Monday, November 18, 2013

All Carter, all the time

Yesterday I took the Jersey Transit to New York for the 2 p.m. all-Elliott Carter program at Carnegie Hall. Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra with guest artists Anthony McGill, clarinet; Mary MacKenzie, soprano; and Teresa Buchholz, mezzo. The hall was less than half full. Up in the dress circle, where I was sitting, everyone would have fit into one of the five searing sections. As with all Carter concerts, however, the crowd, such as it was, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. It was rewarded with a good concert that fell several steps short of great.

The bad news first: The program ended with the extraordinary Concerto for Orchestra from 1969, the piece I was most eager to hear, and the afternoon’s big disappointment. The reading was note perfect, but it lacked definition. The climactic moments didn’t stand out, and individual incidents did not emerge from the surrounding texture so much as they sat on top of it. In short, the music didn’t flow. The pieces were all there, but they did not come together. I missed the energy, the grandeur and the spaciousness I find in my several recordings of the work. A friend said afterwards that if he were feeling generous, he would describe the performance as subdued and lyrical. I’ll forego generosity and call it weak. The musicians found it rough going, I suspect, but the failure was ultimately Botstein’s. Back in 2008, Oliver Knussen proved just how exciting the piece can be when he led a pickup orchestra of young musicians in a well-shaped, thrilling performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival. (Anyone curious about why I love this music should watch the performance video on YouTube.)

On the plus side (and it was a big plus), Anthony McGill was dazzling in the 1996 Clarinet Concerto, and Botstein was wise enough not to stand in his way. His tempos were brisk, and if he wasn’t especially nuanced, he was exciting. From the very opening riffs, he swung. It was the most memorable performance of the day.

The concert opened with a solid reading of Pocahontas, Carter attractive and underplayed ballet from the late 1930s (though the Suite was composed 1960). This is early Carter, written in the rangy, relatively populist style he was devoted to at the time, and while it has been described as derivative of several other composers, it has a feeling of its own, marked by the composer’s way with counterpoint and a love of percussion that became increasingly important in his later work. It was a pleasure to hear.

In the second half, just before the Concerto for Orchestra, MacKenzie and Buchholz joined Botstein and the crew for two early songs. MacKenzie was touching in “A Warble for Lilac Time,” though from where I was sitting, it was hard to judge Buchholz’s handling of “Voyage,” since she was swamped several times by the orchestra.

The program also included an oddly energetic performance of the supposedly contemplative “Sound Fields” for strings.

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