Composer Elliott Carter was on hand at the opening concert of a new series to receive an honorary doctorate from the U of M.
By Larry Fuchsberg
From StarTribune.com - March 10, 2006 – 10:07 PM
When Elliott Carter was a lad of 63, critic Virgil Thomson called him "our most admired composer of learned music." The actuary-defying Carter is now 97, his preeminence long past arguing. He was an obvious choice for the first in a planned biannual series of contemporary composers festivals, mounted by the University of Minnesota School of Music and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
The festival comprises nearly 200 performers and 28 Carter scores. Thursday's concert offered seldom-heard choral and orchestral music separated by the restless "Night Fantasies" for solo piano. Ursula Oppens, who premiered "Night Fantasies" a quarter-century ago, played with unsurpassed fluency.
The evening began with the presentation of an honorary doctorate to the composer, who gracefully deflected the superlatives heaped upon him.
Carter's longevity -- he's now threatening to outgrow what scholars have dubbed his "late late style" -- makes him hard to place historically. As a speaker at Thursday's Carter symposium suggested, it's as if Chopin had lived into the 20th century, as if Brahms were still writing in the 1930s. Carter has survived not only the High Modernism that formed him but the postmodernism that followed. And new commissions are stacked on his Manhattan desk.
Carter is a poet of process. Left-brained though it is, his music has a distinctive beauty, and is far easier to follow than the academic discourse it has spawned. He has fully emancipated rhythm as a compositional element, and shows an uncanny ability to elicit complex personalities from the instruments he writes for and to work out the drama of their interaction in musical terms.
In Thursday's choral segment, Carter mingled with colleagues to whom he owes a debt: Ives, Stravinsky and Goffredo Petrassi. The orchestral segment offered the extraordinary Variations (1954-55) as entrée and the brash Holiday Overture, written to celebrate the 1944 liberation of Paris, as dessert. The University Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Singers (led, respectively, by Robert Debbaut and Kathy Saltzman Romey) had moments of insecurity, but did greater justice to these daunting scores than yesteryear's professionals could do.
Does Carter's music point to a way forward for today's younger composers? It's hard to see how. But as we search for the musical heroes we need, we do well to honor the ones we have.