Friday, 12 June 2009

Elliott Carter comes to Aldeburgh

The Aldeburgh Festival joins in the Elliott Carter centenary celebrations with a series of inventively-programmed concerts and a visit from the composer himself.

Mosaic (2004) is tucked away in a pre-concert performance on June 20th, as a sort of prelude to one of the evening’s- if not the Festival’s - main events, the world premiere of Carter’s On Conversing with Paradise. In his tenth decade Carter often draws upon his rich store of memories to kindle ideas for new compositions. Mosaic recalls Carter’s old friend Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961), the French-American harpist, pianist and composer who had been active in Edgard Varèse’s International Composers’ Guild, and whom Carter had known in the 1930s. Scored for a chamber ensemble of winds, strings and harp, Mosaic also pays homage to Salzedo’s exploration of advanced playing techniques which helped to bring the harp into the world of twentieth century music. Also on the bill of this pre-concert performance is a new work by the young Canadian composer now living in London, Christopher Mayo, and a short piece by Oliver Knussen.

Louis Lortie is the soloist in the ferociously difficult Night Fantasies (1978-80) on June 23rd. Although Carter has composed a number of works with prominent piano parts, this was his first piece for the solo instrument since the Sonata some thirty years earlier. Night Fantasies was commissioned by four pianists – Paul Jacobs (who organised the project), Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens and Charles Rosen – all experienced performers of Carter’s work. Identifying specific passages that might have been composed with the playing styles and personalities of each of the four in mind has become something of a musicological parlour game. More significant than any hidden code, however, is the sheer variety of the writing in this piece. David Schiff, who was studying with Carter at the time, explains, “Quite early in the course of composing the work he told me that he had already written fifty different kinds of piano music, and was now looking for ways to bring them together.”

Tamara Stefanovich plays two Carter miniatures for solo piano, in a concert scheduled during the afternoon of June 20th in the beautiful setting of Blytheburgh Church. The evening before George Benjamin will conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of his own Duet for piano and orchestra, alongside Carter’s Three Occasions (1986-89). Although Carter generally conceived his works as unified wholes, these pieces only received their present title post facto. The third piece, Anniversary, was dedicated to his wife, Helen, in honour of their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1989. Three Occasions was premiered by this same orchestra under Oliver Knussen in London’s Royal Festival Hall twenty years ago.

Carter’s attendance will make a unique occasion of the world premiere of his new song cycle, a setting of poems by Ezra Pound. The 20-minute work was commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival and features baritone Leigh Melrose and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Knussen. Carter sets parts of two of Pound's Cantos, where he despairs of not having written the perfect poem, which to him was paradise. The title On Conversing with Paradise is a quote from William Blake that Pound considered as a title for an early book of his own poems.

Elliott Carter’s centenary year of 2008 brought over 700 performances, according to Boosey & Hawkes. As these Aldeburgh concerts demonstrate, the celebrations continue alongside Carter’s own composition schedule. Figment V for marimba is premiered by Simon Boyar in New York on 2 May and the completed Poems of Louis Zukofsky for soprano and clarinet receives its first performance by Lucy Shelton and Stanley Drucker at the Tanglewood Festival on 9 August. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2009/10 season includes the US premiere of the Flute Concerto on 4 February 2010 with soloist Elizabeth Rowe conducted by James Levine, as well as performances of Dialogues with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, artistic director of this Aldeburgh Festival.

Descriptions of Carter’s works abridged largely from Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents by Felix Meyer and Anne C Shreffler, published by the Boydell Press in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation, except for On Conversing with Paradise which was excerpted from the Boosey & Hawkes website. Some tickets remain for the Aldeburgh Festival and may be purchased online via their website. Festivalgoers may also be interested in The New Aldeburgh Anthology, in which an impressive collection of writers examine the history of the Festival and its connection to Benjamin Britten and his circle, as well as aspects of the Suffolk countryside and its history. Both of these books are available from good booksellers and from the new visitors’ centre at Snape Maltings, venue for most of the Festival.

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