Sunday, March 12, 2006

Elliott Carter Festival in Minnesota

Still writing music at 97

By Michael Anthony
From the Star Tribune - March 06, 2006 – 10:36 AM

Elliott Carter once said that, because of the difficulty of his music, it took 20 years for his pieces to sound in performance the way he had imagined them.
But that's no longer true, the composer, 97, said recently, speaking by phone from his home in New York City. "I'm surrounded now by people who have played my music and know what to expect and understand how it goes," he said. "While it might take extra rehearsals to get it going, it doesn't take as much time as it used to."
Composers often live long, productive lives. Verdi completed his last opera, "Falstaff," at 79, and Richard Strauss wrote one of his greatest concert works, Four Last Songs, at 84. Carter, it would appear, has outlasted them all. He's still writing -- a song cycle for mezzo- soprano on poems of Wallace Stevens that James Levine and the Boston Symphony will premiere in October.
"At my age, there's always doctor's appointments and God knows what," he said, laughing. "And people come to visit. But, yes, I do compose maybe two or three hours a day. I've got a lot of commissions." And he still goes to concerts. His plans for the evening of the interview included a concert of music by Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola. He described his health as "comparatively good." (Carter's wife, the sculptor Helen Frost-Jones, died of cancer in 2003.)
He taught composition for years at the Juilliard School, and doesn't reget giving it up. "I never thought I was a very good teacher," he said. "Also, I'm prejudiced about many things. I found it difficult to understand the point of view of many young composers who were writing what I considered very conservative music without knowing how to write harmony and counterpoint, which I had learned to do when I started out."
Carter said he hopes to attend at least a portion of the festival devoted to his music. The University of Minnesota intends to present him with an honorary doctorate Thursday night at Ted Mann Concert Hall, one of many awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, given this composer over the years.
What advice would Carter give to someone attending one or more of the concerts this week? How should a person listen to his music? "Just by listening to more of it," he said, indicating that it is not necessarily music only for experts. "My first string quartet was broadcast over Belgian radio, and a coal miner wrote me a letter saying how much he had liked it."

What: Concerts, lectures, symposia and a documentary on the American composer.
When: Tue.-next Sun.
Where: Ferguson Hall and Ted Mann Concert Hall, the University of Minnesota; the SPCO Center, 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul.
Tickets: Free; available at the SPCO ticket office: 651-291-1144.
Complete festival schedule can be found at

SPCO, university honor a giant of modern music

By Rob Hubbard
From - Sun, Mar. 05, 2006

Elliott Carter is a composer whose career may be the ideal example of how contemporary American music evolved during the 20th century. You can get a sense of that trajectory at a series of six free concerts this week; Carter, 97, will attend Thursday and Friday. It's the first of what the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the University of Minnesota School of Music plan on being a biennial 'Contemporary Composers Festival.' We caught up with Bruce Coppock, the SPCO's president and managing director, to talk about it.

Q. Why an Elliott Carter festival?
A. Carter is, arguably, the most inventive living composer. I'd recommend people think of this festival in the same way we would react if our friends at the Walker announced they were doing a six-day retrospective of the greatest living American artist. Here's a man who started with music that sounds more or less like Aaron Copland, then, in the late '40s, began playing with the idea of time, developing a whole system of time modulation that gives his music a really fascinating rhythmic quality. Then, in the mid-'70s, he started stretching the capacities of what instruments could do, particularly string instruments and the piano.

Q. For those unfamiliar with Carter, are there some pieces being performed that stand out as prime examples of his talents?
A. I'd say that Wednesday's concert really places his music in a certain context, because we're playing an Ives quartet that influenced him greatly, then Carter's second and fifth string quartets, which span this extraordinary period between the late '40s and the '90s.
Thursday's concert gives a sense of the huge scope of his music for chorus and orchestra, including one of his signature pieces, the Variations for Orchestra from the '50s.
My personal favorite is Friday, when his Cello Sonata from 1948 will be played. It is, without question, the great 20th-century cello sonata, in which he was just beginning to separate from the world of Copland and create his own world. And that program also has a number of piano works performed by Ursula Oppens.

