GET CARTER! The Music of Elliot
Carter (IV): Nicholas Daniel (oboe), BBC Symphony Orchestra, David
Robertson (conductor), (additionally Rolf
Hind playing Carter, Ives, Schoenberg and
Debussy at St Giles, Cripplegate), Barbican
Centre, London, 15.01.2006 (AO)
Carter was at the première of Bartok’s Music for
Strings, Percussion and Celesta in 1936,
and the only critic who understood it then.
David Robertson has said that he’d like audiences
to “listen, not just hear”. Listening to
this much loved music with fresh ears was
a pleasure. Here Bartok uses two sub orchestras
as separate units, interacting and coalescing.
Though the celesta part is subtle, the composer
hints, in his title, that he wants us to listen
out for it within the multiple harmonies.
The surreal, swirling figures and staccato
outbursts of earlier movements resurface in
the wild dance of the finale, giving it a
spookily disturbing edge. Bartok may use
ideas from folk music but it’s their inner
logic he expresses, not their outward form.
Robertson and his musicians showed in this
vivid performance, that they understood this
music is inherently sophisticated and modern,
not pastiche. Hungarian folk music could
be full of complex rhythmic patterns and changes
of tempo. Though the peasants knew nothing
of formal techniques, their music grew organically
from a natural feel for rhythm and pattern.
The Oboe Concerto is interesting because it
was a virtuoso joint effort to extend the
repertoire of the oboe. Heinz Hollinger gave
the composer a list of techniques he used,
complete with fingerings. Carter suggested
ideas to Hollinger to translate into practice.
Of all orchestral instruments, the oboe often
comes closest to the sound of the human voice.
Here it is surrounded by a pair of viola confreres
who elaborate on what it plays and draw the
rest of the orchestra into the conversation.
If Daniel seemed a little insecure, it was
no disgrace. Hollinger and Boulez set almost
superhuman standards. Carter appreciated
Daniel’s effort and warmly embraced him.
In his most recent film on Carter, A Labyrinth
of Time (2004) Frank Scheffer uses footage
of a train journey across Brooklyn as a metaphor
for Carter’s work. The train passes skyscrapers.
Behind each window something is happening,
even if we can’t see it. Below, in the streets,
the traffic moves in different patterns, each
vehicle with its own purpose. Leaves flutter
off trees, scuttling along sidewalks. Space
is evoked in four dimensions, each detail
leading off into further detail. As an old
TV show used to say “there are a million stories
in the big city”, all happening along each
other, rarely touching. Carter’s masterpiece,
A Symphony of Three Orchestras is based
on Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge.
Crane paints a panoramic picture of American
urban life through dozens of fleeting images.
His present takes in the ancient Indian past,
industrial capitalism, urban chaos, the jazz
age, and above all the role of the individual
in this vast canvas. He repeatedly focuses
on the ordinary people, outcasts and, to the
world. It’s a metaphor too for the role of
artist in philistine society. Crane committed
suicide in 1932.
A glorious trumpet solo rises out of the quiet murmurs
at the start, soaring upwards with the vigour
of a growing plant. Perhaps it’s a symbol
of life, or of freedom? It doesn’t actually
matter except as a reminder that this music,
for all its abstraction, can make us feel
something about the human spirit, just as
Crane inspired Carter. The three orchestras
are clearly defined, the central one the most
reverberant with vibraphone, bells, piano
drums and clarinets. In some ways this is
the “main” orchestra for it plays the most
complex figures. Another orchestra, comprising
only brass, strings and timpani provides sharp,
harsh blasts of sound, while the third, mainly
lighter woodwinds and strings, adds different
colours and texture. Like the city being
portrayed, conflicting speeds, stops and starts,
parallel each other, crossed by sudden surges
of sound, soaring ever upward. It is extremely
intensive listening, for Carter builds up
his images in fast moving, concise vignettes,
flashing past as if in a storm. It’s like
cinematic technique, where images are piled
up, some only peripherally glimpsed, to create
in an instant, a complex, cumulative whole
greater than the sum of its parts.
The applause afterwards was stunning, everyone standing
up, including the orchestra (s), to welcome
the composer on stage. Five years ago, when
he was at a South Bank commemorative, I thought
it was amazing that a man of his age should
have such stamina. At 97, frailer and less
steady on his feet, he still exudes wit and
intelligence. He participated in rehearsals,
attended concerts, and talked to everyone
who approached him, which of course they did.
On the other hand, it should be no surprise,
as what comes across in his music is an inextinguishable
joie de vivre, and irrepressible love of life
in all its contradictions and variety.
This was a good festival, if its programming placed
too much emphasis on early works, such as
the Minotaur and the Glee Club songs.
They are interesting but stylistically a bit
of a cul de sac in a career still burgeoning
with creative promise.