The Boston Symphony premiered Elliot Carter’s Horn Concerto over the weekend and will debut a piano concerto (already completed) next year.  And, there’s a five-day festival planned for Tanglewood this summer.  At 98, Carter is proving that the key to a glorious career is to live a very long time, hold onto to your chops, and be friends with James Levine.

Which is not to imply that Carter is not very good; he’s just very good in a way that I find a bit too abstract and cold to love.

My favorite old dude these days is Ned Rorem, who is often overshadowed by more famous contemporaries and dismissed as a writer of charming art songs.  Naxos has been churning out a stream of wonderful Rorem recordings over the past couple of years that have convinced me, at least, that he is terribly underrated. Listen to the recordings of Symphonies 1-3; the violin and flute concertos, and the just released Piano Concerto No. 2 and Cello Concerto and tell me he isn’t a major talent.

UPDATE:  Forgot to mention that Miller Theater is doing the New York premiere of What Next?, Carter’s only opera, on December 7, 8, 9 and 11–which happens to be Carter’s 99th birthday.

6 Responses to “Chilly Scenes of Winter”
  1. Rodney Lister says:

    I meant to post something about this on my blog, but problems with access there and here kept me from doing it earlier.

    My ticket for the BSO concert which had on in the first performance of the Carter concerto put me squarely in the middle of a bunch of older people (I’m not sure how much longer I can use that term, but anyway….) A lady sitting directly on my right, with whom I was chatting, noticing the four empty seats directly to my left, usually occupied by friends of hers, said, “I don’t know whether they don’t like Carter or Mahler.” “Or both, “ I added. Just about that time the people came in, and as they were settling in, she said to the man who was now sitting directly to my left, “I thought maybe you were staying away because of the Carter.” “Oh no,” he said, “I LIKE Carter.” So I guess there are some who do who aren’t brainwashed younger composers.

    Anyway, about the Concerto itself. It’s about fifteen minutes, consisting of seven sections played without a break. It’s set up is not so much the individual in some sort of opposition to the larger group, as some kind of grand oration or aria spun out before an equally grand, shimmering and mercurially changing backdrop or landscape. It seemed to me that the solo part was not sufficiently characterized to carry the whole piece, as it had to do, but, since that was the first performance, further ones may have grown into the piece. All the orchestration was brilliant and effective, and the whole thing is completely masterly and continually engaging. I was not as much taken with it as I was with the Boston Concerto, whose first performance was given by the BSO several years ago, but I like it much better than the very short pendant to the Sinfonia which they played more recently. It’s really an awfully good piece. The audience went wild (presumably with enthusiasm) when it was over and especially when Carter came on the stage. Whether it was a genuine reaction to the piece at hand (which is completely possible) or just celebration and amazement that somebody 99 years old could still be at it, is, I suppose, a question that anybody who wanted to deny that it could possibly be the former, could ask.

    About Rorem: He’s clearly, like Milton Babbitt, a composer of great integrity, who persists in writing as well as he can the music which to him seems most satisfying whether it’s fashionable or not, and one can respect him for that–quite a bit. I agree with Jerry about the Symphonies, which I like a lot. For me, he’s not a composer nearly on the same level with Carter, but who knows….

    Virgil Thomson, incidentally, thought Rorem’s instrumental music was much stronger than his songs. He tells a story somewhere that when Rorem first met Poulenc and showed him his music, the French composer was very enthusiastic about the instrumental music and much less so about the songs. Rorem immediately decided that Poulenc was jealous.

  2. Jay Batzner says:

    I’m a fan of both, too. Carter’s music has just gotten better in the last decade or so and Rorem’s lyricism is not to be trifled with. His Cello Concerto is a real gem and his songs are wonderful.

    Carter as the Highlander? That would be awesome. I could just see the furious sword fight that would ensue when Babbitt makes his move so “there could be only one.”

  3. Daniel G. says:

    Eye of the beholder indeed…I don’t take much away from Carter’s music, though I think there are some interesting moments. I’m kind of with you Alan, in that there are some composers I like that might get lumped in the Carter category, though my love for Rorem’s works trumps anyone that group.

    What’s odd is that despite Rorem’s melodic charm he still doesn’t get very much concert stage respect.

  4. Everette Minchew says:

    You are the oddball, Al. I have listened to about half a dozen pieces of Rorem, and I am not a big fan. I didn’t get a feeling like there was something there i was missing, or like i should keep listening to more of his works.
    Perhaps I will give Rorem a second chance.

    As for Carter I feel that he has written some of his most beautiful music since the early 1990s. His Dialogues for Piano and Orchestrais gorgeous as are the Clarinet Concerto, Syringa, and Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei. While I just can’t get into his Double Concerto or Concerto for Orchestra I do love the second and third ST QTs that a lot of people seem to shy away from.

    Also I would like to think that if any of us were active musicians until our hundreth year we too might have a pretty good network of connections. (Am I being an optimist?)

    Perhaps Carter is an immortal like the highlander Connor MacLeod.

  5. Alan Theisen says:

    So am I a complete oddball because I like both Carter and Rorem?

    Anyone else out there?…

  6. Daniel G. says:

    Before everyone starts trashing Ned Rorem, I’m pledging my allegiance along with Jerry. One of the gems on Naxos is the string orchestra work “Pilgrims” (I think on the CD with the flute and violin concerti). I’ve been a HUGE fan for a while. But I’ll stop drooling and let the rest take a whack…