July 23, 2008

Magna Carter (5): Role modeling

In keeping with the pattern of salting the mostly-recent repertoire of Elliott Carter with "classic" Carter works, the 8:00 Tuesday concert at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music started off in both senses of "classic" with Carter's 1952 Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord. I say classic, because, while the rhetoric at first seems derived from Baroque music, Carter is assimilating Baroque music the same way Mozart did, trying on the costume to see how it might fit around his own music. (In fact, given the Sonata's prevailing lushness, something like Mozart's arrangement of Handel's Messiah might not be a bad point of departure for considering the piece.) Falling chronologically between Carter's first two string quartets, it's not completely off-base to hear the Sonata as Carter-lite, the polyrhythms and simultaneous tempi squared off into simpler subdivisions, as in the first movement, with the harpsichord ticking off a stately, out-of-time chorale-prelude cantus firmus. That approach, strangely, makes for a particularly jazzy effect—when you filter Carter's penchant for emphasizing the upbeat more than the downbeat through a regular grid of sixteenth notes, it can sound (as it does in the middle section of the second movement) like pre-swing ragtime. The Sonata echoes jazz in another way, though, in that the material Carter is putting through his favored paces is often quasi-vernacular, rather than newly-invented—for example, the forlana rhythm that permeates the third movement—and we're more conscious of the manipulations, like an improvisation over familiar changes. And then sometimes Carter simply drops in a stylistic tic without any preparation at all: if the Sonata as a whole is an elaborate costume, the out-of-nowhere octave-displaced unisons at the end of the slow movement are the equivalent of putting on an anachronistically funny hat. Jeremiah Bills (flute), Andrea Overturf (oboe), David Gerstein (cello), and Yegor Shevtsov (harpsichord) performed with an energetic, palpable bounce.

The other instrumental piece on the program was 2004's Mosaic, for harp and chamber ensemble. Where Trilogy, earlier in the day, aimed for brilliance, Mosaic turns inward. The harp part is still largely a Salzedo homage, but sparse and pointillistic where "Bariolage" is dense and virtuosic (to make another jazz analogy, if "Bariolage" is Art Tatum, Mosaic is Count Basie), while the instrumental groups that form the ensemble, three winds and four strings, tend to function as self-contained groups, tiling in the music in reference to the title. Ruminative, even sometimes hesitant, Mosaic seems to exist in an uneasy twilight. Ryan Wigglesworth conducted; BSO principal Ann Hobson Pilot, appropriately playing a Salzedo-model instrument (see, I remember something from my harp lessons), brought elegant eloquence to the solo part.

The rest of the concert featured the voice. Carter usually expertly adopts and adapts vocal styles to the needs of the text, but in Carter's 2006 Wallace Stevens cycle, In the Distances of Sleep, the reverse almost happens. Previously in the day, a panel of musicologists—Jonathan Bernard, John Link, and David Schiff, with Robert Kirzinger moderating—talked about Carter and his music, and there was much discussion of the "long line," the Boulanger-derived idea that each of Carter's pieces has a single, overarching melodic arc that, while often divided among different instruments or indistinct within dense textures, holds the structure together. In the Distances of Sleep features a voice part that is the long line, syllabic and prominent, in sustained note-values. The difference, I think, is Stevens' narrative posture—in other poets Carter has set (Bishop and Lowell, certainly), the narrative is experiential: what's in the text is what's happening to the poet, and, by extension, the listener is sharing in that experience. But Stevens is not experiencing something in the world, he's telling you something about the world, offering lessons in the way the world is. Carter thus has his singer be a preacher, an oracle; and the musical accompaniment often rises to a furious bustle, as if to shake you by the collar and get you to listen. Even the quiet center, "Re-statement of Romance," with its gently aching unison string line, is conscious of its telling rather than showing. Jeffrey Milarsky led a sturdy, well-framed account; mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay was marvelous, with a big, rich voice and a stern dramatic commitment that never flagged. She was stunning, in a part that is meant to stun.

The festival's second world premiere, Mad Regales, was as light as the Stevens cycle was dark. It marks a much-noted return to choral writing for Carter—six a cappella voices, singing obliquely wry texts of John Ashbery—but the layout is closer to Carter's chamber music than to standard choral practice. In fact, the first instance of traditional "choral" writing in the piece—all the voices lined up in reasonably homophonic harmony—doesn't happen until the third and final movement, where it butts in as an amusing shock.

