Magna Carter (4): Identity Politics

Two bits of received wisdom about Elliott Carter’s music are that individual instruments are given individual characters, and that there isn’t much thematic imitation in the traditional sense—the program book for this year’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music mentions, in regard to the Sonata for Harpsichord, Flute, Cello, and Oboe, that imitative counterpoint is “not usually found” in Carter. But if you expand the idea of imitation a little, and combine it with that character-driven instrumental style, Carter’s music shows imitation aplenty, as part of a dancing flow of agreement and disagreement within the musical discussion.

That was something easily heard in Tuesday’s 5:00 festival concert, devoted to short solos and small ensembles. Enchanted Preludes, for example, composed in 1988: As the flute (Brook Ferguson, in this performance) spins out her darting, bubbling line, the cello (David Gerstein) tries to join in with his best flute imitation, all tremolos and harmonics and sharp-tongued pizzicati. After a while, tired of agreeing, he starts to bring in soulful and long-breathing notes more typical of the cello, until the flute is compelled to take up such notes as well. By the end, the conversation is more equal, with imitation flowing both ways—perhaps that fluttertonguing in the flute could be heard as a translation of a bowed, sawtooth-wave string tone.

Ferguson, clarinetist Brent Besner, and marimbist Nick Tolle gave clean, collected performances of esprit rude/esprit doux I and II, dovetailed together, and here the conversation was even more voluble. Flute and clarinet have a lively but civil conversation in the first, but as the sequel begins (esprit rude/esprit doux II: this time it’s personal!), the marimba bursts in, loud and argumentative, the drunk at the party. For a while, the winds are stunned into long-note submission, but eventually they bring the marimba around to their previous style of badinage. Even Au Quai, a viola-bassoon miniature (played by Gareth Zehngut and Andrew Cuneo, respectively, avuncular and mischievous in turn) composed for the very viola-bassoon-like Oliver Knussen (O.K.—leave it to Carter to come up with a Milton-Babbitt-style punning title in French)—even this piece, despite the well-matched timbres, reveals a bit of conversational dissonance: Carter has a fair amount of fun contrasting the bassoon’s genial staccato notes with a more hard-edged spiccato viola, almost a sarcastic echo.

The solo works still came off as interactions with outside concepts and ideas more than just mere soliloquies. In Figment I for solo cello (played with caution-to-the-wind zeal by Kathryn Bates), flurries of scattered impressions alternate with a legato line, and the interjections—violent, crescendo single bows, percussively struck pizzicati—put the physicality of playing the instrument in debate with the melodic musical content. It’s a dark, expressionistic piece; thunder from late-afternoon Tanglewood storms enhanced rather than distracted. Figment II (also played by Bates) is very different; a tribute to Ives’ “Thoreau” and “Hallowe’en” that ends up sounding for all the world like early music, quieter and more rhythmically sober that Figment I, with oblique chains of double-stops forming a kind of free organum, around a whispered middle section washed over with harmonic glissandi.

Two Thoughts about the Piano are just that, studies, albeit promiscuously expressive ones. Intermittences (expertly navigated by Jacob Rhodebeck) builds on the sort of virtuosic figuration of Dialogues, but the ensemble there is replaced by silence of soft sustained placeholders here, in one-sided conversation—a mini-concerto for keyboard and absent orchestra, La voix pianistique. Caténaires is an unbroken perpetual-motion solfeggio, a fighter-jet-fast stream of equal notes (played, fighter-jet-fast, by Sandra Gu), and yet Carter still is shifting the time around in his usual fashion; it’s like a pixelated version of himself.

Carter usually engages with the musical past on his own terms, but in the Trilogy for oboe and harp, he’s doing so on someone else’s, at least in the opening movement, and it’s fascinating. “Bariolage” is a harp solo that makes express use of extended techniques invented by Carlos Salzedo in the 1920s, and it’s as close as Carter’s ever come to a period piece—the old-time exoticism of Salzedo’s plucks and buzzes and washes of sound, combined with a quirky adherence to the harp’s diatonic nature, evokes that lost time (even the pedal-glissando note bends sound like sophisticated blues), before eventually dissolving into a coda more typical of Carter’s individual language. Harpist Megan Levin was absolutely phenomenal, with headlong panache. Oboist Nicholas Stoval was phenomenal in a quieter way in the middle movement, “Inner Song,” a solo marked by a virtuosity of breath control and expression—long, unbroken tones (some microtonal or multiphonic) stretched into a sinuous line. In the finale, each instrument goads the other into new tempi, trading solos like jazz choruses, each statement occasioning a new turn of phrase. Much of what makes Carter’s music recognizably his is that free flow of musical talk; and that the talk is never, ever cheap.

More reports from the festival:

1: Punctuality
2: Genealogy
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or
8: You’ve got a head start

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