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S & H International Concert Review

Elliott Carter at 95, The Ensemble Sospeso, The Arditti Quartet, Rand Steiger, conductor, The Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, New York City, January 30, 2004 (BH)


Elliott Carter: Scrivo in Vento (1991); Oboe Quartet (2001)
Joshua Cody: Wind (2003, world premiere)
Christian Wolff: For E.C. (2003, world premiere)
Elliott Sharp: 95 for E.C. from E# (2003, world premiere)
Hilda Paredes: Seed of Time (2003, world premiere)
Elliott Carter: Fragment II (1999); Fifth String Quartet (1995)
Pierre Boulez: Petite Dérive – En Ècho (1998, world premiere)
Michael Finnissy: Diamond Suburbia (2003, world premiere)
Frederic Rzewski: Ninety-Six (2003, world premiere)
Augusta Read Thomas: Bubble: Rainbow (Spirit Level) (2003, world premiere)
Elliott Carter: Tempo e Tempi (1999)

On my last visit to the Orensanz Center, the air above the audience was filled with huge pieces of abstract sculpture – metallic arcs, twisted ribbons of small white lights – and on the previous visit, the space was an eerie mix of blue and purple. Last night, as if to psychologically compensate for the painfully frigid outside temperature, the entire back wall behind the stage had an inviting orange glow, as if the wall were a giant ceramic heater with a wrought-iron grate. Every time I’ve been here, the physical space has been slightly different, due to the visual talent of its eponymous artist, Mr. Orensanz. That penchant for change could apply equally to Mr. Carter, who seems to change with every new work and writes with the energy of someone half his age.

As a delicious appetizer, the program began with a sunny performance of Scrivo in Vento by Cécile Daroux on flute, followed by Carter’s Oboe Quartet, a recent work, written almost astonishingly when he was a mere 91 or so. I had the good fortune to be positioned behind the superb Robert Ingliss so I could follow his oboe part, which he played with mesmerizing confidence alongside three members of the Arditti Quartet. (Thanks to Sospeso’s co-directors, Kirk Noreen and Joshua Cody, for bringing the quartet to New York, where they had not performed in five years.)

A highlight was Carter’s Fifth Quartet (again, imagine writing such a piece when one is around 86 years old) featuring the incomparably intuitive Arditti players at their best. On one level, the piece is a highly exposed dialogue between the four instruments, each of which "tries out" phrases before they are combined later. The compelling result made one imagine friends engaged in discourse – now hesitant, now aggressive – that so often takes unexpected paths.

Eight brief homages to Mr. Carter – seven written for this occasion – were all successful. One of his most immediately engaging works, Cody’s Wind began with a complex initial section that gradually subsided into soft, rhythmic tapping on the instruments, and an exuberant valentine by Elliott Sharp used extreme intervals and exuberant cross-rhythms that ultimately coalesced into something resembling a major chord. The Boulez miniature is a sprightly gem, skipping along with small gestures repeated by instruments echoing others. If there is any justice it will be performed more often, since its almost naïve charm would surely woo many Boulez skeptics. Rzewski’s piece had Lucy Shelton spelling out "C-a-r-t-e-r," although who can say if its gimmick will wear thin after the birthday celebration. Throughout the evening, the excellent Sospeso musicians meshed beautifully with the Ardittis, in performances that consistently persuaded and astonished.

The evening closed with Carter’s luminous song cycle, Tempo e Tempi, with brilliant texts by Montale, Quasimodo, and Ungaretti apparently inspiring the composer to equal radiance. (And a talent for language: his translations from the original Italian were included in Cody’s comprehensive program notes.) These probing, soaring songs were gracefully sung by Shelton, who seems to have an enormous reservoir of elegance and passion for contemporary scores. It would be difficult to choose a favorite, but I was transfixed by the shortest text, I hear a dove from other floods that seemed to mysteriously emerge from the luscious opening of Marianne Glythfeldt’s clarinet.

Composer Rand Steiger, one of the most astute conductors around, led some of the short tributes as well as the final work with crisp authority, not to mention a bit of humor. (It was a party, after all.) It is amazing that so many people – composers, musicians and listeners – continue to find such inspiration in Mr. Carter’s seemingly inexhaustible floods of creativity. The composer, now using a walking stick but otherwise looking remarkably hale and fresh, stood grinning amid the cheers and applause, then offered a few words of thanks that were as elegantly understated as much of his music. Let’s all plan now for the big Carter centennial, when I assume we’ll hear whatever he’s written at age 98 or so.

Bruce Hodges




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