Thursday, June 30, 2011

Still More Carter

Last week, I recounted my impressions of Elliott Carter's new Concertino for bass clarinet and chamber orchestra, which received its US premiere June 18 in New York City. It seems, however, I'm still not quite up to date. An even newer work by Mr. Carter, a double concerto for piano, percussion, and chamber orchestra, titled "Conversations" and written when the composer was a spry 101, has just been performed for the the first time in the UK, and if reviews from the Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Guardian, and the Arts Desk can be believed, its an exiting, major new piece.They're using words like witty, dazzling, pungent and beautifully engineered, zip, and zest to describe it.(But, seriously, who trusts the judgment of mere Brits when it comes to modern American music? We must wait until our neo-con populist American critics weigh in before we may express an informed opinion.)

So when is it coming to the States? The Boosey website gives no indication.

The title, Conversations, by the way, is in keeping with Mr. Carter's penchant, more pronounced in recent years, for describing his music in ways that evoke people talking — what Andrew Clark calls his "succinct musical metaphors for social interchange." In a sense, he is continuing a pattern established by Charles Ives, who called the first two movements of his Second String Quartet "Discussions" and "Arguments." That example appears to have stuck with Mr. Carter. But if he wants to continue, I'd like to suggest a few less cerebral, more intimate forms of discourse: How about "Flirtations," for clarinet and percussion?

"Seductions," for piano and strings?

"Phone Sex," for trombone and orchestra?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dreary Sunday

I had intended to hear the The Crossing in Chestnut Hill this afternoon, but I'm home nursing what feels like a sprained foot. I have no idea how this happened. I woke up fine yesterday, but by mid-afternoon it hurt like the the dickens, and it was even worse this morning. I don't remember hitting it or twisting it. I've been chomping acetominophen like M&Ms, and that's helped somewhat, but I think the best strategy would be to stay off it for a day.

So, I read some more the The Plague while listening to Eugen Jochum's recording of Bruckner's Eighth and Haitink's recording of Images and Jeux by Debussy. Fortunately, it's not very hot this afternoon, or I'd really be laid out. It's clouding up now, and there's a cool breeze coming in the bedroom window. It's beginning to feel like rain.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Totally worth the trip

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.

Friday, June 17, 2011

New book on modern music

One of the things I didn’t expect would happen when I started this blog — but which I certainly should have expected — is that I occasionally receive requests from publishers and recording companies to help their advertising by mentioning them on this site. Usually, I ignore them, but this week an announcement for a new book from the University of Rochester Press showed up in my inbox, and I thought I’d pass it along. It looks interesting enough that I’d like to pick up a copy for myself, if it ever shows up on sale anywhere for much less that the $49.95 list:

Three Questions for Sixty-five Composers
Bálint András Varga

Do today's composers draw inspiration from life experiences or from, say, the natural world?

What influences, past and present, have influenced recent composers?
How essential is it for a composer to develop a personal style, and when does this degenerate into self-repetition?

These are questions about which some of the most important composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century often have quite strong feelings — but have seldom been asked.

In this pathbreaking book, Bálint András Varga puts these three questions to such renowned composers as Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Alberto Ginastera, Sofia Gubaidulina, Hans Werner Henze, Helmut Lachenmann, György Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, Luigi Nono, Krzysztof Penderecki, Wolfgang Rihm, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Toru Takemitsu, and Iannis Xenakis. Varga's sensitive English renderings capture the subtleties of their sometimes confident, sometimes hesitant, answers.

All statements from English-speaking composers — such as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Morton Feldman, Lukas Foss, Steve Reich, Gunther Schuller, and Sir Michael Tippett — consist of the composers' own carefully chosen words.

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers is vital reading for anybody interested in the current state of music and the arts.

So there. See it at

Loose ends

As in, “I am at …”

If there’s a Montgomery newspaper on your doorstep this weekend, thank the guys at tech support. Our computers crashed at least five times yesterday while we in the newsroom were trying to lay out our Friday editions. We had a lot of downtime, but the tech people worked tirelessly all day and night to bring us back online. Unfortunately, they could keep us running for only about an hour at a time before the system would crash again. I didn’t get out of there until about twelve-thirty a.m., which is about five hours later than normal. I worked the equivalent of two full shifts. Woke up this morning — this afternoon, actually — with a headache, but I’m home today until the time comes to go out and cover a meeting of the Delaware Valley Amateur Astronomers.

Enough about my measly little life. I learned last week from WPRB DJ Teri Noel Towe that Friday, June 10, was the 100th birthday of the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick. Towe devoted most of his June 9 show to Kirkpatrick’s recordings, but, of course, being Teri Noel Towe, he wouldn’t play any repertory later than 1760. We heard a lot of Bach and Scarlatti, which was all very fine, but Kirkpatrick was also a great champion of 20th century music. He commissioned Elliott Carter’s wonderful Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961), and played on the premiere recording with the young Charles Rosen on piano and an unidentified orchestra conducted by Gustav Meier. The performance has never made it to CD (though two good alternatives are available), but I found the LP on eBay awhile ago, and I listened to it last weekend, in homage.