The first movement sets 8 of Ashbery's "37 Haiku"—after a swooping-down glissando opening, each haiku is declaimed by a solo singer while the rest accompany on "ahs" and "oohs" derived from the word haiku itself. The statements are funny in a vague way until the last, when the mezzo-soprano, heretofore relegated solely to accomapniment, interrupts the soprano's wedding-memory reverie with a cold-water douse:
He is a monster like everyone else but what do you do if you're a monster
Carter, showing where his sense of humor lies, deploys this line with such exquisite timing that, even on second hearing (the piece was performed twice), the effect remained.

The second movement, "Meditations of a Parrot," is drop-dead slapstick. Ashbery's poem is a surrealist jumble of a seeming conversation between a girl and a parrot; but the latter, the poem reveals at the end, only seems to know the words "Robin Hood." That becomes a punchy accompaniment figure, passed about the ensemble, always on the same pitch, a unlikely tonic that, despite their best efforts, the group can't seem to escape. Carter sets the rest of the text with staccato jabs and inappropriate accents. It's an obsessive, escalating absurdist gem that, especially given the subject matter, happily channels Monty Python.

"At North Farm" is an elusive meditation on absence, the sort of piece that seems to be trying to decide between mirth and dolor. In the background, three singers at a time lay down text in slow, distant, near-triadic progressions, while the others declaim the text in fragmented bursts. The singers simply can't figure out which role they should be playing, as the poem comes to reveal:
                      Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
That last section is set in rhythmic unison, a witty-sad contrast to the ambivalence of the text. The performance was musically solid and dramatically ideal; John Oliver was the conductor.

The evening closed with another Carter classic, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, the 1976 Elizabeth Bishop cycle that marked Carter's return to writing for the voice. Milarsky again conducted, with another excellent soloist: soprano Jo Ellen Miller, her bright, golden voice flexible to Carter's demands and colorfully sympathetic to Bishop's moods. Unlike Syringa, Mirror is not conceptually complicated, but the music is worked out with such intricacy that the lack of perceptual access to the machinery becomes part of the expression. The first movement, "Anaphora," is an exercise in fixed registers—each note only ever appears in a given octave—which, as the composer James Primosch pointed out via e-mail, is exactly similar to the structure of Sound Fields. Which is a connection I probably never would have made, because the effects are so divergent. The process of Sound Fields is immediately apparent, even without a score; the process of "Anaphora," unless you know it's there, is imperceptible behind the dense, violent rustle of the texture. But you nevertheless sense the structure, the fact that all these notes are coming from somewhere, someplace just out of intellectual reach, and that affects the way you hear the song. Or, for another example, the fifth song, "View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress," Bishop's deftly sarcastic debate between Mother Nature and the Air Force Band. Carter evokes the band with a march that unfolds in a particularly complex way among multiple streams of time. But you don't really hear how the march unfolds in performance, you're just aware of the unfolding. (There's something happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear.)

It's a Bishop-like gambit—take "Sandpiper," portraying the bird as oblivious to the larger forces surrounding it, but also, by focusing our attention on the bird, leaving us just a little oblivious to the theme of the poem. Carter's bird is a famously difficult oboe solo (played superbly by Angela Limoncelli), the virtuosity of which similarly leaves us as listeners just a little bit oblivious to the way the voice and the instruments are subtly interacting. That's a bit of misdirection derived from the poem, but elsewhere, Carter brings his own contradictions. The absence of brass instruments in the "gathered brasses" of the Air Force band; the vocal line in "Insomnia," Bishop's haunting picture of night, "that world inverted," which stubbornly adheres to the metrical lines, and not, as is Carter's usual practice, to the sense of the language; the final song, "O Breath," filled with such gasping, breathless phrasing—Carter honors Bishop's poems of the unnoticed and the disconnected with deliberate gaps of realization. We all put on costumes, he seems to be saying; the problem is, they often don't fit very well.

More reports from the festival:

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


rbonotto said...

THAT'S NOT Helena Bonham Carter!!!!

Anonymous said...


Sopregan said...

Thanks for the compliments! It was fun, exciting, and musically satisfying to sing Mirror.
-Jo Ellen Miller