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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.


Anne Ozorio


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)