Q. Do you know who will be the focus of the next Contemporary Composers Festival?
A. Not yet, but we have a wealth of highly esteemed living composers. We're living in a time of enormous creativity compositionally. I think, in the last 10 or 15 years, it's probably the most vibrant time we've seen since the turn of the 20th century. And Elliott, I think, is at the center of that.

Composer Elliott Carter is much admired but not easy to love

By Karl Gehrke
From Minnesota Public Radio - March 8, 2006

Some of the best minds in classical music regard Elliott Carter as America's greatest living composer, but his dense and complex style has confounded audiences for more than a half-century. This week, the University of Minnesota School of Music and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are collaborating on a festival exploring the 97-year-old composer's work. While some listeners are put off or intimidated by Carter, performers in this week's festival say those with open ears and patience will be greatly rewarded.
St. Paul, Minn. — On first hearing, Elliott Carter's music sounds chaotic. It doesn't fit into preconceived notions of what "classical" music should sound like. There's no single, steady rhythmic pulse or recurring melodic themes to grab onto.
Pianist Ursula Oppens suggests listeners think of a lively dinner party.
"First everyone is in one conversation, and then they split off into two conversations," Oppens explains. "You hear a little bit of the other conversations through your own, and then it gets quieter for a minute. Once someone becomes attuned to this, then Carter's music becomes very exciting and beautiful."

Oppens has been playing Carter's music for 40 years, and she'll be performing several of Carter's chamber and solo piano works over the six-day Elliott Carter festival.
Carter was born in 1908. His early mentor was the iconoclastic American composer Charles Ives, who was known for mixing up themes in conflicting keys and meters.
Although exposed to experimental music early in his career, Carter first wrote in a style not too different from the neo-classical sounds created by Aaron Copland and other American composers. It wasn't until Carter was in his 40s that he fully broke free with his own unique approach to music.
Julia Bogorad-Kogan, principal flute of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, joins SPCO clarinetist Timothy Paradise on Saturday afternoon for a 1985 Elliott Carter flute and clarinet duet, "Esprit rude/Esprit doux." She says she's been working on her part for nearly 10 months.

"This is really cutting-edge music. It's very difficult. But I think I figured out that Elliott Carter was trying to write a piece where the two parts never really fit together," says Bogorad-Kogan. "When I have a downbeat, Tim has a gesture going over the downbeat. When I have groups of seven, he has groups of eight. Or when I have fives, he has sevens at a very fast tempo. And that's something that's very hard to hear."
The difficulty of Elliott Carter's music has led to criticism that it can be appreciated and understood only by academics and intellectuals. Michael Cherlin disagrees. He's the curator of the Carter festival and teaches music theory at the University of Minnesota.
As he was becoming one of those academics, Cherlin worked as an undergraduate trying to understand Carter's music through analysis. At the same time his wife, who has no musical training, was listening along with him.
"She came to love it almost at the same pace that I did, and still loves it to this day," Cherlin says. "So that disproves the idea that it's only for intellectual music theorists who want to sit down and number crunch or something like that. It's for anybody who can hang in there for the ride and let the music speak to them."

SPCO clarinetist Timothy Paradise also loves Carter's music, yet he believes its time may be passing.
"The generation that come up with this kind of music was unique," Paradise explains. "I think people will look back at it as a style of music like impressionism or romanticism. Carter's music is probably the end of it. I don't know of anybody that is really writing like him."
Paradise says listeners don't need to understand the technical aspects of Carter's music to enjoy it.
University of Minnesota student Noah Rogoff advises them to have patience and take from it what they can. Rogoff is playing a pair of Carter compositions for solo cello during the festival. He suggests that there may come a time when Carter's music will sound as familiar as that of Bach.
"If we had been listening to Bach in 1725 or 1750, we might very well have not enjoyed it one little bit," Rogoff says. "It's different coming to it now, when we've had these centuries of appreciation lavished upon the music. Hopefully Carter will be in that position one day."
Elliott Carter himself argues much the same thing in the documentary film, "A Labyrinth of Time," which began the festival Tuesday night. He says that as society becomes more complicated, "people will have to become much cleverer and much sharper. Then," he adds with a chuckle, "they will like my music."
Carter is scheduled to arrive in the Twin Cities on Thursday. The University of Minnesota will present him with an honorary degree during an evening performance at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. The festival runs through Sunday.

