Tuesday, January 15, 2008

December, 1908

Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter were born one day apart, on December 10 and 11, 1908. Messiaen lived a normally long life, dying at 84 in 1992. Carter, through a rare miracle, lives and composes still, in his hundredth year.

Neither composer is especially associated with San Francisco, and yet I hope to hear many of their works played this year.


Joe Barron said...


I know the Pacifica Quartet is scheduled to bring its cycle of Carter's string quartets to San Francisco in December. Maybe you, Lynn and I could catch them together. I'll see if Jerry Kunderna wants to join us.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend the Pacifica's performance in New York on the 30th. Pity, 'cause it's just up the block, but there are a lot of other Carter concerts I'm looking forward to. Ursula Oppens will be doing most of the solo piano music at Symphony Space Thursday, and beginning Jan. 25, Juilliard will present a weeklong festival of Carter's music, with the first program conducted by Boulez, and the last by Levine.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oooh, that would be cool!

I left something out of this posting: the SFS is performing L'Ascension (and Mahler's 1st) with Myung-Whun Chung next week....

joe barron said...

The following comments, which are my own, were posted at good-music-guide.com

Last night I attended a wonderful recital by Ursula Oppens at Symphony Space, 95th and Broadway. Ms. Oppens played what, when she was planning it last year, she called a program of Mr. Carter's complete piano music. She was premature. In the past year, Mr. Carter has written two more brief solo works — Ma-tribute and Two Thoughts About the Piano — that Miss Oppens did not perform. The former was written for James Levine, and no one else has taken it up yet, and the latter still awaits its premiere.
Still, the recital was exciting enough. Miss Oppens gave a typically awesome reading of Night Fantasies, and she ended with Caténaires, a piece from 2006 that until this year was performed exclusively by Pierre Laurent Aimard. It's an unusual work for Carter in that it consists of a single mood and idea with no contrasting passages. A catenary is the "curve made by a freely flexible chain or cord when hanging between two fixed points" (Webster's New World). Carter explains that the title refers to "a continuous chain of notes using different spacings accents and colorings."  The work is a perpetual motion machine constructed entirely of rapid runs of notes and no chords. It has a bright, jazzy feel to it, and it should become familiar at contemporary music concerts as a closer or an encore. If any music of Mr. Carter can be described as a tow-tapper, this is it. The effect is almost minimalistic, except the patterns are not repeated literally, as they are in minimalism. It's so catchy and energetic that it's hard to believe it was the work of a 97-year-old man.
Though unusual, as I've said, the piece is not unique in Carter's output. It reminded me of the fourth etude in the composer's Eight Etudes and fantasy for wind quartet, which is a similar kind of mosaic built on iterations of a single idea. The basic unit is a rising half steps played as two eighth notes, followed by a rest. That's it. There are no counter subjects, no shift in tempo, but the units are combined with great variety, sometimes sounding together, sometimes one after another, sometimes overlapping.
Carter was present, and at the end of the evening he walked down the aisle and stood in front of the stage, where Miss Oppens joined him. The audience gave them a standing ovation, which has become a custom when the composer is in attendance. The applause went on and on.  It was obvious we wanted an encore. Carter began gesturing toward the piano as if to say, "Play it again." Miss Oppens declined. I had been sitting in the front row, center, and she passed me as crossed the stage again, heading for the wings. I repeated Carter's gesture of waving toward the piano. She shook her head at me, smiling, and said, "No, it's too hard." And she walked off.
Sitting a few feet from the piano, with the pianist's foot at the pedal directly in front of me, I could look up and see unfinished-wood underbody of the instrument. It was charge to sit so close and let the sound strike me, surround me, expand in my head. 
I also enjoyed the performance of Two Diversions. Miss Oppens made the separation of the parts for each hand audible and intelligible. She always takes the great piano sonata a little fast for my taste, but her approach made me realize the stylistic continuity between that piece and the Night Fantasies, written 35 years later. When the pieces are played back to back, Night Fantasies sounds like an abstraction of the sonata. Both pieces emphasize the resonance of the instrument. The Fantasies have all the tonal haze and rapid counterfigures of the Sonata, but with the motifs removed.
This was the first concert of Mr. Carter's music I have attended during his centenary year — that is, since he turned 99 December 11. The celebration has begun.
I should mention, too, I almost didn't make it. It snowed in Philadelphia yesterday afternoon, and traffic out of the city was heavy and slow. I missed my early connection in Trenton, but the trains were running fine, and the later express got me to New York on time. I walked into the theater about two minutes after eight, and fortunately, recital had not begun. A few stragglers like me were still finding their seats.