Magna Carter (6): This Is Your Life

The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.

—Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail

Wednesday’s 5:00 concert at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music began, new-Prometheus-style, with Elliott Carter’s 1991 Quintet for Piano and Winds clanking to life, rising up with a waking gesture in the winds (that sounds an awful lot like the opening of West Side Story) and a groan of chords in the piano. It’s a piece that could easily be described—as Carter does in a program note—as another in his series of musicalized conversations among disparate individuals. But the Quintet evolves, sparked by the piano. Carter treats the other four instruments—oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn (in imitation of Mozart’s K.452)—in such a way that the differences in timbre are exacerbated rather than ameliorated; rhythmic homogeny or smooth-voiced harmonies aren’t much in evidence. The piano prodding in the background, avoiding any sustained sounds for a huge swath of the piece, ends up sounding like firing neurons, controlling the other four disparate instruments’ simultaneous biological processes.

But then, as the winds reduce their activity, the piano detaches from the quartet, and for a spell it lays out a simple, sustained, mid-range melody. It’s like a realization that there might be a higher existence than the twittering fits and starts of the previous section; when that texture returns, it’s more organized and more complex—the winds still heterophonous, but phrasing in concert, the piano adding pedal and legato to its thought process. The massive-gear piano chords return at the end, after which the winds briefly continue—the next generation. Oboist Henry Ward, clarinetist Raymond Santos, bassoonist Rose Vrbsky, horn player Lauren Moore, and pianist Nolan Pearson bounced bright tone around in an engaging and—unusual for Carter performances in the past—solidly matter-of-fact manner.

The String Quartet no. 2, from 1959, is, in almost every way, the Carter piece, the one in which he fully seems to be the Carter we recognize today, the trailhead of all the myriad paths his music has gone on to follow. The glib thing to say is that the quartet is a turning-point in Carter’s career. The somewhat more accurate—and Carterian—thing to say is that it’s an unusually interesting turning-point drawn from the infinitely many such points that Carter, like everybody, accumulates each day. That distinction, I think, is why the “characters,” the personalities Carter assigns to each instrument, remain so remarkably at odds even by the end, one of the least-resolved of Carter’s unlikely-bedfellow negotiations. (That aspect was particularly strong in this performance, by the strings of TMC’s New Fromm Fellows—violinists Stephanie Nussbaum and Martin Schultz, violist Gareth Zehngut, cellist Kathryn Bates—my only quibble would be that Schultz’s “laconic, orderly” second violin, in Carter’s description, was less laconic than insistent, an efficiency expert trying to keep the other three on task for their own good.)

One of my favorite movie clichés is when a character insists that “there must be some sort of mistake,” a sure sign that no, there is in fact no mistake at all. But in the quartet, the cliché is true, the four instruments don’t belong with each other—the movie won’t end with everybody realizing that, deep-down, they’re really alike. (It’s a similar situation to Carter’s 1999 opera What’s Next?, a film of which was screened earlier in the day.) The respective intervallic vocabularies remain, to an extent, a tower of babel. Yet the overall harmonies flow so expressively because the little deviations—the viola’s minor ninths giving way to the first violin’s major ninths, the cello’s extroverted cadenza versus the first violin’s equally dazzling, but inward one—the little differences seem to be always on the verge of coming together. The quartet is, in a way, nothing but turning points in the relationships between the instruments, none of them the big, life-changing ones we’re accustomed to waiting for, but no less dramatic for that. Life goes by pretty fast, Carter says; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while (or if you’re only looking for the obvious demarcations), you could miss it.

The evening concert brought the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra back to the stage for the second of their programs. Unlike the second quartet, the Three Occasions for Orchestra, an anthology of commemorative works from the late 1980s, do privilege certain of life’s turning-points—the drama is in the negotiation between the public and private acknowledgement of such events. The opening, “A Celebration of Some 100 X 150 Notes,” is a public milestone (commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Texas statehood). Carter divides the orchestra into big, primary-color blocks of somewhat static sound, moving them around each other like floats in a parade (or, to use a darker simile, like the wide-shot geometric assemblage of the Roman army in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus). The finale, “Anniversary,” is private, marking the composer’s 50th wedding anniversary; here the blocks are made up of daisy-chain motion, networks of recalled experiences and past and present conversation.

