Carter heaven

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 20, 2007

Levine was also present, and he rather punted when Shreffler asked him what was so special about Carter’s music. He values Carter, he said, for the same reason he values all the other composers he loves, for his “tremendous vitality, individuality, and integrity.” Then Levine had a surprise: he went over to the piano that just happened to be on stage and played the US premiere of Carter’s Matribute, a delicately scintillating two-minute fantasy with a powerful and unexpectedly dark climax. The piece is dedicated to Levine’s mother, who just happened to be in the audience.

A week before, another group with a longstanding commitment to Carter, Richard Pittman’s Boston Musica Viva, presented a concert “Honoring Elliott Carter” that included two masterpieces, the 1982/1983 chamber piece Triple Duo and the 1999 song cycle Tempo e tempi, plus an anthology of smaller works either dedicated to or influenced by Carter that Carter himself helped select from a long list of possibilities — all in their Boston premieres. The shortest was Franco Donatoni’s Elly (his diminutive of “Elliott”), for piano, clarinet, and cello, barely a minute long (and conducted by Pittman). The most outrageous was Swiss composer Jürg Wyttenbach’s On Cheating the Fiddler, a setting of “five little poems by Dorothy Parker” that was a tour de force for Beyla Keyes, who both played her violin and mimed playing it, also tapped it, struck it, ran the tip of her bow against the stage, stamped her feet, whistled, hummed, and, yes, sang all the verses!

Frederic Rzewski’s 96 for Elliott Carter is a seductive set of connect-the-dot canons for unspecified instruments in five different octaves, here piccolo (Alicia diDonato), violin (Keyes), English horn (Nancy Dimock), cello (Jan Müller-Szeraws), and bass clarinet (William Kirkley); the notes of the canon spell C-A-R-T-E-R. These were also Betsy Jolas’s piano piece Calling E.C. (Geoffrey Burleson), Harrison Birtwistle’s Three Niedecker Verses (for cello and a “real” soprano, the admirable Elizabeth Keusch), György Kurtág’s two-movement Hommage à Elliott Carter, for English horn (Dimock), and, the most recent piece, Rand Steiger’s Nested Etudes for E.C., for solo oboe (Dimock again, with malfunctioning, static-ridden electronics).

Tempo e tempi (the title puns on the musical term and its literal meaning, “time,” in both its singular and plural forms) is Carter’s magical vocal setting, with oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello, of witty, mysteriously sinister, and heartbreaking poems about the passage of time by the three greatest Italian poets of the 20th century: Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo, and Giuseppe Ungaretti. Carter calls it his “small gesture of gratitude to Italian culture and its musicians.” The cycle has had consistently good luck in its performers, and Keusch was no exception, singing with radiant tone and penetrating understanding of the sometimes cryptic texts. Triple Duo, an intricate Rube Goldberg pinball machine of a piece for pairs of winds, strings, and piano/percussion (Robert Schulz), was masterfully played, though I thought the performance understated Carter’s Keystone Kops comedy.

WGBH provided its sumptuous new performance studio for a remarkable event: a rare live performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1970 Mantra, for two pianos and synthesizer, his landmark 70-odd-minute “miniature of the way a galaxy is composed.” The amazing pianists, who are also called upon to strike woodblocks and crotales (the little bells often associated with gamelan music), and to alter their own sounds from their own electronic keyboards, were Katherine Chi, whose required recital this was for her New England Conservatory doctoral degree, and contemporary-music specialist Hugh Hinton. Yvonne Lee digitalized Stockhausen’s original program and “played” the synthesizer from Stockhausen’s score.

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