Saturday, December 11, 2010
Happy birthday, Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter as he would appear on South Park.
Elliott Carter turned 102 today, and I just can't let the occasion pass. He's my favorite living composer, as anyone who has ever met me is aware, and he stands high among my favorite dead ones as well.
I'm guessing Mr. Carter celebrated his birthday the way he celebrates every new day of his life — by getting out of bed and writing music. He is still sharp, still vital, and while it is likely his greatest work is behind him, each new piece is still a welcome adventure. Every so often, one of them, such as the excellent Nine by Five for wind quintet, premiered just last February, will recapture the power of the music from Carter's peak years, the 1960s and '70s. One never knows, does one?
If I live to his age, I'll be happy if I can feed myself.
I celebrated the way I always do — with an in-home concert. Given the richness of Carter's output, selecting the program is always a challenge. I settled on a few favorites: the Oboe Concerto and the Second String Quartet, in performances recorded for me from BBC broadcasts by e-pal and fellow Carterphile Colin Green, and for the finale, the great Concerto for Orchestra (1969) in the rip-snorting reading by Pierre Boulez and the NY Philharmonic. (The recording is available only through the orchestra, in a six-CD box set of American music. The full set cost $90 and was worth every penny for those 21 minutes alone.)
For the past couple of months, I've been listening to Bach almost exclusively, and so I returned to Carter's music "with quite fresh ears for an old man," as Stravinsky wrote in a similar context. It was an invigorating experience. And the night is still young. I might return to the stereo before it's over.
Finally, I'd like to send Carter-Day greetings to the other bloggers and chatroom lurkers around the net who have wished the composer many happy returns of the day (and how many more of those can there be?): Doundou Tchil, Mark Berry, Steve Hicken, Bruce Hodges, Karl Henning, and Paul Yin, to name a few. You are all my friends in spirit.
Addendum: Here is a photo of Mr. Carter with Pierre Boulez (I'll leave it to you to guess which is which) taken Dec. 6 at an 85th-birthday concert for Boulez in NYC. Thanks to Bruce Hodges. When this was taken, Mr. Carter was five days shy of his 102d birthday.