Elliott Carter is gone

I can’t say I’m proud of every word in this review, product of the first big foreign trip I took as classical music critic for The Washington Post. But it’s what I honestly thought at the time, and I don’t regret my enthusiasm for Carter, or the opera (“What Next,” the composer’s first) I saw that night in Berlin. Carter was gracious, and the opera made an impression.

Something came to life at the end of tonight. Perhaps it was just a chapter in the long and productive life of the American composer Elliott Carter, whose opera “What Next?” was premiered at Berlin’s Staatsoper this evening. Or maybe it was a larger chapter in the history of American music.

Just shy of 91 years, Carter has written what he calls his first opera, a one-act musical evocation of an auto accident, its aftermath, and the smug satisfaction that the walking wounded–a k a mankind–take in selfishness and inner preoccupation. It is music without traditional harmony or melody, without the traditional sense of rhythm or pulse, and with a coy and literate libretto (by Paul Griffiths) that lives in the absurdist and directionless world of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jacques Tati. Almost a century after modernist composers like Arnold Schoenberg began refashioning late romantic music into something that was, paradoxically, both more orderly and more chaotic, Carter has produced the quintessence of everything they hoped to accomplish. The German audience, ranging from old men in tuxedos and monocles to young couples in jeans and bright spandex, gave it a standing ovation, with the traditional European foot-stamping on the historic floorboards.

That wouldn’t happen in America. Carter is easily this country’s most decorated composer, yet one of its least popular among audiences. He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, received honorary degrees from the world’s most prestigious universities and was the first composer to win the National Medal of the Arts. In Europe, and in Germany in particular, he is both respected and appreciated. The prophet at home, however, has an unbroken track record of alienation in the concert hall despite a long stringof critical successes.

Throughout his decades, Carter has been undaunted, willing to be the happy loner. Other composers and programmers have turned increasingly to the comfortable musical world that Schoenberg shattered with his mathematical order, or to infantilized minimalism and folk or pop-derived idioms. Not Carter.

“I still write the music I want to write,” Carter said in an interview at intermission. “America has always been a hard nut to crack.”

A stylistic descendant of Schoenberg and Charles Ives, Carter looks at music as a series of problems and solutions. Schoenberg “liberated” music from traditional tonality and melody. Carter “liberated” music even further, creating difficult but prismatic rhythmic effects and freeing it from a regular, unchanging sense of pulse. He learned to make rhythm modulate like harmony. Each of his major works–and he’s the sort of composer who composes only major works–has taken the complex ordering of disparate materials to dizzying levels. Carter has more than once sent one of his beloved compositions–“orphans,” he sometimes calls them–into the world unsure if it would be playable.

What Next?” is no exception. It is ferociously difficult, with an orchestral texture based, in long passages, on a constant, rapid series of seemingly unrelated notes, an effect that is both unnerving and strangely hypnotic, like listening to a TV channel filled with static. There are only six vocal parts (and no chorus), but each singer lives in a rhythmically unique world. The principal lyric soprano, Rose (Simone Nold), has the most consistently melodic lines, flitting off into soaring vocal linesand birdsong. Baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann, who sang the part “Harry or Larry,” has music to match his personality: an oily stud in sharkskin, swaying constantly to some inner lounge singer. There is a contralto (Hilary Summers), whose music is earthy and robust, a boy alto (Ian Antal), who penetrates the texture with cutting questions, and tenor William Joyner babbles pseudo-Zen nonsense. And there is a dramatic soprano role, Mama (Lynne Dawson), who uses her hefty musical lines in a vain struggle tobring some discipline to this obnoxious brood. These unlikely elements are woven into uncompromisingly complex patterns, with beats subdivided into units of three or five. A singer’s line may begin with a single note in the middle of a triplet, or a group of five. The effect, while musically daunting, works theatrically, allowing individual lines to penetrate the clangorous orchestra.

The music world has been saying post-mortems for this kind of music for at least 20 years. The notion of music as a series of difficult problems with difficult solutions seems quaint today. In American opera houses, composers are now turning to classic American literature for inspiration. (Major operas based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” will be premiered this season.) And composers rely on musical styles that use tonality and engaging rhythmic patterns like a reward for good audience behavior. A composer like Carter can easily be made to look like, say, an architect who builds a house out of garden rakes and garbage bags. Perhaps it’s possible, but will anyone buy it?

