I'll admit, I was starting to wonder about Elliott Carter, not having heard much from him since the celebrations surrounding his 100th birthday in 2008. I mean, it really wouldn't be all that surprising to hear that Elliott had finally succumbed to the inevitabilities of old age, especially when you consider he turns 103 this Sunday.
As it turns out, the main reason we haven't seen much of Elliott is because he's been preoccupied with writing music. Since his 100th birthday, he's composed no fewer than 20 new works: everything from sonatas and trios, to concertos and song cycles. Problem is, most of these works have never been heard in New York - or anywhere else, for that matter. The music world literally can't keep up with this centenarian.
Enter cellist and new music muse Fred Sherry, who last night tried to right that wrong with a concert at the 92nd Street Y that presented no fewer than four world premieres and three US premieres. Altogether, 9 out of the 13 pieces on last night's program were composed after Elliott turned 100; the others (with one exception) were all written in his mid-to-late 90's. To be sure, Elliott is no novelty act: this is a composer who still has a lot to say.
Most of the pieces were short chamber works for one, two or three musicians, filled with the playfulness Elliott's become known for in his recent compositions. Among these shorter works, probably the most impressive was Bariolage (1992) for solo harp, played with a combination of grace and aggression by Bridget Kibbey.
There were two larger-scale compositions on the program. Double Trio (2011, U.S. Premiere), written for a sextet of violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, piano and percussion, was filled with spiky dissonance and violent drum hits. Elliott seemed to be challenging us to keep up with the interplay between the two sets of musicians, which sounded like back-and-forth quarrelling.
Even more substantial was the world premiere of A Sunbeam's Architecture (2011): a song cycle for tenor and chamber orchestra, set to the early poetry of e.e. cummngs. The six poems (sung by the excellent young tenor Nicholas Phan) were all written during World War I and juxtapose the yearnings of a soldier in love with the horrors of war. I immediately thought of Britten's War Reqiuem, which set Wilfred Owen's war poetry, often to horrifying effect. If anything, Carter's music was even more jolting, with widely-spaced chords filtering down to a single pitch and phrases cut off mid-stream. Not the sort of turbulent drama one might expect of someone on the verge of 103.
After, Elliott made it on his own to the stage apron to accept the audience's standing ovation, accompanied by a rendition of happy birthday that ended with a Carter-esque run of dissonant chords. Elliott flashed a smile and nodded his head as if to say, "That ain't half bad."
And, no doubt, went right back to work this morning.
More pics on the photo page.