Last night I took the train to New York, where I attended the US premiere of Elliott Carter’s Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra. I almost didn’t go. It’s only a nine-minute piece, and I figured with the cost of the ticket, train fare from and parking in Trenton, and subway fare from Penn Station to the Miller Theater, it worked out to about $7.50 per minute. Plus I had been invited to a good concert in Philadelphia I could have attended for free.
But I made the right choice. The Concertino, though brief, was substantial and memorable. (And let’s face it, nine minutes is about as long as Carter writes anymore. If any new piece of his is going to be substantial, it’s going to be substantial in under ten.)
Carter wrote it as a surprise for the clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, who is also his personal assistant. According John Schaefer, the evening’s emcee, the first inkling Blackwell had that the piece was in the works was when he received a fax with a few measures of music scribbled on it and from Carter that said, “Is this possible?”
The piece was receiving its US premiere. It’s very much in Carter’s recent lyrical vein, a la the Flute Concerto. It appeared to be in three sections — fast – slow – fast. The slow section was especially lovely, with the soloist playing against soft, sustained chords provided by a trio of flutes — more like a sextet, really, since each of the flutists was required to double on alto, bass or piccolo. The rest of the ensemble consisted of strings, contrabassoon (!), piano, and the usual (for Carter) array of percussion, all of which seemed to be used largely as punctuation. Louis Karchin conducted the Orchestra of the League of Composers.
Mr. Carter was in attendance, looking somewhat thinner than he did when I last saw him, a few days after his hundredth birthday. He received a warm and extended ovation after the performance. Blackwell seemed exhilarated during the intermission, when I overheard him telling friends what a great piece he thought it was. It goes without saying we need a recording.
The rest of the program was also very strong, which brought the evening's cost per minute down a bit. Fred Sherry showed up to reprise Babbitt’s More Melismata, which I heard him play in Princeton two weeks ago. I especially liked Shulamit Ran’s Silent Voices, a short chamber symphony receiving its US premiere. The work was inspired by a Holocaust poem, which was read as a preface by baritone Peter Van Derick.
The second half consisted entirely of world premieres: Sound Merger by Arthur Kreiger; Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber) by David Rakowski; and Violent, Violent Sea by the young hottie Missy Mazzoli. They all had much grander, fatter sonorities than the Carter or the Ran, which made them attractive to listen to, though they didn’t seem as rich in ideas. The Kreiger included an electronic soundtrack. The Rakowski was a small concerto for cello soloist (Fred Sherry again) and string orchestra that the composer described as “apolitical music with apolitical title.”
Rakowski is something of a clown, and the classical music world can certainly use a few of those. He joked around a lot during his interview with Schaefer, and, after receiving his ovation when the piece was over, returned to his seat by jumping off the front of the stage. The voice and the delivery reminded me somewhat of Garry Shandling.
Mazzoli’s piece seemed to be built around glissandi in the marimba and vibraphone, and there were a lot of wavy figures in the string writing, as befits a piece about the sea. It was all very solid and professional, but as I remarked to another listener after the performance, I liked La Mer better the first time.
“Let’s not go there,” he said.