Thursday, November 08, 2012

Elliott Carter

I was quite shocked to receive the news of Elliott Carter's passing on Monday afternoon, which I know might sound strange considering that the composer was just shy of his 104th birthday.  I was lucky enough to meet him for the first time a little less than a year ago, shortly before his 103rd birthday as we worked on the world premiere of his new orchestral song cycle, "A Sunbeam's Architecture".

I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent the brief time that I did with Mr. Carter working on "A Sunbeam's Architecture" last year - it was a real honor and privilege to get to be the first person to sing a new work by one of the greatest American composers - of both this century and the previous one.  While I found the score to be incredibly intimidating at first, I quickly fell in love with the piece, as I felt that it melded the musical heart and mind perfectly.  Yes, it was complex and intricate, but rather than sounding dry, strange, and antiseptic - it was dramatic, riveting, and beautiful.

The prospect of performing the song cycle was an intimidating one to say the least.  There are many musicians who are fanatically devoted to Carter's work, and, as they have devoted so much of their musical careers to deciphering his insanely challenging and intricate scores, they also happen to be some of the greatest musicians I have ever encountered.  The ensemble that was formed for the premiere of his new cycle, which was at a special concert at the 92nd St. Y celebrating his 103rd birthday, was filled with these devoted "Carterians", and putting the piece together with such an elite group of musicians was a nerve-wracking endeavor, indeed.  Even more nerve-wracking was the prospect of Carter coming to rehearsal - I was horrified that I would do something wrong.  For me, singing a composer's work for them often feels like a daunting responsibility. Composers entrust us with the products of their hard work and these pieces that are expressions of themselves.  My worst nightmare is to let them down while delivering their message.  This sentiment was only intensified singing for a master like Elliott, who had been working with the world's greatest musicians for well over 80 years at that point.

It turned out that working with Carter on his piece was a lot of fun.  It was a real treat to see all of these veteran, masterful musicians gathering around Carter, all posing for pictures with him like a throng of teenage girls vying for a picture with Justin Bieber.  Despite being 102 years old, he was very eager to work.  I found him to be much like his music - his mind and ear were sharp, incisive, articulate, and charming.  For me, the most insightful and inspiring part of the whole experience was getting to hear him talk about his vision of the piece.  He said, "I chose these poems because I thought that E.E. Cummings was trying to describe a young man full of enthusiasm - excitable and passionate - who is so concerned with his love affair that he resented the fact that the war took him the general thing is that this has something that is exciting and lively..." and then he smiled and quipped, "That's what an old man says, anyhow."

When he said that, I looked down at the score in front of me, and thought - this was not the music of an old man by any means.  It was the music of a young, passionate man full of energy and emotion.  It got me thinking about the adage, "age is a state of mind."  Clearly this incredible master of 20th and 21st century composition was a man who was young at heart - with an insatiably curious mind, and an energetic passion for his work.  The secret to his longevity seemed clear to me.  He just kept moving forward, focused on the work before him, unstoppable.

My "crazed fan" photo op moment with the master.

There are wonderful remembrances of him from this week's issues of the NY Times here and here.

1 comment:

Steve Lampert said...

Thank you for sharing such a beautiful remembrance and also of course for the performance; I was fortunate to have been at the concert. Best, Steve Lampert