Monday, June 6, 2011

More Babbittry — with free beer

Drove to Princeton University yesterday, an 80-mile round trip, for the music department’s tribute to Milton Babbitt, who died in January. Babbitt taught at Princeton for God knows how many years, and Steven Mackey, the department’s current chairman, said that for a long time after his retirement in 1984, candidates for the composition program would write on their applications that the reason they wanted to come to Princeton is that they wanted to study with him.

First things first: the program was brief — only about an hour — but it was choice. The great Fred Sherry opened with More Melismata for solo cello. Soprano Judith Bettina followed with a charming performance of the Phonemona, accompanied by pianist James Goldsworthy. The title is an example of the kind of wordplay Babbitt enjoyed (I still have trouble pronouncing it) and it refers to the fact that the text of the song consists entirely of discrete English-language phonemes — in short, nonsense syllables. The piece has the feeling of atonal scat, and Bettina sold it with hand gestures that would make you think she was actually telling a story. (I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin singing French-sounding gibberish in Modern Times.) John Link, the Carter expert, told me afterward he would like to see Bettina perform the piece at the Café Carlysle, which did not strike me as a very far-fetched suggestion.

The only piece on the program not by Babbitt was the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 116 No. 4, a piece Babbitt is said to have loved, and which Robert Taub paired with the second of Babbitt’s early Three Compositions for Piano. (At least I think that’s what the Brahms was. I have lost my program. Correct me if I’m wrong.) The two pieces had similar moods and fit together well, and the pairing served to illustrate Babbitt’s frequent assertion, repeated to me later by one of his former students, that his music was in many ways very traditional.

Bettina and Galsworthy then returned for “Penelope’s Night Song,” one of the Three Theatrical Songs Babbitt wrote back in the 1940s for a projected Broadway musical based on the Odyssey. It was an unexpected treat, and indeed, it would not sound out of place at the Café Carlyle, or an early Streisand album. I called for an encore, but either they didn’t hear me, or they decided to ignore me.

Last, and most substantial, was the String Quartet No. 6 from 1993 performed beautifully by the Zukofsky String Quartet. It’s hard to describe exactly what goes on in this piece, but it has a rich, warm, consonant sound that I would not hesitate to call Mozartean, or maybe Handelian. Babbitt does have this quality. There is a warmth and humor in his music you don't find in a major influence like Schoenberg.

The recital was followed by a reception downstairs at Alexander Hall in a room that was much too small to accommodate the crowd comfortably — and there was a crowd. The Richardson Auditorium had been quite full. To commemorate Babbitt’s love of beer, there were free samples of some of his favorite brews, primarily Belgian brands like Chimay and Duvay, as I recall, and, to commemorate his love of food, there were hors d’oeuvres-sized won tons and ginger pancakes, in addition to the usual buffet of fruit, cheese, crackers and cookies. (Reports are he also loved baseball and horse racing. It’s surprising no one thought to get up a pepper game.)

Fans and students traveled long distances for the tribute. I chatted with the composers Stanley Jordan, who flew in from Los Angeles, and Jane O’Leary, who came over from Ireland. Both had studied with Babbitt at Princeton. Lance Morrisson, another composer, did not, but he described himself as a fan, and he flew out from Missouri just for the event.

I also met Betty Ann Babbitt, the composer’s daughter, and a woman introduced to me only as Paula, Betty Ann’s partner of 27 years. I never spoke to Milton — and everyone there called him Milton, not Babbitt — but Paula was able to give me a little insight into his work habits. She didn’t remember any sketch books, she said. It seemed Milton worked note by note, and if the way a piece was turning out didn’t satisfy, he would throw it out and start over. She also told me that after about 2006, he was unable to complete any new music. The kind of work he produced required more concentration than he was able to give it.

I hung out a long time, almost until the reception room had cleared out completely. Finding myself in Princeton on a sunny spring afternoon, I browsed through Labyrinth Books and the Princeton Record Exchange. In an astounding feat of self-discipline, I limited myself to one purchase at each place. By coincidence, each one had something to do with Charles Ives. The book was Stuart Feder’s biography of Ives, My Father’s Song. The CD was Stokowski’s classic recording of the Orchestral Set No. 2.

My only regret is that I didn’t get to speak with “Bob,” my favorite DJ at WPRB Princeton, who told me he was going to be there. He e-mailed me a picture to make it easier for me to spot him, but spotting one middle-aged, balding white guy at a Babbitt concert is a little like playing Where’s Waldo?