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Seen and Heard International  Concert Review

Carter,  Mendelssohn and Mozart: The MET Orchestra James Levine ( Music Director and Conductor) Nicolas Hodges ( Piano) Carnegie Hall, New York City, 13.5.2007 (BH)

Carter: Three Illusions (2002; 2004)

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56, “Scottish” (1829-42)

Carter: Dialogues for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (2003)

Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, “Jupiter” (1788)

 At 98, Elliott Carter does seem to be in an almost supernatural state of grace these days, popping up everywhere with new works – and good ones.  I heard Levine conduct Three Illusions with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 2005 (review) and was even more enchanted this time around.  Carter’s brevity, coupled with some light and elegant scoring, show the composer combining the brashness of a twenty-year old with the experience in handling an orchestra that comes with decades of writing.  The three sections feel like flashes of lightning.  Micomicón pitches brass outbursts against luxuriously shifting strings, Fons Juventatis showcases the winds that jump up like water sprites, and More’s Utopia has a dreamlike feel, brought down to earth with a percussion crash.  Although Carter uses a large ensemble, it is with notable delicacy and transparency; only occasionally do the forces coincide in huge blocks of sound.  This is one of his most engaging creations, and I hope the length  -- nine minutes for all three – ensures frequent hearings.

A knowledgeable friend at intermission thought the Mendelssohn was the finest reading he had ever heard.  The orchestra sounded at its ripest, with a big, stormy tone in the opening Andante con moto, an aristocratic gallop for the Vivace non troppo, and some rich contributions from the cellos in the Adagio.  Levine plunged into the last movement (marked guerriero or “warlike” in places) with an energy that belied both his age and recent medical troubles.  (I suspect his recovery is complete.)

Carter wrote Dialogues for the adventurous pianist Nicolas Hodges (no relation to your writer that he or I can determine), and in the composer’s words it is “a conversation between the soloist and the orchestra: responding to each other, sometimes interrupting one another, or arguing.”  A solo English horn dryly announces the piano, which enters in a furor of notes with huge chords alternating with rapid arpeggios.  The glittering exchange climaxes with a more literal “dialogue” near the end, with the piano and orchestra firing off chords back and forth.  The orchestra sounded splendid, in keen partnership with Hodges’ crisp and powerful fingerwork.  It would be difficult to imagine a more intelligent, forceful performance, and I suspect his reading will be the benchmark for years to come.  (Hodges has recorded the piece on Bridge Records.)  At the conclusion, he walked to the side of the stage to assist the composer, who placed his cane on the piano bench and turned to applaud the orchestra.

It is a tribute to Levine’s talent that the sound of the group changed completely for a vigorous, almost hammering performance of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.  If perhaps too muscular for some, it was thrilling for the rest of us, and the orchestra sounded sumptuous.  At this point, conductors need to walk a line between an “old-fashioned” big sound and the wiry leanness favored by the historically informed performance advocates.  The perception that Levine could elicit the sumptuousness of the former and combine it with the effervescence of the latter says much for his scholarship and oceans for the players.  Further, with the sound often exploding in waves in Carnegie’s acoustic, the Met’s Mozart-sized ensemble would give many full-sized orchestras a run for their money. 


Bruce Hodges


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Contributors: Marc Bridle, 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, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, 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, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

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