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Bernstein at 90 meets Carter at 100

December 15, 2008 |  1:25 pm

Lenny After a two-day bash at Carnegie Hall for Elliott Carter, who turned 100 on Thursday, the New York Philharmonic mounted a small-scale chamber music tribute to the composer Saturday afternoon that included the premiere of four new songs, collectively titled “Poems of Louis Zukofsky.”  These are very new songs -- one was dated Saturday morning.

That evening in Carnegie’s underground Zankel Hall, Leonard Bernstein’s last work, “Arias and Barcarolles,” was given a rare performance.  He wrote it in 1989, the year before he died, and the concert served as the culmination of “Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds,” a two-month festival commemorating Bernstein’s 90th birthday.

Bernstein and Carter didn’t have much to do with each other -– New York was big enough for both of them and their separate circles.  Carter is mentioned only in passing in Humphrey Burton’s Bernstein biography and not at all in Meryle Secrest’s or Joan Peyser’s.  Bernstein conducted a single Carter work, the Concerto for Orchestra, which he commissioned to celebrate the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary during the 1967-68 season.  A tumultuous piece summing up in music the political winds of change in the late '60s, it was, Bernstein once said, the most difficult score he ever tried to learn.  A photograph hangs in a Carnegie hallway of Bernstein, Carter and Aaron Copland poring over the score during a recording session after the premiere. All have tight lips.

In a recently published collection of tributes, “Leonard Bernstein: American Original,” the composer John Adams, who is no Carter-ite, writes that Carter’s music, “with its pungent dissonances, irregular rhythmic groupings and constantly dislocating pulsations, seems to summon up the fault line between Lenny’s more native-born populist proclivities and the then-current European high modernism.”

The only problem with that description is that Carter was as American in his music as Bernstein.  And hearing Carter’s four latest songs and Bernstein's last songs back to back revealed that what Bernstein and Carter had in common was, in fact, far more interesting than what separated them. 

Both grew up in nonmusical families. They were Harvard men who came under Copland’s spell as young composers. Carter threw off that populist influence after World War II; Bernstein, who remained close to Copland, struggled with it in a Modernist postwar environment. But Bernstein and Copland both represented in their music New York’s urban energy.

Of course, the differences were great as well. Bernstein was the famous one. Music poured early from him; then composing became a struggle as he felt the pressures of being Leonard Bernstein.  Composing has become easier for Carter and now flows unstoppably. Song was at Bernstein’s center; Carter’s fame is due to his instrumental music, although he has been setting the poetry of great American writers for years.

But back to the similarities. Both composers have a fondness for the clarinet, and Carter's is particularly notable these days. His Zukofsky songs are for soprano and clarinet, and the New York Philharmonic program also included his recent Clarinet Quintet.  Stanley Drucker was the soloist.  This season, he is celebrating his 60th season with the Philharmonic, and he is the orchestra's strongest remaining link with the Bernstein years.

The clarinet was important to Bernstein the composer early on. In 1942 he wrote the Clarinet Sonata, and in 1949 a jazz-infested "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" for Woody Herman, who never played it.  But Benny Goodman did in 1955, and it immediately caught on. Both of these works happened to be on the first half of the Saturday evening program, fluidly played by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Ricardo Morales. And Carter in the late '40s was also taking a few cues from jazz as to how to give concert music new rhythmic life.

Still, the men's latest and last thoughts, the songs, illuminate their similarities best. The Zukofsky poems Carter selected –- “Finally a Valentine,” “O Sleep,” “Daisy” and “You Who Were Made for This Music” –- are deep.  In Zukofsky’s texts, life’s meaning is captured through flickering quotidian imagery.

Bernstein wrote most of his own texts for “Arias and Barcarolles,” although he also used a bedtime story he had learned from his mother and a Yiddish text about a klezmer musician.  He included a sentimental song written for the birth of his son, Alexander. The last of the Carter songs is Zukofsky wondering at the musical talent of his son, the violinist Paul Zukofsky.

The musical techniques vary. Carter lets the clarinet skip, hop and flow. The soprano part -- sung Saturday by the excellent Lucy Shelton -- is slower, assured. Bernstein set his songs for two singers and two pianos. The singers at Zankel were mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and baritone Rod Gilfry.  The pianists were Jeremy Denk and Robert Spano (who conducted the "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" earlier).  Bernstein tries to keep up a game face in “Arias and Barcarolles,” to remain playful with the occasional jazzy riff, but he is thinking of death, of the meaning of it all. The terrific performance, alive to every nuance, was the one that this piece has long been waiting for.

Carter, to the inspiration of the music world, continues to make meaningful music. Bernstein’s flame expired 18 years ago, but Saturday night “Arias and Barcarolles” was new.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Leonard Bernstein at 25, in November 1943. Credit: Associated Press


 
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