IN: Reviews

Holding a Mirror to Carter

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Sharon Harms (file photo)

Collage New Music challenged Pickman last night with a lively assortment centered on Elliott Carter’s song cycle A Mirror On Which to Dwell, with beautiful texts by Elizabeth Bishop. The preliminary talk, lasting nearly an hour, found director David Hoose in discussion with Lloyd Schwartz, renowned not only as one of Boston’s most expert writers on music but also as the editor of Bishop’s works. When Speculum Musicae commissioned Carter’s cycle in 1975, it was the first vocal music Carter had written in 30 years. Several in the Collage audience had connections not only with Carter personally and professionally, but also with this particular work. Schwartz took pains to note that Bishop had already been an admirer of Carter’s music when approached about his setting her texts.

Under the expert direction of Hoose, Collage achieved accuracy and brilliance of execution. Sharon Harms, soprano, full of power and might, was ably supported by an ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet with auxiliaries; violin, viola, cello, bass; piano and percussion. The result left a taste of bitterness that went a long way toward explaining why the preliminary discussion about the cycle seemed so apologetic. Because this song cycle by a great American composer whom all of us love and honor came across as a misfire in sound. The complex instrumental texture had frequent moments of fascination, even subtlety, but it not only overpowered the singing; it steamrollered the text. There are six poems, each of some length, and in their vocal setting each one was hurried through at a pace much too swift for ready understanding, and with a jagged melodic declamation that too often stressed the wrong word or the wrong part of the phrase, too often bending the vocal register into shrieking. One had the impression that the cycle was a constant struggle of voice against instruments, with the poetry itself relegated to background observation. Certainly, many arresting moments came, such as the frantic upper-register whirlwind in “Anaphora,” the subtly contrasting lower textures in “Argument,” the scary ultra-high oboe writing in “Sandpiper,” the expressive high violin and viola in “Insomnia.”. But I felt it useful to consider A Mirror On Which to Dwell as filtered through the sound of Carter’s Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord (1953) which I had heard in Jordan Hall only a few hours earlier — a work of ingenious joy and clarity. What then had evoked Carter’s apparent striving (or strife) for accelerated complexity in this song cycle 22 years later? Repeated hearings will surely add to our general understanding, for Carter’s work is still seldom heard and we can only be thankful that Collage bravely brought it forth again.

After intermission came my third live concert experience of Giacinto Scelsi’s much-praised Okanagon (1968) which I continue to find detestable. On a stage fully darkened except for stand lights, three instruments — tamtam (two kinds of strokes), contrabass, and harp (only on the lowest strings and vibrating against a metal spoon) — played endlessly-repeated twangy chords through amplifiers. (When I heard Okanagon in Sanders Theater 35 years ago, the stage lights were blue.) The handout gave the spelling as Okanagan; no relation, one assumes, to the city of Okanogan, a few miles north of Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington state (pronounced Oak-a-noggin).

The remainder of the program gives me more pleasure to describe. First we heard two short tributes to the composer Christopher Rouse, who died less than a month ago — Monday’s New York Times reported the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, a farewell, by the Cincinnati Orchestra. We heard Valentine, a two-minute flute solo written in 1996 for Carol Wincenc; Sarah Brady played this lovely piece with fine sensitivity. After Okanagon it was a special pleasure to hear a very different low-register piece, Rouse’s witty and bangy Little Gorgon (1996) for piano; Christopher Oldfather dispatched it with a smile.

Steven Mackey (file photo)

In second place we’d heard Octet (1978) by Tobias Picker — violin, cello, bass, oboe, bass clarinet, horn, harp, and mallet percussion (two players). Picker loaded the nine minutes with vitality and remarkable stylistic eclecticism, as a bright D minor tonality radiated here and there with several particularly resonant D octaves. All of this came forth in an ostinato passage here, a marching bass there, a waltz fragment in the middle, and some contrapuntal dialogues that moved events right along without haste but with notable energy. Andrew Porter’s essay spoke of “a web of lines and timbres” but also “I find Picker’s music hard to describe.” Agreed…but it’s also quite agreeable.

Steven Mackey’s Five Animated Shorts (2006) for an ensemble of piano, violin, cello, flute (alto flute, piccolo), clarinet (E-flat clarinet), percussion (two players), and solo cimbalom, wrapped up the concert. The titles which the composer worked out with a cinematic collaborator seemed only loosely correlated with the sounds, but the individual pieces ranged from bright and witty to thoughtful and expressive, always providing welcome clarity. “Depending” relied on ostinati and E-flat minor, with filigree and inside-the-piano manipulation, plus some bongos and blowing across the mouth of a soda bottle. “Dancing for Sarah” danced in 7/8 with some polymeters and black-key pentatonicism; “Slippery Dog” included glissandi across the cimbalom strings, tin cans, bongos, mini cymbal and a weird combination of violin harmonics in glissando with Flexatone; “Still in Motion” had a dialogue between piano and cimbalom with jazzy bounce and changing meters; and “Lonely Motel,” the longest piece, was dominated by a clock-like drip on middle C in the vibraphone, with clouds of blurred moving chords, eventually resolving on an F bass, subtle and richly moving. The parts added up to a really elegant and emotionally satisfying whole. Nick Tolle, the skillful cimbalom soloist, played what appears to be a modern concert instrument strung with three strings per note; Frank Epstein, founder of Collage, stood in to play the ticktock woodblocks in the first short.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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