Saturday, December 10, 2011

Elliott Carter at the 92d Street Y

Elliott Carter with Carol Archer at the Dec. 8 concert. (Richard Termine for the New York Times.)

I met Elliott Carter for the first time thirty-five years ago after a concert of his music at a YMHA in Philadelphia. The musicians onstage included Fred Sherry and Rolfe Schulte.

My most recent meeting with Mr. Carter place Thursday evening after a concert of his music at a YMHA in New York. The musicians onstage included Fred Sherry and Rolfe Schulte.

I’m afraid I’ve fallen into a rut.

But I can’t say Mr. Carter has. Thursday evening’s concert at 92ndStreet Y, presented in celebration of the composer’s 103rd birthday on December 11, was far from a rehash of the his greatest hits. None of the 13 pieces on the bill existed back in 1976, and eight of them have appeared since 2008, when Mr. Carter turned 100. Two world premieres were listed in the printed program, and two more were announced from the stage: “Mnemosyne” for solo violin (named for the mother of the Muses) and “Rigmarole,” a witty little argument for the unlikely combination of cello and bass clarinet, were both completed just last month.

The oldest work on Thursday’s program was the beautiful harp solo “Bariolage,” from 1992, a favorite of mine, played with ravishing intensity by the young Bridget Kibbey.

OK, so he’s told. So what? Longevity is a statistical glitch, a spot on the actuarial bell curve. Mr. Carter’s age and productivity wouldn’t be so remarkable if his recent music wasn’t so good. Now, the sense of celebration and the warm acoustics of the Kaufmann Concert Hall are probably influencing my reaction, but some of the short works at played Thursday’s concert — none was longer than 12 minutes — felt like major statements. “Mnemosyne” sounded to me like a hyperdistillation of the Bach Chaconne, and all during the last piece — “A Sunbeam’s Architecture,” for tenor and chamber orchestra, on poems by E.E. Cummings — I kept thinking of Mahler.

After the performance, audience members and musicians crowded into the little art gallery beside the hall. Mr. Carter sat in a wheelchair, and while a young man in a suit and tie tried to arrange the players around him for a picture, I bent over him and an took his hand.

“I just wanted to say congratulations, and thank you so much,” I said.

“Well, thank you!” he replied with that big smile of his and empahasis on the "you."

And that was all.

Anthony Tomassini has a nice review in today’s New York Times. He calls Mnemosyne “sometimes agitated, sometimes mercurial,” which is odd, because I remember it as meditative. The difference in impression just shows you how we’re all just coming to terms with Mr. Carter’s music.

A shout out and thank you to Karen Yager, who sat next to me in the hall. I had never met her, but she was a knowledgeable and warm-hearted concert companion.

And, in the New York Is Not for Sissies Department: Due to construction, the E train, which I had planned to ride back to Penn Station, was not running after the performance. I didn’t know that until I tried to transfer from the 6 train at 51st Street, and no one I asked had any idea of an alternative route. After peering at the map (which had been scraped white just over the 51st Street interchange), I took the 6 back to 59th Street, transferred to the N, which took me to Times Square, where I caught the 3 back to Penn. My Jersey Transit train was scheduled to leave at 11:06. I got to the station at 11:01. My legs and back were stiff all day Friday from running up and down the steps in Gotham’s underground caverns.

Finally, to the woman I met on the E train platform: if you see this, email me.


john schott said...

Wish I could have been there - thank you for your earwitness. Schwartz's opening solo at the beginning of Symph of 3 Orch is definitely something I've listened to at least a thousand times! I copied the solo out, transposed it to C and tried to play it on guitar along with the record! I'd love to see a personnel listing for that Boulez/NY Phil recording. Paul Jacobs on piano. Stanley Drucker. I'll have to look into it. Take care!

Joe Barron said...

Just how do you transpose an atonal, highly chromatic passage to "C"? What does C even mean in this context?