High Numbers

Elliott Carter at 85, Pavarotti at Boston Garden, plus Russell Sherman and the Boston Philharmonic
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 16, 2006

This article originally appeared in the March 19, 1993 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

Improvisers are caught in the present, imprisoned in time,” Elliott Carter told his rapt audience at a discussion preceding the Boston Musica Viva’s concert in honor of the composer’s forthcoming 85th birthday. “They have to resort to routine — just the opposite of what they’re said to be. Only when composers write things out are they really free to do anything they want.” Carter’s recent work is as mathematically calculated as ever, but it feels freer than ever, and more and more like improvisation.

He also talked about listening to Bach cantatas at Emmanuel Church when he was a Harvard undergraduate as one source of his contrapuntal style. He talked about loving, and wanting to write, more “advanced” music long before he made himself go through a tonal phase in the late ’40s (so his later, complex style was really a return to earlier ideals). He reminisced about his youthful acquaintance with Charles Ives, about showing him a composition of his own and having Ives take him out into the woods and urge him to appreciate “nature.”

He talked about going to the Metropolitan Opera for American premiere of Wozzeck and how much more excited he was about sitting next to George Gershwin than he was about the music itself. He talked about preparing for a new orchestral piece (commissioned by the Chicago Symphony) by listening to all of Mahler’s symphonies and “worrying” about them, though finding “some impressive moments.”

The concert afterward was a less unalloyed pleasure, not because of Carter’s music but because Musica Viva’s splendid clarinettist, William Wrzesien, running for the T after the dress rehearsal, fell and fractured his jaw (the prognosis is good). Charles Neidich, a New York clarinet player who has performed a lot of Carter, arrived at the Tsai Performance Center at 8 p.m. The concert began 40 minutes late and several works had to be scratched. A birthday cake with “Elliott” minus one of its t’s was served during the late and lengthy intermission.

Neidich saved the evening in more ways than one. The single Boston premiere, a short but mercurial, rich, moving piece for solo clarinet called Gra (a tribute to Witold Lutoslawski — “Gra” is Polish for “play”), Neidich has just recorded for Bridge Records. His expressive, multi-faceted performance was probably the evening’s high point (one poignant “polynote” near the end nearly broke my heart). Carter made a remark about musicians who’ve learned to play his notes but still fail to convey what they mean. Neidich is not one of them.

In another solo piece, Recitative and Improvisation from Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (a work from 1950 that Carter revised in 1966), Dean Anderson produced an astounding tonal rainbow. The Recitative, with its steady heartbeat and dark rumbling, might be renamed “In Sleep, In Thunder” (the title of Carter’s Robert Lowell cycle); the Improvisation seemed a brilliant, non-stop fanfare. I’m not sure whether Renée Krimsier (flute) and Ronald Lowry (cello) exhausted the poetic possibilities of Enchanted Preludes (1988), but they at least captured its cool evanescence.

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