99 Years of Elliott Carter's Masterpieces in 5 Days

By Nordell, Roderick | The Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

99 Years of Elliott Carter's Masterpieces in 5 Days


Nordell, Roderick, The Christian Science Monitor


Elliott Carter's music is a favorite of James Levine, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).

In the past, I have heard Mr. Levine respond to modest questioners asking about Mr. Carter's music or the other new music Levine might consider bringing to the BSO.

In response, Levine suggested that people should read the program notes, listen to the music, and, if it contains anything that interests you, listen to it again. If not, forget about it.

Listeners have been unable to forget Carter's music since the 1930s and his first big work, a ballet about Pocahontas, for the New York City Ballet. Since then, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes and has received all sorts of honors for music that leave people cold - or all fired up. That may be because his music often defies what is expected - sounding soulless to some and intensely human to others.

I'm not quite as old as Carter, who will turn 100 in December and has written as much music after age 80 as before, but I decided to check out Levine's theory of how to listen to music at the five-day festival of Carter's music he organized last summer at Tanglewood music center in Lenox, Mass.

Although Levine wasn't present, Carter attended, and he rose to his feet time and again to join and accept the applause. In an interview with former Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer, Carter said, "These pieces of music, if they spoke English instead of notes, they would be very grateful."

The melodies and countermelodies of the festival linger on, courtesy of the website: www.TanglewoodWebTV.org.

Quite frankly, I had forgotten about some of Carter's music. But the 10 concerts by students and professionals, plus analytical discussions, interested me. And I didn't have to wait long to listen again to the world premiere of "Sound Fields," which was short enough to be immediately repeated.

During the festival, the well-attended programs ranged from pieces for one player to four players and included various chamber and orchestral pieces.

The five-day festival concluded with the BSO performing in the Seiji Ozawa Hall, where most of the concerts took place. The piece, "Three Illusions for Orchestra" and the "Horn Concerto," with James Somerville playing French horn, were led by the kinetic BSO assistant conductor, Shi-Yeon Sung.

The festival also featured an internationally recognized composer/ conductor, Oliver Knussen, who took over for the performance of the "Boston Concerto," and Carter's largest orchestral work, "Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (I am the prize of flowing hope). …

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