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Monday, November 18, 2013

Concert Review: Getting Carter

The American Symphony Orchestra pays tribute to Elliott Carter.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The composer Elliott Carter in his New York apartment in 1983.
Photo by Nancy Crampton courtesy Boosey & Hawkes.
New York's own Elliott Carter was the dean of modern music in this country, an artist whose vast output spanned orchestral works, songs and even opera. His music always looked relentlessly forward, breaking new ground even in his last works. On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra celebrated the memory of this great composer, who died on November 5 of last year at the age of 103. The carefully curated program offered six of Carter's pieces, spanning eight decades of his output and giving a glimpse at the wide variety of styles and music created over a long compositional career.

The first piece on the program was  from Pocahontas, a ballet score written by Carter in 1939 and later revised by the composer as a four-part suite. With heavy slab-like chords and liberal use of Native American percussion, the score is a sort of North American answer to The Rite of Spring, steeped in vast sonic tableaux that depict the new American wilderness and the first, almost disastrous encounter between explorers from the Jamestown and the Powhatan tribe.

Stravinsky's  Rite was a huge influence on Carter's stylistic development. (He attended a performance of the piece at Boston's Symphony Hall conducted by Pierre Monteux when he was just 15.) and he returns the favor by quoting the Procession from that work in the slow, solemn march of the the tribal chief. Violent tone clusters depict the torture of John Smith and John Rolfe, and a flute and harp suggest the sweeter ministrations of Pocahontas. The finale is a long Pavane, summing up the work's ideas in an Elizabethan dance filtered through Carter's 20th century sensibility.

The program jumped forward to 2007 for Sound Fields. This piece for string orchestra was one of the highlights of the evening--seven minutes of perfect musical stasis played by the strings alone. Mr. Botstein maintained an atmosphere of perfect surface tension for this immersive, almost ambient work, which was inspired by abstract expressionist art that consists solely of blocks of color.

The Clarinet Concerto, with featured soloist Anthony McGill (of the MET Orchestra) is from 1996, representing a peak of creativity from the composer. The central movements each featured a different section of the ensemble, with the composer demonstrating orchestral wizardry as he wrote accompaniment for percussion alone, small hushed squadrons of brass and wind and finally, the whole ensemble in tutti. Mr. McGill's thrilling high-wire performance was laced with grace and good humor. Unusually, there was a spatial effect as the clarinetist played his solo part from different positions around the orchestra.

The second half of the program featured two orchestral song settings from 1943. Warble for Lilac-Time recasts the Walt Whitman poem as a virtuoso aria, with soprano Mary Mackenzie taking virtuosic flight over a lush and melodic orchestration. This was followed by "Voyage", a setting of the Hart Crane poem Infinite Consanguinity. Sung by mezzo Theresa Bucholz. This song was almost ritualistic, with throbbing bells providing a stately rhythmic backdrop for Ms. Bucholz' firm, plush mezzo.

The genial song settings stood in stark contrast to the 1969 Concerto for Orchestra. Carter's most famous large-scale composition got a brilliant, virtuosic treatment from the skilled players of the ASO, from the charging parts for brass and woodwind to the long elegiac solo for double basses that is a central component of the Scherzando. Mr. Botstein was in his element here, leading a sparkling performance that was the perfect exclamation point to this celebration of the late composer's long musical legacy.

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