July 25, 2008

Magna Carter (7): Either/Or

The final day of the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood (so appositely dubbed "Carterpalooza" by the Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler) opened with the man himself, in an interview by former Globe critic Richard Dyer. Much of it was stories (Carter sang in the American premiere of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex? I'll be damned), but at one point, despite a couple of re-phrasings of the question from Dyer, Carter absolutely refused to make a distinction between technical composition—planning the form, mapping out the harmony, engineering the rhythmic relationships—and intuitive composition. "I don't know what you mean by 'intuition,'" Carter protested. He compared it to the relationship between language and grammar—we use grammar when we use language all the time, but to describe grammar, we have to use language.

Huh? Well, you could kind of hear what he was talking about at the 5:00 concert, the second of the festival devoted to miniatures and solo works. The Eight Pieces for Four Timpani, for example, of which four were performed—"Saeta" and "Canaries" are both early (1949) experiments in simultaneous tempi and metric modulation, and, with their predominantly triplet-, eighth-, and dotted-eighth-note vocabulary, there are fleeting audible glimpses of Reichian phase-shifting. But only fleeting—Carter would never keep a technical idea like that front-and-center the way Reich does (at least in his more austere pieces) because for Carter, the idea itself isn't "technical," it's on equal dramatic terms with an expressive turn of phrase, or an orchestrational color. It's why Carter's surface isn't as structurally clear as, say, Piano Phase: the technical framework is expressive, the expression is part of the technical framework. None of it is intuitive—or maybe all of it is. It's hard to tell. The "March" is even more schematic, with its two competing layers, heads and butts of the sticks respectively. But that's just one element in the piece's DNA—the "March" is still expressive without aurally disentangling the two bands. Even "Canto" (added to the group in 1966) is more obviously rhapsodic, but the surface is made possible by a technical feature, the glissando possibilities of the pedal timpani. (Steven Merrill dispatched "Saeta" and "Canaries" with a round, booming tone and confident swing; Kyle Zerna brought a somewhat leaner tone to "Canto," working the pedals like a bomber pilot, and then brought the house down with an athletically-choreographed, taut-toned rendition of the "March.")

The Four Lauds for solo violin, brief celebrations of friends past and present, juxtapose "technical" elements to expressive effect. "Statement—Remembering Aaron," a Copland tribute (marvelously played by Martin Shultz) opens with a singing line, abruptly drops in a pizzicato phrase, and then proceeds to integrate the two, along with some Coplandesque fiddle riffs. "Riconocenza per Goffredo Petrassi" (Stephanie Nussbaum, combining high-contrast articulation and infectious joy) is a parley of intervals: soft "consonant" double-stops side-by-side with loud "dissonant" ones, before both combine into a gentle close. "Rhapsodic Musings," for Robert Mann (Nussbaum again), works its materials—all derived from a D-E dyad (Re-Mi)—in similar vein as the "Riconocenza," though at a more appassionata pitch. "Fantasy—Remembering Roger" (as in Sessions) is manifold where the others are sequential, keeping all its elements and all the violin's registers seemingly active at once—a Joachim cadenza gone haywire. Shultz brought it home with energy and bite.

Kevin Jablonski played the double-bass Figment III with easygoing aplomb, its rhetoric similar to "Statement" with the dialiectic addition of the profound timbral contrast between the instrument's high and low. Figment IV likewise works the timbre of the viola, the trombone-like C string, growing more vocal as the range ascends; violist Gareth Zehngut was grand and soulful. (On the evidence of the quartets, Penthode, and Figment IV, somebody really needs to get Carter to write a viola concerto.) Steep Steps, for bass clarinet, plays the timbral angle for humor, staccato Raymond-Scott machinery in the bass against the unlikely espressivo of the instrument's treble, ending with a big-band saxophone-like wail of clarino; Brent Besner hit it all with character and flair.

The last two works were juxtaposed chronologically. "Elegy" for cello and piano dates from 1939 (though reconstructed last year), making it the earliest piece on the festival; unlike the Piano Sonata, there's not a whole lot in this solidly Pistonesque cantilena that points to later Carter, but the polish and poise of the piece is breathtaking, yet more evidence that Carter's expressive, "intuitive" side is not easily disengaged from his technical concern. Fred Sherry gave the cello line a wiry drama, while Charles Rosen played sympathetically in the background.

Rosen then played another gift for Petrassi, 1994's 90+ for piano solo, the introduction of that instrument into Carter's "late" style (as best one can categorize it). As in the Double Concerto on the festival's opening program, Rosen brought an old-school pianistic touch, the accents integrated into the flow rather than spiking out from it, the passagework more a legato wash than a cloud of sparks. It was the sort of performance that quietly connects Carter with the historical continuum of composers, not the front-edge of a progressive arrow, but a member in good standing of the guild. Regardless of language or grammar, Carter remains in pursuit of the well-formed piece.

More reports from the festival:

1: Punctuality
2: Genealogy
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
8: You've got a head start

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