Friday, November 17, 2006

PREMIERE://Carter's Latest Gets Friendly Reception

By Jay Nordlinger
From - October 17, 2006

Elliott Carter has many friends in the music world — friends among performers — but he has no better one than James Levine. Mr. Levine programs him about as much as he does Mozart. And, in fact, Mr. Levine had both Carter and Mozart on his program Sunday afternoon. This was a concert of the Met Chamber Ensemble.
Earlier this year, Mr. Carter completed "In the Distances of Sleep," for mezzo-soprano and various instruments. It sets six poems of Wallace Stevens, and is dedicated to Mr. Levine. Sunday saw its premiere.
The work is composed with care and keenness. It has Carterian sophistication, but is not an intellectual exercise. And it always holds interest.That may seem a minor compliment: "always holds interest."Trust me, it's not.
The first song, "Puella Parvula," is quirky, jumpy, recalling Charles Ives (at least to me). Mr. Carter has the mezzo sing stately lines over busy instrumental chaos.The poem includes the arresting word "bitch," and Mr. Carter, of course, has it uttered unaccompanied.
In the ensuing song, "Metamorphosis," there is more quirkiness, as the mezzo sings "Yillow, yillow, yillow," and other funny words, amid squirmy woodwinds. The next song, "Re-Statement of Romance," is an aching, arching love song, and Mr. Carter seems, for a moment, to have become a Romantic. The work ends with "God Is Good. It Is a Beautiful Night," which sounds like its heading: nicely done.
As I've said, "In the Distances of Sleep" is always interesting, and, crucially, it is not too long. I like to quote a musician very different from Mr. Carter: Earl Wild. (And Mr. Wild, only 90, is much younger than Mr. Carter.) He says,"Music ought to say what it has to say and get off the stage."Mr. Carter's fans should love "In the Distances of Sleep," and his non-fans should like it.
And who knows what Mr. Carter will give us in the future? He is only 97.
Singing in this work was Michelle DeYoung, who did superbly. She was warm and earthy, but not impure. Her lushness was Flemingesque, you might say, and her intonation was excellent. James Levine conducted one and all surefootedly, as expected.
To begin the concert, he had played Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. He was joined by three principals from his orchestra, although I should specify which one: the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. (Mr. Levine is music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, too.) These were David Chan, violin; Michael Ouzounian, viola; and Rafael Figueroa, cello.
You may recall that, a week ago, Mr. Levine conducted the BSO in Carnegie Hall.His piano soloist was Daniel Barenboim, who, in fact, played two concertos. The thought occurred to me that they should do a concert in which they flip: Mr. Barenboim is soloist in one concerto, and Mr. Levine is soloist in another, with Mr. Barenboim going to the podium.
In any case, Mr. Levine is a fine pianist, and it should be a particular pleasure to hear him play Mozart.We all know what a great Mozart conductor he is. George Szell, under whom Mr. Levine worked, was a great Mozart conductor, too, and Szell was also no slouch as a Mozart pianist.But Mr. Levine was not at his best on Sunday afternoon, I'm afraid.
Who knows how much time he had to prepare? He seemed to cling to the score for dear life. If he had not been concerned merely to execute the piece, competently, he might have been able to do more with it musically. He was a bit stiff, and some notes were blunter and harsher than he could have intended. He can do much better — he proved so in a duopiano recital with Evgeny Kissin a few seasons ago — and will again.
The strings performed efficiently and with basic taste.
Later, eight strings got together for one of the most felicitous pieces ever written — Mendelssohn's Octet in E flat.The composer wrote it when he was 16. And Juilliard dean Ara Guzelimian, who was in attendance, made a wonderful point: There is an 81-year gap between Mendelssohn, when he wrote the Octet, and Elliott Carter, when he wrote "In the Distances of Sleep"!
The Met musicians played as though they worked under Mr. Levine, regularly. Led, in a sense, by David Chan, they were rigorous and stirring. No flaccidity entered in. The second movement, Andante, was dark, and kind of sweetsad.The execution was not "studio-perfect," as we say, in this movement or others. But it was good enough. The Scherzo was a little heavy, and scratchy.
And the concluding Presto, that stunning creation? It stayed basically on track, although it threatened to derail a couple of times. And it had undeniable spirit.

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