Phenomenal!

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 19, 2008

Four concerts at NEC included 16 works (many earlier pieces, to counterbalance the Tanglewood emphasis on later works), a master class, and a panel discussion with Carter. (I was sorry to miss Stephen Drury, Yukiko Takagi, and the Callithumpian Consort in Carter's Double Concerto; several trusted informants were bowled over.) In a staggering performance of Carter's overwhelming First Quartet (1951), the greatest 20th-century American work in that genre (and maybe not just American), the Borromeo String Quartet captured (and liberated) not only the marvelous sounds inspired by the Arizona desert near where Carter was then living — the whirring, scurrying Allegro scorrevole and the mysterious, heart-stopping/time-stopping night world of the Adagio — but also the questions of existence and perception (and self-perception) they pictorialize. Instead of paper scores, the Borromeos now use laptops, which allow them to see not just their individual parts but the full interplay of a complete score.

Next night, cellist and former NEC president Lawrence Lesser and pianist Christopher Taylor gave a profound and masterful reading of the Cello Sonata, with all its soaring tunefulness and intricate cross-rhythms, Carter's first unquestioned masterpiece in his exploration of the technique of "metrical modulation," in which contrary sound worlds — metronomic piano and rhapsodic, almost Brahmsian cello — go continually in and out of synch.

NEC's coup was to get a Carter commission for BSO percussionist Frank Epstein and the NEC Percussion Ensemble he directs, the dazzling Tintinnabulation, with six percussionists, each playing his or her own battery of unpitched instruments — drums (no timpani), wood blocks, maracas, tam-tams, cymbals, ratchet, a cow bell, a huge Mahler Sixth hammer (no xylophones, no vibes, no marimbas). On a pre-concert panel, Carter talked about how much work he'd put into annotating the size and type of sticks and explaining exactly which part of the instrument should be struck for each note. These titillating tintinnabulations were like listening to an animated conversation in three languages (wood, metal, skin). It's a knockout. And a double pleasure to hear twice.

These concerts dovetailed with the BSO world premiere of Interventions, Carter's big new 18-minute-plus piece for pianist Daniel Barenboim and orchestra. The program began intimately with Barenboim and Levine playing Schubert's exquisite four-hand F-minor Fantasy (which they played here in 2006, as an encore to a BSO Beethoven/Schoenberg concert). After the Carter, the piano expanded its relationship with the orchestra in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto; I have never heard Barenboim play with more warmth or sparkle. The evening ended (at 10:45 pm!) with a powerful and sexy Sacre du printemps, the 1913 Stravinsky landmark that Carter first heard at its New York premiere in 1924 (with Pierre Monteux — Sacre's very first conductor — leading the BSO), the piece that made him want to be a composer.

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