The middle movement, “Remembrance,” is the most haunting because it puts those public and private worlds in conflict. An elegy for Paul Fromm, the piece seems to be a public eulogy—a solo trombone (Patrick Pfister) pronounces a noble line, while the orchestra returns to the static blocks of the fanfare, here transformed into frozen, stoic sadness. But aggressive music keeps sneaking in—angular basses, railing winds, rumbling piano—private anger intruding on public grief, the attempt to sum up a man’s life disrupting the way we construct our own. Ryan Wigglesworth conducted a performance of firm, broad outlines and confident declamation.

Fred Sherry then played Carter’s 2000 Cello Concerto, with Stefan Asbury conducting. The piece seems to ratchet up the traditional concerto struggle between soloist and orchestra quite a bit. Partly, it’s Carter’s way of maintaining a certain amount of sonic energy while still providing orchestrational space for the tricky-to-balance solo cello timbre; the soloist has the luxury of playing his thorny part in isolation, or against sparse (or, in the striking Giocoso, unpitched) accompaniment, while the orchestral response is concentrated into singular, startlingly violent accents. (The opening’s knife-chords are loud even among Carter’s dynamically wide-ranging output.) The drama of the orchestral mob attempting to drown out the individual voice is apparent, although the cello is more resilient than we might expect—in the opening, he absorbs those blows but continues on after a breath; when similar rhetoric returns at the end, the soloist sails through the storms, having learned how to navigate the shoals.

But in second and fourth sections of the arch, slow movements of sorts, the distance between the mob and the individual seems to shrink a little. In the fourth section, those rifle-crack chords from the beginning return as sharply accented individual notes, from the string section, the xylophone—and the cello itself; Carter quietly warns against the dangers of an unexamined life.

Anticipation of the TMCO’s performance of the 1969 Concerto for Orchestra had been running so high that apparently even the weather felt the sense of occasion: the biggest storms of the week peaked at intermission, bringing magnesium-flash lightning and a Noachian deluge of rain. It made for a family reunion—with Oliver Knussen conducting, the Concerto tore through the hall like a force of nature. At a panel discussion on Tuesday, Knussen compared the Concerto to Moby-Dick as an “American epic,” but the performance here was exceptional for being not an epic of size—although the piece and the performance were very, very big—but, like Melville, an epic of energy, Herculean not in the ground it covers but in the power it releases.

Beyond the broad, four-section high-to-low breakdown, it’s hard to describe how the Concerto goes, but the music—dense and exhilaratingly fluid—insists that the apprehension of how it goes is secondary to the actual experience of it going. The piece starts out evoking swirling winds, but its true nature is literally mercurial: the orchestra as a giant quicksilver mass. Where a composer like Feldman alters your perception of time by slowing the clock to the point where its grid becomes imperceptible, Carter goes to the other extreme, washing away the grid in a flood. I can’t think of a piece that’s more compulsively immediate than the Concerto, one that more effortlessly but relentlessly focuses your attention on the constantly reinvented present.

The paradox is that the Concerto is so absolutely composed, so structurally sure-footed, yet the flow of the music is such that you hear it like you experience life itself, before your memory has a chance to go back and make and orderly narrative out of it. The playing, without a hint of tentativeness or hesitation, overflowed with the music’s quickness and vitality—impossible to pin down or capture. The lightning might well have been being channeled into the orchestra’s laboratory for Carter’s creation. It’s alive.

Thanks to my sister Jeana for the Lewis Thomas quote.

More reports from the festival:

1: Punctuality
2: Genealogy
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
7: Either/Or
8: You’ve got a head start

One comment

  1. The performance of the Concerto for Orchestra was electrifying in many ways. Thank you for your description of it. When Knussen raised is baton, he held it for an eternity, as lightening flashed through the windows of the hall. The downbeat, when it came, unleashed the astounding onstage cyclone that is this supreme masterwork. What a triumph by the TMCO.

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