Carter‘s greatest legacy may well be that, ultimately, he doesn’t care. The composer came reluctantly, at first, to his new opus. At 90, he takes on new projects cautiously. It took conductor Daniel Barenboim, who led the astonishingly accomplished performance, to coax Carter into approaching the form. And it also took on a promise of a performance at the Staatsoper to convince Carter.

For that, Barenboim deserves special praise. The results of Carter‘s first foray into the form are overwhelming. In Griffith’s dense libretto, Carter has found text ideally suited to his musical style. The story, purposely vague, advances by misunderstandings and mistaken homonyms, yet ultimately coalesces into a sad but often humorous morality tale. As with much of his recent music, a clarity and tenderness lie underneath all the apparent cacophony. An orchestral intermezzo, placed midway in the opera, may be some of the most heartfelt and expressive music Carter has ever written.

But more important, Carter has woven together a mind-boggling number of 20th-century preoccupations: the prison house of language, anxiety and alienation; the futility of all our sexual pawing and grasping; the limits of expression, musical and otherwise. His opera asks, again and again, “What next?” Not just for the dazed and distraught characters onstage, but for music and mankind. Like the burst of stage thunder and banging of trash can lids that opens the work, and like each of his greatest works,it makes the question “What next?” a bit terrifying. If every work is a revolution, where does it all end?

Carter‘s new opera was paired with Schoenberg’s one-act “Von Heute auf Morgen” (“From Today Till Tomorrow”), perhaps its ideal partner. Schoenberg’s work is also a domestic opera, about a small family cataclysm and its aftermath. It, too, is a touching morality tale clothed in spiky music. Composed 70 years earlier, when modernism was all about masks and identity, it is still of a piece with Carter‘s opera–except for the creeping sense that there is nothing underneath the masks. Hearing the two workstogether, it’s clear that modernism was pushed from the stage far too early, before it had exhausted its central themes. Carter has pursued those themes consistently, finding new opportunities for expression along the way.

Thousands of miles from his own country, America’s greatest modernist has produced a work that, like the best of Bach, is a summation of a tradition fading into unjustified obscurity.

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One response to “Elliott Carter is gone

  1. Nice piece. FWIW, here’s my own old review of _What Next_, from, I think, _Signal to Noise_:

    Elliott Carter – What Next?

    Valdine Anderson, Sarah Leonard, Hilary Summers, William Joyner & Dean Elzinga

    Peter Eotvos, Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra

    [pic]
    ECM

    There’s a lot that is mysterious about Elliott Carter’s 1997 one-act opera What Next?, even if we exclude questions about how a nonagenarian could have created it. To begin with, have the five characters in the work (along with boy alto Emanuel Hoogeveen as “Kid”) actually had an accident on the way to a wedding (possibly between “Rose” and “Harry or Larry”)? Did they lose their memories/identities, or are they Pirandello-style ghosts never had either and are waiting for author or audience bestowal of such goods? Whether or not these specters exist in the manner their words imply, are there actually corporeal, if silent, “Road Workers” that “Mama,” “Rose,” et al. at some point try to convince of their (apparent) predicament, or is someone just imagining that others later appear on this bizarre scene? The ECM packaging, which includes Paul Griffiths’s complete libretto, as well as an essay by David Hamilton and a “Gee-Whiz!—I’m-Actually-Working-Knee-to-Knee-With-My-Long-Time-Hero!” journal by the librettist isn’t terribly helpful on these matters. The printed “Situation” that precedes Griffiths’s libretto says, “There has been an accident. Of the six ‘victims,’ all quite unhurt as far as we can see, the five adults have different views of how they are related and how they have come to be in the same place at the same time.” The Hamilton piece adds that “[t]he arrival of Road Workers (played by percussion players) reactivates the sonorities of the opening until they leave.” However, the libretto proper, at least as it appears here, has nothing whatever about the entrance of any characters at all after the curtain rises. (Further confusing this matter for me is a review of a live performance I’ve seen that suggests that the ensemble comes to be confronted not by paver/percussionists but by a policeman!) For its part, the Griffiths journal focuses almost exclusively on what seems like an intent to convince the reader that very significant work was contributed by the librettist (sometimes even during meals with the great maestro himself!!). For example, Griffiths informs us that he picked up some reference materials relating to the names of celestial bodies, that he wrote several drafts, that he thought or worried about the work while in bed on occasion, that he received 25% of some commission fee or other from Boosey and Hawkes for his efforts (half in advance), etc. But as to whether we may at least take the “Situation” literally, and so rule out any Malone/Unnameable “brain-in-a-vat” theories—whatever may be the case about the veracity (or sanity) of any or all of the characters—there is nothing. A Robert Craft journal this is not.

