willemien made sure that I did not spill coffee on it before it got returned to the shelf.

It was now time for the BSO to play the Carter Interventions, a work that was jointly commissioned by Levine (for the BSO) and Barenboim (for the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin) with generous financial aid coming from several foundations. I didn't know what to expect, since it was written in 2007 when Carter was 98 years of age.

I can't speak in detail about the piece with only a first hearing, but I will say that it will likely stand as one of Carter's major works. It's a very substantial piano concerto, and although full of the complexities that we associate with his music, is also rather witty and ingenious in its construction.

Here is a short video clip of the performance that I surreptitiously shot with my digital camera. It has the degraded audio and video quality that you would expect from the camera of a new music tourist sitting in the absolute back row of the orchestra section of Symphony Hall - under the balcony in row TT, seat 8.

This clip captures one of the more tranquil sections of the work, but there are also explosions of orchestral rage and fits of virtuosic piano playing too. The two basic elements of the piece, orchestral-music (led by Levine) and piano-music (played by Barenboim) constantly interrupt each other and compete for attention. There are also two groups of trios (or a concertino septet) sitting up front beside the piano, and they play an important role in the musical dialogue.

Carter wrote the following in his program note:

...I decided to write a work that had one long line, mostly for the strings, interrupted by the piano which also had its developing part interrupted by the orchestra. Each intervening in the other's part, sometimes humorously.

You can hear a little tug-of-war between the pitches A-natural and B-flat in the beginning and end of the work. The orchestra starts off with a big unison A-natural (as if tuning). The soloist counters with a Bb - as if to say "no, this is the pitch." At the end of the work, before the penultimate conclusion with a big fortissimo bang, the piano plays his Bb again, as if to say "you can tune now." The orchestra replies angerly with the A-natural. The symmetry is a Carterism: A-Bb ... Bb-A. I also wonder if the "A" is from jAmes levine, and the "Bb" for Barenboim.

Another potential Ivesian "Rollo" moment is when a single instrument blurts out a high note in relative isolation, it is immediately followed by a big orchestral tutti. I don't think a BSO player would screw up so royally.

There was a long standing ovation for Carter, who came up on the stage walking with a cane and took a bow. The audience seemed very enthusiastic. It's still hard for me to believe that Carter's modernist music is suddenly hugely popular. But I wouldn't want to "look a gift horse in the mouth."

The afternoon program concluded with the Rite of Spring which Carter first heard in the 1920's as a guest of composer Charles Ives. It was the exceptional performance that I would expect coming from Levine, and the the orchestra he has refined over the past 5 years. Levine has lost some weight, and he seemed very animated and gestured with motions that were larger than I have ever seen coming from him. At times he would swing around nearly 360 degrees in his executive swivel chair as he conducted the Stravinsky with visible joy and enthusiasm. I wont forget this one. (Another performance of the Rite that I will never forget was with the NY Philharmonic at a summer "Rug" concert with Boulez in the 1970's. He conducted it from memory).

There was one glitch with the BSO performance. In the quiet section early in Part II, a patron's cell phone went off near the stage, and it kept ringing. Oddly enough, it was on-pitch, and kind of fit with the music. But I had to wonder if Levine was going to pull a Richard Pittman, and stop the orchestra to yell at the idiot in the audience.

Everyone was invited to the BSO's Higginson Hall for a 100th birthday party bash after the concert. We attended. It was pretty lavish considering that we are reliving the Great Depression of the 1930's. Waiters and waitresses walked around offering Hors d'oeuvres, and you could help yourself to countless delights and rich spreads. I loved the salmon (pictured left), but had to wrestle with some elderly folk to get in. The cheese selection was excellent too. The bars served beer, wine, and mixed drinks - but Champagne seemed to be a popular choice.

Carter sat at a table near us, and was immediately surrounded by a crowd of VIPs. Here is a photo that I snapped of him talking with his friend and assistant Virgil Blackwell. Blackwell is the renowned clarinetist who founded the Speculum Musicae New Music Ensemble, and has functioned recently as Carter's personal secretary. Others gathered around, including Kirzinger and Levine's brother who cleared a spot right next to the honoree for the Maestro to sit.

And there was cake! Plenty of it.

Unfortunately we had to leave before the official presentations began, but we stayed for Levine's dramatic entrance and heard the beginning of speeches and birthday toasts.

Levine seemed to be beaming with pride. He was in his element. How often does a conductor have a chance to make history by commissioning and premièring such a major work? It's definitely one for the history books.