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Los Angeles Times

Review: Southwest Chamber Music Celebrates Elliott Carter’s Late Career Surge

By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times
July 16, 2015

No artist in history has produced anything like what Elliott Carter did in his late years. Thirty-five works are dated between 2008, the year he turned 100, and his death in 2012, a few weeks before his 104th birthday. Never losing his freshness or inventiveness, the composer changed the whole concept of late style.

Most remarkable among those late pieces are five song cycles with texts by major American poets who wrote during Carter's lifetime, unflinching texts that deal with morality. Four of them were put together for the first time on a single program Wednesday night for the final concert in Southwest Chamber Music's LA International New Music Festival at REDCAT.

Southwest music director Jeff von der Schmidt described these pieces as "a last long look at what a human is." They are also a last and singular look at what an American is. The titles of the song cycles say it all: "A Sunbeam's Architecture," "The American Sublime," "What Are Years," "On Conversing With Paradise."

How does one stand to behold the sublime? That's Wallace Stevens' question in "The American Sublime." Where, then, does one begin to describe Carter's final accomplishment? Future careers may be devoted to parsing the wisdom of this music.

I'll start where Von der Schmidt did on Wednesday, with "Tintinnabulation," a percussion score that had its premiere nine days before Carter's 100th birthday. Written for six players and too many instruments to count, it was Carter's only work solely for percussion. It is rhythmically intricate (a Carter trademark), sonically unpredictable (another Carter trademark), full of emotional twists and turns (pure Carter), witty (inevitably Carter), irrational yet logical at thtime (again, Carter).

Three of the song cycles were West Coast premieres. "The American Sublime" is a set of five poems by Stevens for baritone, winds, brass and percussion and begins with a startling drumroll to announce the question about the sublime.

In the six e.e. cummings poems of "A Sunbeam's Architecture," a tenor follows a poet's life that also mirrored Carter's — from the marvelous invention of the telephone through the godlessness of war and the craziness of love. The final song, "somewhere," might be a response to Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere" in finding the essence of the fragility of life, expressed here by one who knew of what he spoke.

"What Are Years," for soprano, uses Marianne Moore's poems. In the third song, "The Being So- Called Human," the soul is steadied by the sun anew each day "and new and new and new," the vocal line taking leaps of exhilaration.

"I have tried to write Paradise," a line from Ezra Pound's "Canto CXX," is the final stanza of Carter's "Conversing With Paradise." "Do not move/Let the wind speak/That is paradise." This cycle for a high baritone gave Carter the most trouble because Pound, with his Fascist politics, gave Carter the most pause.

But in the composer's astute selection of texts, he uses Pound's own frailties to reveal a kernel of acceptance. "What thou lovest well is thy true heritage" rings out with utter clarity.

We pay far too little attention to Elliott Carter. Southwest is the rare local group to have consistently championed him. The Los Angeles Philharmonic once did, but no more. In Italy, Gustavo Dudamel conducted the last Carter premiere during the composer's lifetime, a small piano concerto written for Daniel Barenboim. Zubin Mehta then was the conductor for it in Berlin with Barenboim. The concerto, along with so much else of Carter's wondrous late output, remains unplayed here.

Southwest gathered fine musicians, including the magnificent Mexican percussion ensemble, Tambuco. Soprano Elissa Johnston, tenor Jon Lee Keenan and baritone Abdiel Gonzalez brought life to the songs, but they have not yet had a chance to become comfortable with them. This is music in which every note matters, and it requires living with. I think the audience would have been better served with texts provided.

But Southwest gets enormous credit for beginning this unprecedented conversation with paradise.


©2015, Los Angeles Times

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