Collaboration is modern art festival for the ears

By Rob Hubbard
From - Thu, Mar. 09, 2006

In a recent Pioneer Press interview, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra President Bruce Coppock described the six-day festival of Elliott Carter's music that his orchestra and the University of Minnesota School of Music opened Wednesday night as being akin to the Walker Art Center presenting a six-day retrospective of the greatest living American artist. And, after Wednesday's collection of string quartets, listeners left assured that the Walker is indeed a more appropriate analogy than, say, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
For Carter is an unapologetic modernist who, at 97, continues to do what great modern artists do, be their medium music, visual art, literature, theater or film: Push the boundaries of the art form, defy expectations and challenge audiences to reconsider accepted structures. And, thanks to the Daedalus Quartet and foursomes from the SPCO and the U of M, Wednesday's concert issued Carter's challenge eloquently.
It also provided some welcome context for his music by opening with Charles Ives' String Quartet No. 2, a piece built around conversation and argument that clearly provided a lot of inspiration for the works that followed it on the program. Four SPCO musicians channeled Ives' singular way of combining rage and humor quite well, especially on the furious "Arguments" movement.
The Daedalus Quartet was entrusted with a pair of Carter quartets of quite disparate spirits, and they captured their essences admirably. The String Quartet No. 2 is a 1959 echo of the Ives that allowed the debaters to state their cases in cadenza form, while the String Quartet No. 5 is a 1995 work that showed the boundary breaker in a more wistful mood.
But this free festival might be best experienced as one would a modern art exhibit: Take it in, see what strikes you, then decide why it did.

Who: Members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, University of Minnesota ensembles, pianist Ursula Oppens, soprano Elizabeth Keusch, the Daedalus Quartet and vocal soloists
What: Works by Elliott Carter
When and where: 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis; 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Huss Music Room, Hamm Building, 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul.

Elliott Carter: America's greatest living composer or alienating ogre?

Michael Anthony
From the Star Tribune - March 03, 2006 – 5:54 PM

Here are two views of Elliott Carter: He's (a) America's great living composer or (b) an ogre who has alienated audiences with music of unfathomable density and dissonance. This week's Elliott Carter festival, a collaboration of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the University of Minnesota School of Music, with concerts, discussions and a symposium, and a likely appearance by the 97-year-old composer himself, will allow audiences to make up their own minds about this challenging music. Two Carter experts -- Paul Griffiths (speaking by phone from London) and Michael Cherlin, associate director of the university's School of Music and the festival curator, talked about Carter recently.

Q What is Carter's importance today?
Cherlin: In at least some of the major cultural centers around the world, he's the one that people think of as the major American composer of our time. Part of that's because of the excellence of his music. Part of it, too, is that he's been blessed with this incredibly long, productive life. Another thing is that he has worked out a personal, unique musical language that's very much his own. If you know a little of his music, you recognize it when you hear it.

Q The New Grove argues that Carter's reputation is more secure in Europe than in the United States because he has more champions in Europe, such as Pierre Boulez. Do you think that's true?
Griffiths: Well, he's certainly had a lot of commissions over here and maybe more performances, too, though I think that's changing. Besides this festival in Minneapolis, the New York Philharmonic is doing five or six Carter pieces during the season, which is quite unusual.
Cherlin: The whole High Modernist repertoire has been better received in Europe. I was in Paris a couple of years ago and heard a Wolfgang Rihm piece done by the Ensemble InterContemporain. What impressed me was the audience. There were old people, young people and everything in between. The audience was so riveted and attentive, and it was a hard piece. It would be hard to find that in this country. In fact, I wonder if classical music as an ongoing, living tradition was ever fully transplanted into the United States in the way that it's the heart of culture in Europe.

