On November 5, 2012, America lost one of its most important composers, Elliott Carter. He was born December 11, 1908, and he made a conscious decision to become a composer after hearing Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when he was fifteen. He attended Harvard as an English major but also studied music there with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. The most remarkable aspect of Elliott Carter was the fact that many of his compositions were written between the age of 90 and 103. In some ways, his music has been like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was in 1913, in that its popularity has never been easy because of its remarkable complexity. Over the years, Carter’s music became ever more complicated, and sophisticated as well, following his stated believe that, “I like music to be beautiful, ordered, and expressive of the more important aspects of life.”
Conrad Kehn and The Playground presented a concert on Thursday, February 21, at the Lamont School of Music’s Hamilton Hall, and it was entitled Elliott Carter in Memoriam. The pianist in the Playground Ensemble is Joshua Sawicki, and he opened the program with Carter’s Retrouvailles (written in 2000), for solo piano. This piece was written for the seventy-fifth birthday of Pierre Boulez, and its title, loosely translated means back together again, and is quite appropriate considering that Carter wrote pieces for Boulez on his sixtieth and his seventieth birthday. This is also, I think, indicative of Elliott Carter sense of humor. Sawicki is an excellent pianist, and seemed completely at home in this work. This particular piece reflects Carter’s atonal complexity and is a very good example of what he called “metric modulation, wherein he goes from one metronomic speed to another by lengthening or shortening the value of the basic unit.” An example might be when a quarter-note unit in one passage becomes a half-note unit in another. This is a wonderfully attractive piece and it was performed in a very expressive way, and I must say, that Sawicki made this piece very special. I, for one, would like to hear him do Carter’s enormous Sonata for Piano.
The next work on the program was Three Poems of Robert Frost, which was written in 1942, and, unlike Retrouvailles, these three poems, Dust of Snow, The Rose Family, and The Line-Gang, and shows much influence of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. These are three beautiful songs which were sung by Megan Buness, with Joshua Sawicki collaborating on the piano. Again, I was struck by the fact that both of these musicians were very sensitive in their performance. Even though these three songs are less “contemporary” in sound, I have heard them sung before by musicians who thought twentieth century music could not possibly be expressive. It is those musicians who could have benefited greatly from listening to Buness and Sawicki.
One of the fascinating aspects of this concert was the video excerpts that were shown between each composition of Carter’s. They were taken from interviews, and seemed to be edited so that Carter’s comments reflected the next piece on the program.
Sarah Johnson, who is a fine violinist, performed Carter’s Rhapsodic Musings, which was written in 2000. This is another wonderfully complex piece from a set of four pieces, entitled Four Lands. Each of the four pieces is dedicated to a colleague of Carter’s, and Rhapsodic Musings was written for the birthday of Robert Mann. Ms. Johnson’s playing is always very secure, and always very exciting to hear. And as I was listening to all of these performers on the concert, I began to wonder if Conrad Kehn, who founded the playground, had an extra-particular aspect of musicianship in mind when he chose the members of this ensemble. All of the members of the group seem to have a very wide range of ability plus a wide ranging musical curiosity, and it always makes these concerts a pleasure to hear.
During the concert, I could not help but wonder at Elliott Carter’s possession of such a long and productive life. As he said in one of the videos, his music has changed over the years because the world we live in has changed so much over the years. Our lives are now so much more complex, and we have so much more to think about. And then he added, “Perhaps that means people will like my music even more. [!]” So, you see, he was also known for his sense of humor, and it is well-known that he was delighted at the increasing regard in which his music was being held by musicians throughout the world. When reminded of that, he expressed his pleasure, and said, “After all, you don’t live to be 103 that often.”
This recital was outstanding because there were so many small pieces of Carter’s included on the program; all told there were nine. Often there are three or four pieces separated by an intermission, but the selection of the pieces on Thursday’s program presented a wide range of Carter’s output. There were three pieces from his set of Eight Pieces for Four Timpani performed by Jason Rodon. Of course, one is immediately reminded of John Cage since he was the “inventor” of the percussion ensemble. However, I certainly don’t recall Cage requiring a timpanist to adjust the tune by as much as a fourth while the sound is being generated. That was the pedal on the timpani that allowed Rodon to accomplish this, and it certainly proved that timpani could be a melodic instrument.
After the intermission, The Playground performed Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord, which was written in 1952. The performers were Sonya Yeager–Meeks, flute; Maureen Farkash, oboe; Richard vonFoerster, cello; and Kristen Jürgens, harpsichord. These are all remarkable performers. This piece was written for a commission by Sylvia Marlowe, and was written for a very large Pleyel harpsichord that Marlowe owned. Certainly, they had a large harpsichord on stage Thursday evening. I was quite entranced by Kristen Jürgens performance, because she seemed to get so much tone out of a harpsichord which usually has very limited tone (Do any of you remember her performance of the Barber Concerto a year ago?) This was a beautiful performance of this three movement sonata, and its unusual instrumentation provides a marvelous contrast in sound. I have not heard this piece before, and I’m not sure if a recording of it exists. But the performance of this piece by these for outstanding musicians makes it a certainty that I will try to find one.
In some ways, the most interesting work on the entire program was Carter’s Canon for Three: Igor Stravinsky in Memoriam. It was written in 1971 for the British music journal, Tempo, and many composers contributed to the tribute including Boulez, Copland, Sessions, Milhaud, Berio, and many others. Its instrumentation was never specified by Carter but he did require that they all play in the same range. Conrad Kehn took advantage of this unspecificity, and “realized” the three instruments electronically. It was done very well, and I am absolutely sure that Elliott Carter would have approved of this method of performing his piece. In addition, I would like to point out that this piece has been recorded several times with different combinations of instruments. I found it extremely pleasing to hear, and I must say that it reminded me of some of the work that Lejaren Hiller did at the University of Illinois. I think it points to the ingenuity and creativity of Conrad Kehn to have performed the piece in this way.
There followed the String Trio performed by Sarah Johnson, violin; Donald Schumacher, viola; and Richard vonFoerster, cello. This composition was completed in 2011, and as Carter often did, it was dedicated to three of his friends who often performed his work. The melodic interest in this trio is given to the viola, and Donald Schumacher played it beautifully. As someone said, this work shares a common attribute of Carter’s recent music, and that is the “ambiguous line between dispute and shared expression” in the music.
The concert closed with Carter’s Elegy for string quartet. Anne Morris, violin, joined Sarah Johnson, Donald Schumacher, and Richard vonFoerster for this final performance. This is another piece that was written in the transitional period (early to mid-1940s) before Carter’s compositional style abandoned the influences of Barber and Copland. It is a wonderful piece, and, as the program notes stated, it made a fitting end to this particular concert.
As I stated above, Conrad Kehn has a knack for choosing musicians for The Playground. Their outstanding performance and their enthusiasm for Elliott Carter made this a very enjoyable evening. I am always amazed that Elliott Carter, even in his 103rd year, never lost any of the rhythmic suppleness and his harmonic language. In spite of his atonality, and sometimes pointillism, his music never lost its lyrical quality and its incredible color. These musicians never ignored the sonority and balance that are so inherent in Elliott Carter’s work. It was a wonderful performance.