Friday, May 31, 2013

My review of the latest Carter release

Herewith the review I just posted at Amazon (I just love saying "herewith"):

Bridge Records continues its extraordinary survey of the music of Elliott Carter with a selection that covers entire career, from 1938 (when he was just turning 30) to his 101st birthday. The centerpiece of the program is the Piano Concerto of 1964-65, a complex masterpiece from Carter’s heroic period.  The concerto has been recorded four times previously, and one might be tempted to react to yet another one with a shrug. But one would be wrong. Soloist Charles Rosen and former Juilliard Quartet violinist Joel Smirnoff, here conducting the Basel Sinfonietta, deliver a surprisingly intimate, even romantic account that reveals another side to a piece that David Schiff  described as an exploration of “the tragic possibilities of alienation on a visionary scale.” Bridge producer David Starobin said to me not long ago, “This is not a modern music performance,” which I think sums it up. It’s exquisite.

For the rest, Steve Beck completes the recorded catalog of Carter’s piano music with five of the composer’s late miniatures. (I especially liked his account of the rapid-fire Catenaires, which strikes me as fleeter and less punchy than Ursula Oppens’.) Tony Arnold sings two early songs in Carter’s own masterful orchestrations from 1979, and, in a rare treat, Rosalind Rees, soprano, and David Starobin, guitar, start off the proceedings with “Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred,” a faux-Elizabethan setting of Shakespeare that Carter wrote in 1938 for Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air.

The final track is the premiere recording of Nine by Five, subtitled Wind Quintet No. 2, written in 2009. It takes its title from the fact that four of the five players (the horn is the exception), double on higher and lower instruments at various points in the work. Despite its late vintage, it feels like a return to the Carter of the 1970s, with its extremes of range and dynamics, and it is one of the most attractive, colorful scores from the composer’s final years. The reading by the Slovenian group Slowind might not be as exciting or extroverted as the premiere performance I heard in New York in 2010 (or maybe I was just keyed up that night), but it’s well-balanced and taut, and it will do nicely. The piece is an instant favorite.    
P.S. The reaction to the announcement of this release was lukewarm over at Good Musicc Guide, given that most of the pieces may be thought of as minor, and there's a lot more of Carter's late work that still needs to be recorded, but I have to say this is a fine recording in terms of the performances and the sound quality. The early songs may not be up to Carter's later standards, though Schiff says "Voyage" is Carter's first real masterpiece, and I would rather have them than not, if only for the sake of completeness. And two of the piano Tributes are first recodings, though you'd never know it from the liner notes. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sonnet: May 29, 1913

In times like these, without a certain measure
(Grow up: a clock slows down as mass increases),
One's self divides, as in a fractured mirror.
Repetition (only) signifies.
Silence, breath, deceptive bits of leisure,
Then blocks of seconds pound the earth to pieces.
Rivers break — like cannon coming near —
As Russia springs to life. The virgin dies.
Volcanoes! Nah — who needs another Strauss?
"It expresses nothing but itself."
Numbers from the pit are all you hear while
Smoking in the wings. They riot in the house,
Knowing no way back across the gulf.
You expected nothing less. Admit it. Smile.

— J.B., 2000

Sunday, May 26, 2013

What they did with the body

Alex Ross, at his own blog, posts this photo of Elliott Carter's grave:

Mr. Carter is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Ross says. I assume, given his history, that he visited the site to reassure himself that Mr. Carter is still dead.

I shall have to go there  myself someday, but until then, there is the music.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What is a premiere?

Something called the Amphion Foundation has set up a website devoted to Elliott Carter.  It's standard stuff, though easily navigated, with a canned biography, a list of works and tributes from friends (many of which were printed in the attractively produced booklet handed out at Wednesday's memorial concert with the even more attractively produced program). Most helpful is the schedule of upcoming performances. It's encouraging to see that Mr. Carter's music is surviving him.

I am confused, however, by the notices for Epigrams. The June 22 performance in the UK is labeled the "world premiere," and the August 9 performance at Tanglewood is given as the "US premiere." I could have sworn I heard the piece two nights ago in New York City, which, as I recall, is in both the US and the world. That performance doesn't seem to have counted (and it is not listed as the premiere in the attractively produced program). I'm not up on modern music etiquette, and the only reason I can think of is that attendance at Wednesday's concert was, officially, by invitation only, and the performance was therefore a private occasion. Nevertheless, the public was admitted on a standby basis, and everyone who wanted a seat got one.  I count myself in that category. I was there as the guest of someone whose name appeared on the in-crowd list (thanks, BH), but if I hadn't been, I would have waited outside in the heat and humidity with the rest of the nonentities.

So when is a premiere not a premiere?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Carter Memorial

I attended my first all−Elliott Carter program in April 1976, when Speculum Musicae performed at the YMHA on South Broad Street in Philadelphia. I was 18 years old. Fred Sherry played the Cello Sonata. Rolf Schulte played the Duo. Both were accompanied by Ursula Oppens on piano.

