Entertainment & Arts

Honoring composer Elliott Carter

Conductor Oliver Knussen leads Elliott Carter onstage at the Tanglewood Music Center.
CELEBRATED: Conductor Oliver Knussen leads Elliott Carter onstage at the Tanglewood Music Center during a festival devoted to the composer’s music in advance of his 100th birthday.
(Hilary Scott)
Times Music Critic

LENOX, Mass. -- In 1986, Elliott Carter wrote “A Celebration of Some 100 x 150 Notes,” a salute to Texas on its 150th anniversary. That may appear a lot of notes to fit into a three-minute piece, but this brash bevy of 11 fanfares all fighting for attention at once was but one very small part of “Carter’s Century,” a very large celebration of the composer’s upcoming 100th birthday as part of the Tanglewood Music Festival here. If those 15,000 notes had been grains of sand, then this five-day jubilee (which ended Thursday) at the Boston Symphony’s summer home in the lush green Berkshires could have been called Carter Beach.

There were 47 pieces, or quite a few more depending how you count -- “Celebration,” for instance, became the first part of an orchestral triptych. There were two all-Carter concerts a day, totaling about 20 hours of music. Carter is still an active composer, and the event included several U.S. premieres of recent works and the first performances of two new pieces commissioned for the occasion.

This was the first time that the Tanglewood Music Center, a prestigious training program for young musicians, devoted its annual contemporary music festival to a single composer. The final concert, Thursday night, was the first time that the Boston Symphony performed a full concert as part of the festival. And that concert was also the first time in the orchestra’s long history that it devoted a full program to the works of a living composer.

And then there was Carter himself, with his winning smile, treated as a living legend. Walking takes effort for him these days, but he got plenty of exercise standing again and again to acknowledge the loud cheers after every piece. He repeatedly returned to the stage after every concert to bow. The crowds couldn’t get enough of him. Teenage musicians and senior citizens alike swarmed around his wheelchair, whether to get his autograph or simply to bask in his beaming presence.

And all this for a composer whose formidably complex music has long terrified performers and angered audiences, for a man who for decades has stood for all that many felt was wrong with inaccessible contemporary music.

The music still turns some off. But time clearly is on Carter’s side. And so too is James Levine.

Since becoming music director of the Boston Symphony four seasons ago, Levine has made it his mission to program Carter and commission new work. The Tanglewood festival was Levine’s doing, but kidney surgery for a malignant tumor forced him to withdraw. Luckily Oliver Knussen, the British composer and conductor who served as the festival’s advisor, was able to assume many of Levine’s duties. Talented young conductors were also found to help out. A great occasion remained a great occasion.

I caught the last three days of the festival, which was enough to leave my head spinning (mostly in a good way). Each Carter piece is its own teeming universe. Comprehension requires patience, repeated hearing, focused attention. A Carter retrospective, however, shifts the brain into continual high gear.

Carter is conveniently given three stylistic periods: a short early Americana period in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s; a middle period of pieces of high complexity in which various forms of music coexist; and a late period (maybe several) of more transparent writing, including a growing array of short solo pieces.

The festival put much of its attention on recent work. This provided students plenty of solo opportunities, and the performances were remarkable. Technical hurdles few players of an earlier generation could leap have become everyday sport for today’s young. But also remarkable is the sheer fertility of Carter’s imagination. He is always coming up with something new.

“Mad Regales,” which had its premiere Tuesday night, is a setting for six solo voices of three poems by John Ashbery, who sat next to Carter at the concert. In Ashbery’s verse, one line never leads predictably to the next. In these surprisingly nutty madrigals, illogic becomes delight. Words pop up madly where they don’t fit but are made to belong nevertheless.

Perhaps the revelation of the festival was Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra, which Leonard Bernstein premiered in 1970 with a New York Philharmonic pretty much over its collective head. The score is loud and raucous. Everything seems to be happening at once. Knussen conducted an enthusiastically tumultuous performance by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, an astonishingly well-prepared student ensemble, that revealed the concerto to be a brilliant you-are-there embodiment of the profound political turmoil and artistic exuberance of the late ‘60s.

The Boston Symphony concert was full of wonder as well. The first half was recent music written for the orchestra -- including a short movement titled “Fons Juventatis” (Fountain of Youth)! The podium duties were shared by the or- chestra’s impressive young South Korean assistant conductor, Shi-Yeon Sung, who opened the program, and Knussen.

The festival closed, after intermission, with the 50-minute Symphonia. It consists of three movements, which can be played separately, and was competed in 1996. Knussen led the premiere of the full work in Britain, and its only full performance in America was by Levine and the Boston Symphony two seasons ago.

The piece’s inspiration came from a poem about the existential qualities of a bubble. The first movement is a massive playground of wild invention; the second, a somber meditation in disturbing zombie-like suspended animation; the third, a zest-fest. The whole gets my vote as the Great American Symphony. Knussen’s performance did magnificent music full justice.

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