Consider, for example, his extended description of the opening of Elliott Carter’s Symphony of Three Orchestras:
High on the violins, as one thin, shining, open-textured chord is laid upon another, in sifting aeolian strains, it seems as if the cradle of wires overhead may be sounding: “Sibylline voices flicker, wavering stream, As though a god were issue of the strings.” [The quotation is from The Bridge, by Hart Crane.] The violins span the stage from side to side. Between them, three piccolos then break in with keen, bright bird cries, given added sharpness by high, sharp hammer beats from piano and xylophone; clarinets and oboes swell the shrill chorus to a brief tumult … And then a single trumpet wings out in a long solo flight. Wheeling through the faint, ethereal violin chords, it mounts, hovers, circles down, soars again, swiftly plummets, stays for a moment poised low, traces a final, sudden ascent and fall before coming to rest … A series of emphatic descending figures from the orchestra in turn ends the introduction …, and the symphonic argument begins in earnest with a huge span of sixths softly sustained by the strings of one orchestra and giocoso chattering of two bassoons from another.
That is as evocative and accurate a description of that music – or any music – as you will ever encounter. Reading it, only a few weeks after I attended the premiere of the symphony in New York, was like hearing the piece again, and for the three years before the recording was finally released, it was as close as I could get to a second hearing.
For his entire tenure at the New Yorker, Porter was the only friend Carter had in the New York press (the Times critics famously hated him), and when he finally left the magazine, he wrote that he did so with a sense of optimism, since the Times had finally hired a critic – Edward Rothstein – who kept an open mind. Rothstein, unfortunately, didn't stay long at the music desk, and Porter’s ultimate successor at The New Yorker carried on the Times’ lamentable tradition. The more the years went by, the more I missed him, and not just for his championship of modernism.
(He wasn't a blind enthusiast, either. He could be scathing about Charles Wuorinen, and Charles Ives remained a blind spot. His essay on Ives, written for the composer’s centenary in 1974, was lukewarm and relied rather too heavily on Frank Rossiter’s critical biography. It’s odd: despite the biographical and philosophical connection between the two composers, few critics seem to like them both.)
I was lucky enough to meet Porter a couple brief times. The first was in 1988 in College Park, where he moderated a panel at the University of Maryland’s Handel Festival. (At that time, I was living just down the road in Hyattsville.) He signed my copy of Music of Three Seasons, the source of excerpt above. My wife at the time, who had studied Russian, complimented him on his opera translations, and I thanked him for his writings about Carter. When I said I was one of the few musical laymen who admired Carter’s music, he replied, “I am very glad to hear it.”
To quote Auden on Yeats:
O, all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Doesn't matter what the temperature in London was, or whether the sun was shining.