    I hope the reader won’t take the foregoing as the foundation or prelude to an attack against the opera, the libretto, or even the packaging. The Beckettesque aspects of the work must preclude puzzled opera-goers from expecting answers to such mundane questions as “What the hell is actually happening here?” On the contrary, the fundamental haziness of the ECM booklet allows us the fun of focusing on other sorts of internal clues, both musical and literary, in order to develop our theories regarding the “story.” Here’s my current take…subject to later amendment, of course:

    The piece opens with some raucous percussive banging. Naturally, this could represent a physical accident, like a car crash. But the first words uttered are:

    MAMA: Sh – Ss – Sh – Sh

    STELLA: SS – SH – Shh – tar

    HARRY OR LARRY: Sh – Sh – St

    ROSE: Ss – Sh – arr

    KID: A

    STELLA: Star

    HARRY OR LARRY: Star

    ZEN: Star

    ROSE: Star

    MAMA: Star

    KID: Star

    ZEN: Starts

    HARRY OR LARRY: Startle

    ROSE: Starlings

    MAMA: Starch

    STELLA: Starkest

    KID: Starve I’m Starving

    The entire crew then goes on to talk about stars, starts and startles, and there are numerous references to various celestial bodies (Alpha Canis Major, Sirius, etc.) as the piece goes on. “Stella” even claims to be an astronomer on her way to the observatory at the time of the “accident.” I take from this—and from the fact that the percussion blasts opening the work go on too long to be representative of a discrete, crash-type event—that these people (I’m not quite willing to make the leap to each singer representing one or more aspects of a single person or some other entity, like humanity as a whole) are “seeing stars.” I concur, that is, that they are awakening confusedly from something (anesthesia, or coma or nothing at all), or perhaps, like the characters in one of Sartre’s plays, they have just died. The point is that the proximate cause of these “stars” is as likely stroke or congestive heart failure as a pile-up on Route 9. This interpretation makes the subsequent non-responsiveness of the “Road Workers” more sensible—to me, anyway. Whether they’re physically present or not, they simply can’t see or hear our heroes. Of course, they could be deaf and blind—or just uncaring representatives of an overly bureaucratic world. Was there going to be a wedding? Was someone on her way to work? Quien sabe? Finally, before I turn from the narrative (such as it is) to Carter’s music and its performance, it is worth noting that the above excerpt from Griffiths’s libretto should not be taken as representative of the work as a whole, which actually contains any number of complete sentences and even a few jokes. For example, in response to Rose’s questions: “Do you believe in God? Do you believe there is a creator? Do you believe we are in the hands of another being?” “Zen” answers, “It depends on what you mean by ‘believe’.” Keeping in mind that this response is from a character whom the “Situation” strongly suggests is a megalomaniacal fraud, it’s hard not to find this cutely anti-Clintonian.

