July 25, 2008

Magna Carter (8): You've got a head start

Elliott Carter, 1917.

The final concert of the all-Carter Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood was supposed to be a blow-out of sorts. It featured, rather than the TMC fellows, the Boston Symphony Orchestra—their first full concert in the FCM in memory, their first subscription concert in Ozawa Hall, their first all-Carter concert ever. But it felt a little anti-climactic. Maybe it was because everyone, myself included, was just tired by the end of the festival. Or maybe it was because, for all the sense of occasion, and for all their evident care and superb playing, it was but one concert in a long BSO summer. Based on experience, I'm guessing the TMC orchestra players partied all night after Wednesday's concert; the BSO probably went home after Thursday's—they still have programs all weekend.

Again, it wasn't because they phoned it in—the playing was excellent, although you could sense the adjustment from James Levine, who had previously conducted all the works on the concert with the group, and his replacements, very different from him, and very different from each other. BSO assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung led the Three Illusions with big, sweeping gestures, and intense dramatics. "Micomic√≥n" had broad shapes and some sharply-shaded ensemble phrasing—this mirage was palpably in focus. "Fons juventatis," Carter's fountain-of-youth evocation, was a bit aggressive in its swirling figures, a full-blast hose rather than a bubbling spring. But Sung's dramatic penchant produced a stunningly dark and driven account of "More's Utopia," a dystopian ending—an inexorable long line, full-bore voicing. Interviewed earlier in the day, Carter demurred when asked about his fondness for soft, sideways-glance endings, saying he just liked to end that way, that's all. But I still think there's a statement of democratic philosophy in those endings. Carter's work is never explicitly political—the closest he's ever come is the "View from the Capitol" in A Mirror on Which to Dwell, a gentle stiletto into post-Vietnam, Cold War America—but "More's Utopia," referencing More's draconian prescription for social calm, could easily be read as a warning response to post-9/11 domestic policies. Thus I find it not insignificant that, uncharacteristically, the piece ends with a bang.

BSO principal James Somerville reprised the Horn Concerto he premiered last season, with Sung again conducting. It's a piece of quiet virtuosity—Carter spends more time than most composers would exploring the instrument's low range, and much of the middle sections, both slow and fast, are an exercise in sparse lontano orchestration, the interplay between horn and orchestra seeming to come from very far away. In that same earlier interview, Carter rather provocatively claimed that the many instances of instrumental works in his catalog supposedly inspired by poetry is actually backwards causality, insisting, perhaps in jest, that he would pick poems afterward in order to have something to talk about when people asked him about the music. If Carter were looking to reverse-engineer a literary spark for the Horn Concerto, I think Apollinaire's "Cors de chasse" would be a good candidate:
Les souvenirs sont cors de chasse
Dont meurt le bruit parmi le vent

Memories are hunting horns
Whose sound dies upon the wind
The concerto does end big, before a final note from the solo horn, but then again, when he is claiming a literary reference, Carter usually insists that he doesn't follow the poem all the way through.

Oliver Knussen then took the podium for the 2002 Boston Concerto. The contrast with Sung was one of increased tonal focus and more careful detail: the rebound from Knussen's beat is looser than Sung's, which tended to result in more precise off-beat puncutations, and he seems to draw the music in to himself, where Sung encourages it to promiscuously bloom around her. Knussen's style was perfect for the Boston Concerto, in which lightness and delicacy predominate—even thicker-textured sections, as in those featuring the brass and the strings, return to a twittering refrain of (literarily-inspired, if you believe him) rushing raindrops.

Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei, Carter's big 1990s anthology, started off in blazing fashion with a "Partita" that was absolutely, bracingly stunning, precision horsepower married to a taut, tough sonic clarity. It was the best playing of the night—I can't imagine any group doing the piece more justice. But the middle "Adagio tenebroso" was a bit slack. At first I thought maybe the group had left it all on the athletic field of "Partita," but I actually think it was Knussen's conducting style, precisely cued and impeccably balanced, but missing the Mahlerian sweep—Sung's conducting, with its forward momentum and high emotional temperature, would have actually been a boon here. And then Carter himself undercuts the standard symphonic drama with the finale, an "Allegro scorrevole" of elusive, incorporeal motion, a tossed-off scherzo in place of a generic peroration. It's a fantastic, and fantastical, ending, but it needs monumental weight from the Adagio to work in context. Nevertheless, Tanglewood itself (under gorgeous, rain-free skies for once) honored the occasion with its own counterpoint: an insect, infiltrating Ozawa Hall and flitting about the stage, a touch of such perfection that Carter should specify it in the score.

Back in 1994, when the Chicago Symphony premiered "Partita," when the lights in the hall failed—twice—during the performance, when we all thought the piece would be one of the last big statements from Carter's pen (a joke pleasantly on us), Carter himself, at a little symposium at DePaul University, offered the best analysis of his music I ever heard. He said that all the complexity—the subdivisions, the metric modulation, the scurrying intervals—was because of his French connection, a French tendency to musically favor upbeats over downbeats. All the technical innovation was in service of an idea that an entire piece could be an upbeat, that the sort of "arrival" we expect in liberal amounts in Classic and Romantic music could be effectively and compellingly suspended such that it only arrived at the end of a piece, if at all. I think this is the one thing that all the performers in the festival, students and professionals, all "got" to an extent I'd never heard before, that a combination of textural transparency—not lightness, but keeping all the myriad layers of the music alive and audible—and articulation embedded within forward motion—those offbeats and odd subdivisions either coming off of the previous beat or headed towards the next, or both—is what makes Carter's language sing, what keeps that grand upbeat so wonderfully suspended, so edge-of-your-seat exciting.

It's also tempting to put that upbeat idea to service in explaining not only Carter's extraordinary longevity, but his extraordinary continued creativity, inventive, vibrant, challenging, and, amazingly, accelerating. I suppose if you decide never to arrive, you just keep going. After a week of his music, after ten straight concerts of the stuff, I'm beginning to think that Carter's greatest rhythmic innovation might just be his own career.

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
7: Either/Or

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