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Elliott Carter at 100: still surprising

December 12, 2008 |  1:30 pm

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In 1924, a young man interested in music attended the New York premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” given by the Boston Symphony. That man is not so young anymore, but he braved a nasty storm to be back in Carnegie Hall on Thursday night when the Bostonians came to town to play the “Rite” again. James Levine conducted; the orchestra sounded splendid and made a lot noise. But for once, Stravinsky’s 1913 score was an anticlimax. On this grand occasion, another rite mattered much more.

That man is Elliott Carter. Thursday was his 100th birthday, which the concert was celebrating. And the piece after which Stravinsky proved anticlimactic was Carter’s “Interventions” for piano and orchestra, with Daniel Barenboim as soloist. Though written for these performers and this celebration, “Interventions” is not brand new. It was completed a year ago and had its first performance last week in Boston. But there is brand spanking new music aplenty coming at a record-breaking pace from Carter.

He wrote something for a Carnegie Hall chamber music tribute to him Friday. In fact, his publisher said the birthday boy was still scribbling away Thursday morning — when not being interrupted by hundreds of congratulatory telegrams and phone calls — on some little songs to have their premiere at a special concert by members of the New York Philharmonic on Saturday. In London next week, Oliver Knussen will conduct the world premiere of a piece for winds. All this activity, Carter complains (not too convincingly), is distracting him from settings of poems by Ezra Pound that he is eager to complete.

The world has never known such an artist, one who has reached 100 prolifically making vibrant work for which the wisdom of experience is employed to produce new sensations. History has been made before in Carnegie Hall and centenaries of great composers celebrated, but Thursday’s concert was a first.

Dary“Interventions” is a feisty score. It begins with the orchestra, having just tuned to an A, playing that A again in loud, glorious unison. The A fades and grows strong once more, an insect buzzing around the ear. The pianist swats the orchestra away with a hard-struck B-flat and then insistently drums away on the note. Off we go.

Carter has a reputation for ferocious, often impenetrable, complexity. Compared with some of Carter’s orchestral music, Stravinsky’s “Rite” is only moderately loud. Carter’s late works are less frenetic, less dense, easier to grasp. He has, at this point in his life, no energy to spare on false starts. Still, there is plenty of spirit left.

In “Interventions,” whimsy meets wistfulness. The violins have it in mind to sing a long, lovely wide-ranging line for the whole of the score’s 17 minutes. They don’t get to, however, no matter how much support they get from the lower strings, which add harmonic and contrapuntal richness.

The piano interrupts with impetuous flurries. On the soloist’s side are two trios of wind instruments that sit in a semicircle around the piano and take their cues and energy from it. The rest of the orchestra, and plenty of percussion, also get a few words in edgewise. Sometimes the orchestra becomes downright pointillistic, and even the piano reaches that point. In one passage, the soloist plays slow single notes, and Barenboim brought heart-stopping sensitivity of touch to those measures.

The Boston Symphony has become Carter’s band. Under Levine, it plays his music with regularity and plays it very well. No one, you might think, could complain that it doesn’t do enough for this great American figure, especially after the BSO’s big Carter festival at Tanglewood, its summer home in the Massachusetts Berkshires, in July.

But 17 minutes of Carter wasn’t nearly enough for his big day. The long concert began with Levine and Barenboim seated together at a Steinway for Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor for four hands, played with gusto. That was followed by a barnstorming performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with Barenboim again as soloist.

“Interventions” was squeezed in after intermission as a prelude to the “Rite.” But after Carter’s piece, once the chipper composer had come onstage beaming, the audience couldn’t contain itself. Out came a cake decorated with musical notes with a sparkler for a candle. The audience lustily sang “Happy Birthday.”

Nothing could follow that, except perhaps a second hearing of “Interventions.” The “Rite,” full of polish and power but so controlled by Levine that it almost felt pat, has lost the power to surprise. But we’ve got Carter for that. His 1999 opera is titled “What Next?” And as he enters his 101st year, he’s still keeping us guessing.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Elliott Carter, second from right, is flanked by conductor James Levine, left, and pianist Daniel Barenboim onstage at Carnegie Hall on Thursday. Credit: Chris Lee / Carnegie Hall

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