    Speaking of Canis Major, after about ten times through this knotty 40-minute work, I began to wonder why there isn’t more in the text about Ursa Minor. The rising minor third (along with a rising tritone) seems the most prevalent musical motif in the work—making its appearances apparently unrestricted to any particular instrument, ensemble or character. At any rate, those two pitch shifts are what now cling to me most doggedly after the last note of the work is heard. As is his wont, Carter has linked particular instruments/groups with specific characters or ideas. Here, the easiest coupling to discover is the pairing of flowery soprano, “Rose,” (who may or may not be a singer still buzzing from audience cheers after a recent concert) with piano. If these sorts of associations sometimes seem only half-hearted in Carter’s mature scores, it is largely because there are always at least forty other intervallic, rhythmic, timbral and dynamic associations simultaneously being developed, any number of which can obscure the connections we’ve noticed. What I’m referring to can be described (with only a dollop of exaggeration) along these lines: “When the second flute repeatedly plays dotted-eighth G-sharps in its lower register, one can expect a reference to early Blake—except, of course, when this pattern is accompanied by a lightly trilling oboe and celli sul ponte an octave down, when these instruments together imply either the tragedy of the commons, or, if flutter-tonguing is used, Leonardo’s prefiguring of such tragedy.” That level of nearly insane complexity has always been Carter’s stock-in-trade, so one shouldn’t expect Wagnerian leitmotifs or Peter and the Wolf instrumentation schemes. What’s most amazing about Carter, however, is that this extreme multi-level approach has never been pure gamesmanship or allowed to spiral into unintelligible muck: it has simply provided rich rewards to repeat listeners. While there is almost no end to the depths of understanding one may reach regarding many of his works (Ph.D. theses no doubt proliferate), they are also often very beautiful to those who have no use at all for that sort of analysis—so long as these listeners are willing to let a fair measure of dissonance flow into their lives. Carter’s works are thus like forests, or oceans, or life itself. In What Next? Carter’s ability to create gorgeous and intensely moving surfaces is perhaps best heard in the orchestral interlude entitled “The Singing Stage.” This brief, wordless scene is filled with longing and nobility and is lovely, whatever connections we mortals are likely to be missing. (His facility is also made quite clear throughout the dizzily spinning Asko Concerto, a 12-minute piece for chamber orchestra from 2000 included on this ECM disc. I won’t discuss that work here except to say that it is lovely, a good deal lighter and more quicksilver than Carter’s 1970 Concerto for Orchestra, and that it is brilliantly performed here by Eotvos and his Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra.)

    In discussing the performance of a work as obviously difficult as What Next? I want to stress that I have not seen the score, and, even if I had one handy, would need to take a tremendous amount of time and trouble before I could comfortably make any assertions regarding accuracy. Anyone can hear, however, the beauty of tone of both singers and instrumentalists as well as the apparent effortlessness of the production. I’m old enough to remember a time when only one pianist in the world could perform Carter’s Piano Concerto—and then once a year. Times have obviously changed: Eotvos and his Dutch masters toy with Carter’s metrical modulations, cross rhythms and other former near-impossibilities as if they were Flemish folk tunes for children. Everyone in the orchestra is perfectly wonderful, but I’d feel remiss not singling out the English hornist, the four percussionists, and the pianist for special praise. The cast is just as good. It includes the nervous, here-and-now “Mama” (soprano Sarah Leonard); cynical wiseguy “Harry or Larry” (baritone Dean Elzinga); Con man guru “Zen” (tenor William Joyner); narcissistic coloratura “Rose” (Valdine Anderson) and the tough, star-gazing “Stella” (contralto Hilary Summers). All seem entirely undaunted by the rigors and difficulties of the Carter/Griffiths approaches to melody, rhythm, prosody, and expression. Further, words are always clearly enunciated, despite the score’s demand for consumate athleticism, and they deliver their lines with just the right balance of emotional involvement and dreamy detachment.

