Making Music: Elliott Carter

Duettino [World premiere]
Canon for 4
Enchanted Preludes
Duo for Violin and Piano
Con leggerezza pensosa
Esprit rude/esprit doux
Mosaic [New York premiere]

Tara Helen O’Connor (flute), Charles Neidich (clarinet), Stephen Taylor (oboe), Stephen Gosling (piano), Rolf Schulte (violin), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Fred Sherry (cello), Kurt Muroki (double bass), Bridget Kibbey (harp), Donald Palma (conductor)

Film Interludes by Frank Scheffer
Jeremy Geffen, Series Moderator

Reviewed by: Gail Wein

Reviewed: 12 December, 2008
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

Elliott Carter (b. 11 Dec 1908)They say that 100 is the new 60. We could say that about Elliott Carter, anyway. At age 100 years and one day, Carter was sprightly, cogent and revealing in the conversation that preceded a program devoted to his chamber music. Carter’s sense of humor shined through as he talked about his life and the weighty tome of music that he has created over the past century.

Since the 1950s, Carter’s musical style might be described as the epitome of ‘squeak-honk’, characterized by wide interval leaps, jagged rhythms and dramatic volume changes. Which is not to say that the music is ugly or unpleasant. Even for those who find the experience a challenge, it is undeniably full of personality with a depth and intensity that grabs the attention of even a casual listener.

Most of the performers were stalwarts of the New York chamber music scene and some – like the cellist Fred Sherry – have worked with the composer for decades. It was for Sherry and the violinist Rolf Schulte that Carter composed the Duettino this year. The players’ acute sense of timing and sensitivity to dynamics made this world premiere performance a resounding success.

Mosaic (2004) is a tribute to the harpist Carlos Salzedo, who wrote the book on harp technique, literally. Conductor Donald Palma led the octet, essentially a harp concerto, showcasing outstanding ensemble work. The composition had the brilliant young harpist Bridget Kibbey emulating snare drum and thunder, plucking single strings with the aplomb of a ballet dancer, and rippling through traditional glissandos.

The performances of Carter’s chamber music were interspersed with film clips of interviews in which Carter provided a fascinating window into his composition process and philosophy of music and life. Filmmaker Frank Scheffer has been following and filming Carter for a quarter-century; the clips are part of a forthcoming film on the history of Modernism.

The century mark is an obvious vehicle to celebrate a great composer’s life’s work, though rarely if ever is the composer around to enjoy it. Musical celebrations continue for many more months as Carter is fêted in his hometown of New York and around the world.

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