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Elliott Carter at 100: His Candle Still Burns

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008

Classical music loves its anniversaries, so Elliott Carter's centennial last week was feted in grand style around the world. What made this celebration different from most such occasions is that the composer was actually around to enjoy it.

In the last two years, Carter has premiered 16 new works. Many of them were the smaller-scale chamber works that have represented the lion's share of his considerable output for the last couple of decades, but one was a short piano concerto for full orchestra, called "Interventions," which had its world premiere in Boston this month and went to Carnegie Hall for the actual birthday, Dec. 11, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine, and Daniel Barenboim as the soloist.

Carter was there, and reportedly received from the audience the kind of adulation that has become standard as he lives longer and longer and shows no signs of diminishing powers. It's an odd and enjoyable phenomenon, because Carter's uncompromising music has never been exactly crowd-pleasing. Its hallmark is a complexity too intricate to be apprehended by the ear.

Listening to his first string quartet, you may be aware that the instruments are playing at different tempos, but you are likely to miss the fact that each tempo is subdivided so that it is either a fraction or a multiple of the others. Music that is fearsomely structured on paper, and requires mind-bending focus from the performers, can sound to a casual audience like bursts of neurotic intensity.

Yet Carter is also a simple composer. For all his intricate means, his basic ideas are not always very sophisticated. Many of his pieces grow out of a simple concept that he pursues doggedly to the limits of possibility (his solo piano work "Night Fantasies," for instance, includes all 88 of the 12-note, all-interval chords possible on the piano). He has described his music, atonal and complex, as an image of contemporary urban society (an Adorno-esque notion that dates back to his own youth). The first piano concerto is a portrait of the individual against the masses; the individual wins. This is not exactly rocket science.

"My own music is a picture of society as I hoped it would be, hope it will be," Carter has said. "That is, there are a lot of individuals dealing with each other, sensitive to each other, cooperating and yet not losing their own individuality." The quote appears in Frank Scheffer's 2004 documentary about his life, "A Labyrinth of Time," which has received a good deal of screen time in recent years. The Library of Congress showed it on Tuesday as part of Washington's own Carter tribute, which culminated in concerts at the library (on Thursday and Friday) and the Maison Française (on Wednesday).

The concerts were more homages than surveys, though each included at least one major Carter work. Wednesday's excellent concert by musicians of the Paris Opéra, a joint tribute to Carter and his fellow centenarian Olivier Messiaen (who was born one day earlier, and died in 1992), featured the 1948 sonata for cello and piano. The violinist Thibault Vieux remarked to the audience that with this piece Carter cut the umbilical cord that had bound him to the eminent French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger (with whom he, like many other American composers of his generation, studied in Paris for three years).

The sonata is certainly a step away to the bright-eyed, Coplandesque exuberance of his earlier works. Its first movement (played on Wednesday by the excellent cellist Alexis Descharmes and the slightly heavy-handed pianist Jean-Marie Cottet) sounds like a debate between Stravinsky and Brahms, with a light, springy, percussive piano line and a big romantic cello one.

And it came off as veritably romantic -- a statement of emotion and artistic purpose -- against the group of smaller, later works for individual instruments that followed. Carter's recent work resembles the late paintings of De Kooning: the colors primary, the strokes drifting apart, clearer and gentler and easier to apprehend and more simplistic. On Wednesday, these small pieces made a thoughtful and provocative balance with the individual movements of Messiaen's masterly "Quartet for the End of Time," a work of epic scale and big arcs against which Carter's music sounded particularly busy and incidental.

The big piece on Thursday's concert, presented by Washington's Verge Ensemble, was "A Mirror on Which to Dwell," settings of Elizabeth Bishop poems for soprano (here, the committed Kathryn Hearden) and chamber ensemble, which offered pungent textures and Carter's usual turn-on-a-dime contrasts of note, chord and mood, if little verbal comprehensibility without the aid of the printed texts.

Friday brought the "Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano and Two Chamber Orchestras," which rather unsuccessfully tested the limitations of the small Library of Congress stage in a jumbled performance by the New York ensemble Sequitur that muddied the complicated textures and timbres and just about drowned out the sound of the harpsichord, amplified though it was.

Both Library of Congress concerts juxtaposed Carter's work with that of other living composers. Of Thursday's two world premieres and Friday's two D.C. ones, Judith Shatin's "Tower of the Eight Winds," in four movements for violin and piano, stood out for its acuity and engaging vivacity as music one would like to hear again.

The big question is how much Carter one wants to hear again. It's not that his music is clinically cerebral; quite the contrary. The composer does not shy away from emotional expression, but it is rather blunt and vague. Much of his work, to me, is like the product of an elaborate, state-of-the-art camera used to take black-and-white greeting-card images of urban environments: The technology can outweigh the impact of what's actually being conveyed.

But some of the best of those images are indeed vivid and lasting. And the message, these days, is blended with a message about the endurance of the creative spirit that most audiences are happy enough to get, however challenging the means of presentation.

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