    It is amazing to me, as it must be to so many others, that, even at 90, Carter was able to create a first rate work in a genre new to him. Perhaps even more striking, however, is that What Next? is radical in ways that many supposedly avant-garde operas by younger composers are not. To give a couple of examples, Ligeti’s Grand Macabre and Rihm’s Die Eroberung von Mexico are delightful and original pieces, utilizing such devices as car horn choruses and “coloraturas of the sea,” but both also contain, if not traditional arias, at least “set pieces” in which particular instruments or easily identifiable themes, rhythms or sonorities are relied upon for significant periods during discrete scenes. There are “hooks,” or at least footholds. As indicated above, that’s not Carter’s way. Nor is Carter the type to include dancing Maoettes or references to languid Brando movies in his works. (Still, What Next? demonstrates that he’s not completely arid: he didn’t keep Griffiths from throwing in a reference to Big Macs.) There’s no question that the composer is more at home with Ashberry than with South Park, and his opera is no exception. What Next? fits comfortably into Carter’s heady vocal catalogue alongside Mirror On Which To Dwell and Syringa. By now, I suppose it’s pretty clear that Carter, like Cecil Taylor, Pierre Boulez and Derek Bailey—to name three other 20th Century icons of stubbornly difficult music—is not a crowd-pleaser. By his own admission, he was never quite at ease during his brief 1940s foray into the world of consonance and relatively easy tonality. He preferred to follow Ives. But it wasn’t Foster or Sousa or Nearer My God To Thee that he wanted to bring to the contemporary concert hall, it was Dunne, Milton, Bowen and Einstein. Carter has always been an intellectual’s intellectual, ever refining his page-long algorithms, consistently offering layer upon layer of meaning for those interested in diving deep. Even so, he has never sacrificed the beautiful to the lesser divinities of the intricate or the cerebral. His priorities have invariably been flawless. As a result, Elliott Carter of the most prolific creators of profoundly beautiful art—not only of our time, but of any time.

    ~Walter Horn
    Valdine Anderson, Sarah Leonard, Hilary Summers, William Joyner & Dean Elzinga

    Peter Eotvos, Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra

    [pic]
    ECM

    There’s a lot that is mysterious about Elliott Carter’s 1997 one-act opera What Next?, even if we exclude questions about how a nonagenarian could have created it. To begin with, have the five characters in the work (along with boy alto Emanuel Hoogeveen as “Kid”) actually had an accident on the way to a wedding (possibly between “Rose” and “Harry or Larry”)? Did they lose their memories/identities, or are they Pirandello-style ghosts never had either and are waiting for author or audience bestowal of such goods? Whether or not these specters exist in the manner their words imply, are there actually corporeal, if silent, “Road Workers” that “Mama,” “Rose,” et al. at some point try to convince of their (apparent) predicament, or is someone just imagining that others later appear on this bizarre scene? The ECM packaging, which includes Paul Griffiths’s complete libretto, as well as an essay by David Hamilton and a “Gee-Whiz!—I’m-Actually-Working-Knee-to-Knee-With-My-Long-Time-Hero!” journal by the librettist isn’t terribly helpful on these matters. The printed “Situation” that precedes Griffiths’s libretto says, “There has been an accident. Of the six ‘victims,’ all quite unhurt as far as we can see, the five adults have different views of how they are related and how they have come to be in the same place at the same time.” The Hamilton piece adds that “[t]he arrival of Road Workers (played by percussion players) reactivates the sonorities of the opening until they leave.” However, the libretto proper, at least as it appears here, has nothing whatever about the entrance of any characters at all after the curtain rises. (Further confusing this matter for me is a review of a live performance I’ve seen that suggests that the ensemble comes to be confronted not by paver/percussionists but by a policeman!) For its part, the Griffiths journal focuses almost exclusively on what seems like an intent to convince the reader that very significant work was contributed by the librettist (sometimes even during meals with the great maestro himself!!). For example, Griffiths informs us that he picked up some reference materials relating to the names of celestial bodies, that he wrote several drafts, that he thought or worried about the work while in bed on occasion, that he received 25% of some commission fee or other from Boosey and Hawkes for his efforts (half in advance), etc. But as to whether we may at least take the “Situation” literally, and so rule out any Malone/Unnameable “brain-in-a-vat” theories—whatever may be the case about the veracity (or sanity) of any or all of the characters—there is nothing. A Robert Craft journal this is not.