Last night, I watched Schulte, Sherry, and Oppens present the world premiere of Epigrams, the last piece Elliott Carter wrote. Little has changed in 37 years (and Rolf’s hair hasn’t changed at all). The biggest difference between last night and 1976 is that last night, Mr. Carter was not present.

The premiere was the centerpiece of a memorial concert at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre in Manhattan. Just about everyone who matters in Carter’s world was there. Friends greeted one another with kisses. The men wore ties. Carter’s son, David, delivered a brief speech from his wheelchair. Several of Carter’s musical friends and associates also spoke. I felt as though I had walked into the kind of wake I used to attend as a Catholic schoolboy. The only things missing were the smell of eucalyptus and the open casket.

My sense sense loss was strongest, however, during a brief film that included old interviews with the composer. It pained me to watch him speak from the grave. I was also reminded of how much I miss Charles Rosen, who appeared in several clips.

(Rosen spoke of the way in which Carter synthesized the legacies of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The legacy of Ives went unacknowledged.)

Besides Epigrams, the program included Mad Regales, for six voices a cappella, and What Are Years? — the song cycle on poems of Marianne More. Lucy Shelton was the vocalist. David Fulmer conducted. The performances were all excellent, if brief. (In a program lasting close to two hours, there was perhaps 40 minutes worth of music.) Mad Regales was especially memorable, thanks largely to the presence of the bass baritone Evan Hughes. Oppens introduced Epigrams as  “twelve examples of how not to write a trio” and said Carter had fun writing it.

From my perspective, it’s a small-scale tour de force, an exploration of the sonorities possible in the unwieldy combination of violin, cello, and piano. Carter enjoyed a challenge, and the challenge in this case was balance. Despite the brevity of the movements, it’s a substantial piece, and it seemed fitting that the last note of the last composition Carter would ever write was a single violin pizzicato preceded by several seconds of silence. Under the circumstances, it felt like a gesture of farewell.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wonderful Weekend

Visited my old friend (and sometime commenter) Cal in DC over the weekend. It turned out, unexpectedly to be something of a musical time. Saturday afternoon, the two of us had lunch near Capitol Hill with a young woman I used to work with at Montgomery Newspapers. Afterward, when she and her husband went home, Cal and I made our way over to the National Gallery of Art. We weren’t sure what we wanted to look at until I spotted a poster for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music over in the East Wing. I cooed like a chimpanzee and insisted we go. Cal, ever the gracious host, agreed.

The exhibition was a joy, with set designs, costumes, and filmed excerpts of the Ballet Russe’s major productions, including Petroushka, Prélude á l’après-midi d’une faune, Parade, and The Prodigal Son. Naturally, I spent more time in the Rite of Spring exhibit than in any other. I stood gaping, inches away from the costumes worn at the premiere. They seemed too well-preserved and colorful to be original, but assume they were, since nothing on the cards mentioned reproductions. The room also contained Picasso’s and Cocteau’s famous drawings of Stravinsky.

One complaint: The Faune and Rite rooms were close together, and looking at the video for one, I could hear the music from the other. The effect was more Charles Ives than Debussy.

Sunday, Cal and I drove around the Beltway to Virginia, where we met another old friend of mine for a free recital by the young violinist Jehshua Karunakaran. The program was mostly lightweight fiddling, despite Part’s Fratres and fourth-fifths of Bach’s Second Partita, but it was an enjoyable way to spend and afternoon, and what Mr. Karunakaran lacked in precision, he made up for in gusto. (He even managed a quick stomp during Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.”)

I lived in DC for ten years, and this weekend only reminded me how much I miss it.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

“None is musical; no, not one"

Heard a great recording of the Emperor Concerto on the car radio this afternoon during my commute to work up Route 76. Soloist was Claudio Arrau. Colin Davis conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle. My commute is long enough (unfortunately) that I was able (fortunately) to hear the whole thing.

I was pretty energized when I walked into the office, but when I said,  "I'm in a good mood because I just heard a great performance of the Emperor Concerto," no one in the office — not one — had any idea what I was talking about.

"You know — Beethoven?"


I let the anecdote stand without comment.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I live for pedantry

Ivan Hewett over at The Telegraph has posted an introduction to the music of Charles Ives. The listening points will be helpful to the novice, and the selections are well-chosen, but I find at least three errors in the first paragraph:

“Stand up and use your ears like a man!” That was Charles Ives’s furious response to some hecklers at a performance of music by another great American radical, Henry Cowell. Ives was very hot on manliness — there’s a well-known photo of him in the garb of an American footballer, taken in his Harvard days. One detects an undercurrent of anxiety that his chosen profession was a touch “sissy”, which was reasonable enough given that classical music in the US was almost entirely run by blue-rinsed ladies of a certain age.

In the first place, Ives went to Yale, not Harvard. In the second, he did not play sports in college. The photograph of him as captain of his football team was taken when he was still in high school, a time in life when a lot of guys without psychosexual hangups try out for athletics.  Third, the music being performed during his famous outburst was by Carl Ruggles, not Henry Cowell. (It was Men and Mountains.) And, for a possible fourth, the outburst probably never happened. According to Jan Swafford's biography, Ives wrote later it was something he wished he had said. We all have moments like that.

