Monday, February 18, 2013
Elliott Carter Symposium
A symposium about Elliott Carter was held last Thursday — Valentine's Day — in New York City. I was off that day, and, fearing I'd been spending too much time in my apartment, I drove to Trenton and caught a train to Manhattan. The gathering was held just across Fifth Avenue from the Empire State Building, just two city blocks from Penn Station, in a little space called the Segal Theater. (The building, a former department store, now belongs to the City University of New York.) About twenty Carter fans listened to a panel of experts swap anecdotes and discuss Carterian performance practice. I might have been the only person there who was not a musician, but I must say I felt at home. It's heartening to hang out, if only for a little while, with folks who share one of your greatest enthusiasms. The panel was moderated by John Link and consisted of the pianists Ursula Oppens and Steve Beck, violinist Rolf Schulte, soprano Lucy Shelton, cellist Carrie Bean, and composer Jason Eckart. Not surprisingly, the oldest members — Oppens, Shelton and especially Schulte — has the most to say, since they had worked with Carter for many years. (I first heard Schulte and Oppens play Carter's Duo in 1976.) It was all interesting, of course, although, witnessing the affection the performers obviously felt for the composer, my principal impression was of a gentlemanly soul with very strong opinions. Schulte summed up Carter's personality in three points: (1) He was respectful and never “stepped on your toes." (2) He had very clear idea of how he wanted his music to sound, but (3) once he gave you his advice, he backed off and let you go your own way. Schulte contrasted Carter's manner with the week he spent in Budapest playing for Kurtag, which, he said, was the worst week of his life. There have been many different interpreters and many different interpretations of Carter's music, and the composer was happy with them all, Oppens said, and that knowledge has informed her approach to older music: it’s freed her from the tyranny of her teachers. I could go on, but I've already passed five hundred words, and I’ll add only a few more observations. I was tickled that Oppens remembered me by my email address. When John introduced us, the penny suddenly dropped and she explained, "You're Triple Duo!" It is apparently an easy address to remember. John began the discussion by reading a quotation from the flutist Robert Aitken, who said that for all the attention given to Carter's technique of metrical metrical modulation, the subject never took up a moment of rehersal time. Carter was always more concerned with the expressiveness and the character of his music than with its mechanics. Schulte told me afterward that Joan Peyser, author of tell-all books on Bernstein and Boulez, once asked him for the dirt on Elliott Carter. He defiantly — and truthfully — told her there wasn't any. I finally, finally managed to clear up the misconception that the 15-year-old Carter attended the American premiere of the Rite of Spring in 1924. He did not. He attended the New York premiere. When the subject came up, I raised my hand and pointed out the American premiere took place in 1922, under Stokowski, in Philadelphia. One has to stand up for one’s home town.