    I hope the reader won’t take the foregoing as the foundation or prelude to an attack against the opera, the libretto, or even the packaging. The Beckettesque aspects of the work must preclude puzzled opera-goers from expecting answers to such mundane questions as “What the hell is actually happening here?” On the contrary, the fundamental haziness of the ECM booklet allows us the fun of focusing on other sorts of internal clues, both musical and literary, in order to develop our theories regarding the “story.” Here’s my current take…subject to later amendment, of course:

    The piece opens with some raucous percussive banging. Naturally, this could represent a physical accident, like a car crash. But the first words uttered are:

    MAMA: Sh – Ss – Sh – Sh

    STELLA: SS – SH – Shh – tar

    HARRY OR LARRY: Sh – Sh – St

    ROSE: Ss – Sh – arr

    KID: A

    STELLA: Star

    HARRY OR LARRY: Star

    ZEN: Star

    ROSE: Star

    MAMA: Star

    KID: Star

    ZEN: Starts

    HARRY OR LARRY: Startle

    ROSE: Starlings

    MAMA: Starch

    STELLA: Starkest

    KID: Starve I’m Starving

    The entire crew then goes on to talk about stars, starts and startles, and there are numerous references to various celestial bodies (Alpha Canis Major, Sirius, etc.) as the piece goes on. “Stella” even claims to be an astronomer on her way to the observatory at the time of the “accident.” I take from this—and from the fact that the percussion blasts opening the work go on too long to be representative of a discrete, crash-type event—that these people (I’m not quite willing to make the leap to each singer representing one or more aspects of a single person or some other entity, like humanity as a whole) are “seeing stars.” I concur, that is, that they are awakening confusedly from something (anesthesia, or coma or nothing at all), or perhaps, like the characters in one of Sartre’s plays, they have just died. The point is that the proximate cause of these “stars” is as likely stroke or congestive heart failure as a pile-up on Route 9. This interpretation makes the subsequent non-responsiveness of the “Road Workers” more sensible—to me, anyway. Whether they’re physically present or not, they simply can’t see or hear our heroes. Of course, they could be deaf and blind—or just uncaring representatives of an overly bureaucratic world. Was there going to be a wedding? Was someone on her way to work? Quien sabe? Finally, before I turn from the narrative (such as it is) to Carter’s music and its performance, it is worth noting that the above excerpt from Griffiths’s libretto should not be taken as representative of the work as a whole, which actually contains any number of complete sentences and even a few jokes. For example, in response to Rose’s questions: “Do you believe in God? Do you believe there is a creator? Do you believe we are in the hands of another being?” “Zen” answers, “It depends on what you mean by ‘believe’.” Keeping in mind that this response is from a character whom the “Situation” strongly suggests is a megalomaniacal fraud, it’s hard not to find this cutely anti-Clintonian.

    Speaking of Canis Major, after about ten times through this knotty 40-minute work, I began to wonder why there isn’t more in the text about Ursa Minor. The rising minor third (along with a rising tritone) seems the most prevalent musical motif in the work—making its appearances apparently unrestricted to any particular instrument, ensemble or character. At any rate, those two pitch shifts are what now cling to me most doggedly after the last note of the work is heard. As is his wont, Carter has linked particular instruments/groups with specific characters or ideas. Here, the easiest coupling to discover is the pairing of flowery soprano, “Rose,” (who may or may not be a singer still buzzing from audience cheers after a recent concert) with piano. If these sorts of associations sometimes seem only half-hearted in Carter’s mature scores, it is largely because there are always at least forty other intervallic, rhythmic, timbral and dynamic associations simultaneously being developed, any number of which can obscure the connections we’ve noticed. What I’m referring to can be described (with only a dollop of exaggeration) along these lines: “When the second flute repeatedly plays dotted-eighth G-sharps in its lower register, one can expect a reference to early Blake—except, of course, when this pattern is accompanied by a lightly trilling oboe and celli sul ponte an octave down, when these instruments together imply either the tragedy of the commons, or, if flutter-tonguing is used, Leonardo’s prefiguring of such tragedy.” That level of nearly insane complexity has always been Carter’s stock-in-trade, so one shouldn’t expect Wagnerian leitmotifs or Peter and the Wolf instrumentation schemes. What’s most amazing about Carter, however, is that this extreme multi-level approach has never been pure gamesmanship or allowed to spiral into unintelligible muck: it has simply provided rich rewards to repeat listeners. While there is almost no end to the depths of understanding one may reach regarding many of his works (Ph.D. theses no doubt proliferate), they are also often very beautiful to those who have no use at all for that sort of analysis—so long as these listeners are willing to let a fair measure of dissonance flow into their lives. Carter’s works are thus like forests, or oceans, or life itself. In What Next? Carter’s ability to create gorgeous and intensely moving surfaces is perhaps best heard in the orchestral interlude entitled “The Singing Stage.” This brief, wordless scene is filled with longing and nobility and is lovely, whatever connections we mortals are likely to be missing. (His facility is also made quite clear throughout the dizzily spinning Asko Concerto, a 12-minute piece for chamber orchestra from 2000 included on this ECM disc. I won’t discuss that work here except to say that it is lovely, a good deal lighter and more quicksilver than Carter’s 1970 Concerto for Orchestra, and that it is brilliantly performed here by Eotvos and his Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra.)

