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Elliott Carter at 100: New England Conservatory’s Retrospective


The performances of Elliott Carter’s chamber music at New England Conservatory on December 3rd stands out in the recent explosion of performances of his works as he approaches his 100th birthday.  Though this performance will likely be overshadowed by the excitement surrounding the Boston Symphony Orchestra world premiere of Carter’s Interventions on Friday, what the BSO cannot offer is the full scope of the entire career of one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century.  The program at Jordan Hall juxtaposed Carter’s early neoclassical pieces with some of his more familiar atonal works.

There were two fine performances in Brown Hall for a brief pre-concert program.  Pianist Asher Severini performed Carter’s Piano Sonata with relentless intensity.  The following performance of Carter’s String Quartet No. 4 by the Chiara String Quartet was poignant, and only occasionally shaky in some of the more delicate moments.  Violist Jonah Sirota’s tremendous tone quality stood out in the performance, even through the most complex passages.

Later that evening in Jordan Hall, members of the NEC wind ensemble performed the 1997 piece, Luimen.  The particularly odd instrumentation of the piece, including two brass players, vibraphone, harp, guitar, and mandolin begs for a constant battle to keep the ensemble in balance.  The conscientious performance of the brass allowed for the nuances of timbre through the dense rhythmic textures.  The following performance of Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord was well-delivered, with a particularly fine performance by oboist Amanda Hardy.

The NEC Chamber Singers, followed by the NEC Women’s Chorus took the stage for two pieces from Carter’s early neoclassical works.  Musicians Wrestle Everywhere and The Harmony of Morning represent a style of writing rarely associated today with the composer- sounding with the influences of Copland and Hindemith.  The performances were beautifully interpreted, contributing to a much larger sense of eclecticism than what would be expected on a program of works by a single composer.  Another one of Carter’s more tonally oriented, Canonic Suite, was featured after intermission.  The piece for four alto saxophones was still quite different than other neoclassical pieces on the program, and offered some interesting sonic qualities through the coloristic nature of the instruments.

Through the shortest performance of the evening, Figment III, was quite memorable.  The most recently composed piece on the program (2007) featured an astounding performance by bassist Donald Palma, ripe with energy, personality, and a sense of masculinity.  Closing the program, Carter’s Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras, featured soloists Stephen Drury and Yukiko Takagi.  The performance of the chamber orchestra’s was commendable, especially for a student ensemble.  The percussionists were consistently precise, and showed immense musicianship in an extremely difficult piece.  Equally impressive was the performance of Yukiko Takagi, who met and exceeded the challenge of not allowing the harpsichord to be swallowed by the rest of the ensemble.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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