Q And yet among other composers Carter doesn't appear to have followers.
Griffiths: Yes, well, it's not a style that's very easy to imitate. It's a sound that requires quite extraordinary technique.
Cherlin: I would have said you're right, but here's what happened to me this semester. When one of my colleagues suggested I do a course on Carter, my first response was that no one would want to take it. Well, I capped the course at eight, and I've got 16 or 17, and most of them are composers. They have a hunger to know about what's going on in that music.
I don't buy the idea that you have to be some sort of intellectual musical theorist to hear this stuff. The music doesn't have to be understood in a deep, technical way to be appreciated. The same is true of Bach. In this respect, Carter is the same as any other great composer or great author: You have to learn to step inside his imaginative space.

Q When even musically sophisticated people say his music is too complex or too dissonant, what is it they aren't getting?
Griffiths: Well, they're probably getting it, but they're not responding to it. We live in a complex world. To me, Carter's music reflects a direct feeling about life, about this complexity, about different things happening at the same time, about thought going in different directions at the same time. This is music that does that, and sometimes we don't want that. We want music that goes along one track from beginning to end. But it would be a shame to miss out on something that does things in a different way. Certainly, Carter's music is complex. But we don't mind giving our attention to complicated things in life, so that should happen in the concert hall, too.
Cherlin: One of the ironies of having a musical education is that it can sometimes block your ability to hear in a different way. It's sometimes easier for a person who's musically naive to open up to new music. Another part of it is that any music that's in flux is going to be difficult for listeners who are used to themes that are repeated or modified in ways that are recognizable. What Carter does is create textures that are ongoing for a certain amount of time, and there is never the kind of repetition that can be called thematic. That makes it hard. So if you're listening for that, you're going against the grain of the music, and that makes the music cognitively dissonant. In other words, you have to let go of those expectations because they're not going to help.

Q But when Ned Rorem denounces Carter's music, calling his Fourth Quartet a "hostile, empty, cynical piece," is he simply arguing on behalf of his own idiom or is there something he isn't hearing?
Cherlin: To be a composer, you have to fully inhabit the imaginative space of your musical compositions, and this is as true of Ned Rorem as it is for Elliott Carter. It's the way that your imagination works. And so composers very often are intolerant of other composers with a different aesthetic. Chopin in his youth couldn't tolerate Beethoven.

Q So many hear a change in Carter's late work: unity replacing opposition, more lyrical, lighter. Do you hear this, too?
Griffiths: I'm not sure there's such a great change. There are certain characteristics of Carter's music that go right through, and they have to do with qualities I see in him as a person, an optimism and brightness. Maybe the newer music has an exaggeration of that, a sort of playfulness that wasn't there in the '60s and '70s. He's 97 and still composing. He's earned the right to be playful.
Cherlin: Yes, the crunchiness and combativeness of his music of the '60s and '70s has gradually dissipated, whereas the work of the past 15 years has this feeling of pure fantasy. It doesn't feel like conflict anymore, and it can't even be called dissonant. It feels as if there's no gravity in it. And his endings have a sort of "giocoso" quality, as if he had become our Mozart. That wasn't the case in his early works. And so the "human comedy" has become a part of his worldview. I keep thinking as I hear his most recent work that one has to have lived a long time to write music that's that free. When you see that in a 97-year-old, it's so life-affirming.

What: Concerts, lectures, symposia and a documentary on the American composer.
When: Tue.-next Sun.
Where: Ferguson Hall and Ted Mann Concert Hall, the University of Minnesota; the SPCO Center, 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul.
Tickets: Free; available at the SPCO ticket office: 651-291-1144.
Complete festival schedule can be found at

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