    In discussing the performance of a work as obviously difficult as What Next? I want to stress that I have not seen the score, and, even if I had one handy, would need to take a tremendous amount of time and trouble before I could comfortably make any assertions regarding accuracy. Anyone can hear, however, the beauty of tone of both singers and instrumentalists as well as the apparent effortlessness of the production. I’m old enough to remember a time when only one pianist in the world could perform Carter’s Piano Concerto—and then once a year. Times have obviously changed: Eotvos and his Dutch masters toy with Carter’s metrical modulations, cross rhythms and other former near-impossibilities as if they were Flemish folk tunes for children. Everyone in the orchestra is perfectly wonderful, but I’d feel remiss not singling out the English hornist, the four percussionists, and the pianist for special praise. The cast is just as good. It includes the nervous, here-and-now “Mama” (soprano Sarah Leonard); cynical wiseguy “Harry or Larry” (baritone Dean Elzinga); Con man guru “Zen” (tenor William Joyner); narcissistic coloratura “Rose” (Valdine Anderson) and the tough, star-gazing “Stella” (contralto Hilary Summers). All seem entirely undaunted by the rigors and difficulties of the Carter/Griffiths approaches to melody, rhythm, prosody, and expression. Further, words are always clearly enunciated, despite the score’s demand for consumate athleticism, and they deliver their lines with just the right balance of emotional involvement and dreamy detachment.

    It is amazing to me, as it must be to so many others, that, even at 90, Carter was able to create a first rate work in a genre new to him. Perhaps even more striking, however, is that What Next? is radical in ways that many supposedly avant-garde operas by younger composers are not. To give a couple of examples, Ligeti’s Grand Macabre and Rihm’s Die Eroberung von Mexico are delightful and original pieces, utilizing such devices as car horn choruses and “coloraturas of the sea,” but both also contain, if not traditional arias, at least “set pieces” in which particular instruments or easily identifiable themes, rhythms or sonorities are relied upon for significant periods during discrete scenes. There are “hooks,” or at least footholds. As indicated above, that’s not Carter’s way. Nor is Carter the type to include dancing Maoettes or references to languid Brando movies in his works. (Still, What Next? demonstrates that he’s not completely arid: he didn’t keep Griffiths from throwing in a reference to Big Macs.) There’s no question that the composer is more at home with Ashberry than with South Park, and his opera is no exception. What Next? fits comfortably into Carter’s heady vocal catalogue alongside Mirror On Which To Dwell and Syringa. By now, I suppose it’s pretty clear that Carter, like Cecil Taylor, Pierre Boulez and Derek Bailey—to name three other 20th Century icons of stubbornly difficult music—is not a crowd-pleaser. By his own admission, he was never quite at ease during his brief 1940s foray into the world of consonance and relatively easy tonality. He preferred to follow Ives. But it wasn’t Foster or Sousa or Nearer My God To Thee that he wanted to bring to the contemporary concert hall, it was Dunne, Milton, Bowen and Einstein. Carter has always been an intellectual’s intellectual, ever refining his page-long algorithms, consistently offering layer upon layer of meaning for those interested in diving deep. Even so, he has never sacrificed the beautiful to the lesser divinities of the intricate or the cerebral. His priorities have invariably been flawless. As a result, Elliott Carter of the most prolific creators of profoundly beautiful art—not only of our time, but of any time.

    ~Walter Horn

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