I know. I need to get a life, but Hewett is a well-known  critic who works for a big-time paper. I expect more from a pro, even if he is English. I'd tell him about it, but you have to sign up to post comments, and I've already left my email address at too many sites around the Web.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Zappa Plays Zappa

Dweezil Zappa has just announced a national tour that will recreate his father's Roxy and Elsewhere album. This seems to be a trend. The Grandmothers of Invention brought the same program to Sellersville Theater last year, Dweezil's tour, unlike that of the Grandmothers, will not include any of the original performers. Herewith a portion of the press release:

Zappa Plays Zappa, the Grammy-winning group that has made and recreated history performing the music of Frank Zappa, is set to embark on an epic musical trek across the US, Canada and Europe celebrating the classic Frank Zappa album, Roxy & Elsewhere. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of that pivotal Zappa fan favorite, the entirety of its repertoire -- including the provocative rhythms of "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?" "Echidna's Arf (Of You)" and Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)" will be performed Live!

"The Roxy & Elsewhere album has always been one of my favorites and I'm excited to play it top to bottom. It has a great balance of musical styles and showcases some of the funkiest grooves and most devilishly frenetic instrumental passages my father ever composed."

As a bonus to the tour, a 90 minute personalized guitar instruction session from Dweezil's annual musical bootcamp, Dweezilla, will be offered as a separate ticket in the afternoon before sound check in every city. Players of all skill levels are welcome to attend.
Certain to be among the tour's highlights are performances at iconic venues that resonate with Zappa history. Honoring the long-standing tradition in New York City Dweezil will stand in the same place Frank Zappa often stood on Halloween at the Beacon.

Auspiciously paying homage to Roxy & Elsewhere, Dweezil and his bandmates will perform at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood, exactly 40 years to the day of Frank Zappa's Performances at the Roxy in December, 1973.

Providence, RI Lupo's
9/4/13 Pittsburgh, PA Carnegie Music Hall
9/5/13 Columbus, OH LC Pavilion
9/6/13 Iowa City, IA Englert Theater
9/7/13 Urbana, IL Krannert PAC/ Ellnora Guitar Festival
9/8/13 Milwaukee, WI Pabst Theater
10/8/13 Lincoln, NE Rococo Theatre
10/9/13 Eau Claire, WI State Theatre
10/10/13 Chicago, IL Copernicus Center
10/11/13 Indianapolis, IN The Vogue
10/12/13 Grand Rapids, MI The Intersection
10/13/13 Kent, OH Kent Stage
10/16/13 Philadelphia, PA Keswick Theatre
10/17/13 Buffalo, NY Kleinhans Music Hall
10/18/13 Royal Oak, MI Royal Oak Music Theatre
10/19/13 Toronto, ON Queen Elizabeth Theatre
10/20/13 Ottawa, ON Algonquin Commons Theatre
10/22/13 Laval, QC Salle Andre' Matie
10/23/13 Sherbrooke, QC Theatre Granda
10/24/13 Saint Hyacinthe, QC Centre de Arts Juliette-Lassonde
10/25/13 Saint Jean sur Richelieu, QC Theatre des Deux Rives
10/26/13 L'Assomption, QC Theatre Hector Charland
10/27/13 Quebec City, QC Imperial Theatre
10/28/13 Rimouski, QC Salle Desjardins-Telus
10/31/13 New York, NY Beacon Theater
11/1/13 Portland, ME State Theater
11/2/13 Boston, MA House Of Blues
11/3/13 Ridgefield, CT Ridgefield Playhouse
12/8/13 Los Angeles, CA The Roxy
12/9/13 Los Angeles, CA The Roxy
12/10/13 Los Angeles, CA The Roxy

Monday, May 6, 2013

My own private concert

The Independence Sinfonia presented a program of Mozart and Beethoven Sunday afternoon. I was unable to attend, since I worked weekends, but I was invited to the final rehearsal at a shoebox of a church in Wyndmoor Pa. It was a thrill to hear Beethoven's Fifth in such a small space, even when the orchestra consists of only about 40 musicians. The reading was taut, and the musicians played straight through: the only distraction was the occasional shout of encouragement from the podium.

The conductor, Jerome Rosen, who played violin with the Cleveland Orchestra years ago, told me that the one lesson he learned from George Szell is that musicians do not play better when they're terrified.

"Anything positive you can say, you have to say," he said.

Rosen spent all of his time tweaking details of articulation and phrasing, something he said he can do only when the musicians have mastered the score. As an editor, I know what he means: there is a big difference between a writer who needs help with mechanics, and one who simply isn't getting it.

"It's so satisfying to be able to nitpick," he told the group.

 Besides the Beethoven Fifth, the program included Mozart's overture to The Magic Flute and his Sinfonia Concertante, with Rosen on violin and Xiao-Fu Zhou on viola. Zhou made it look easy. He was impassive through most of the run through, while Rosen, who told me he hasn't played violin in years, would grimace every time he made a mistake.

Several the musicians sat out the Mozart, but they were all up front for the Beethoven, leaving me alone in the pews. It was like attending my own, private concert.