Another Premiere from the 103-Year-Old Wonder Boy

United StatesUnited States CONTACT!: Carter, Jarrell, Boulez: John Schaefer (host), Magnus Lindberg (host), Colin Currie (percussion), Eric Huebner (piano), Charlotte Dobbs (soprano), Robert Langevin (MIDI-flute), Mindy Kaufman (flute), Alexandra Sopp (flute), New York Philharmonic, David Robertson (conductor), The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Symphony Space, 8-9.6.2012 (BH)

Elliott Carter: Two Controversies and a Conversation (2010-2011, World premiere)
Michael Jarrell: MACHLESE Vb: Liederzyklus (2011, World premiere)
Pierre Boulez: …explosante-fixe… (1991-93)

Even from a wheelchair (and at 103 years old, he’s allowed), Elliott Carter exuded a sunny air at these two latest concerts in the New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! Series, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at Symphony Space on consecutive nights. Though looking slightly more frail (in interviews with John Schaefer and Magnus Lindberg, respectively), Carter was lucid and funny commenting on his latest opus, Two Controversies and a Conversation, and from its sprightly energy one would hardly guess it had been penned by a centenarian.

For large chamber orchestra with two soloists—Colin Currie on percussion and Eric Huebner on piano—the score is what many now recognize as “late Carter” (or perhaps “late-late Carter”), filled with lightness, even humor in its volatile treatment of the ensemble. The score grew from its initial “Conversation” movement using the pianist among the percussion section; here the pianist emerges from the entire group, and also stars in the first “Controversy.” While this latest effort didn’t seem to tax Huebner’s considerable abilities, Carter must know that one doesn’t always need to make an artist sweat to make a point. Currie was fun to watch, hurriedly sprinting between two groups of instruments, and given the final word—ringing a small bell. Members of the Philharmonic gave their all in focus and finesse, and at the conclusion, as a wave of applause began, conductor David Robertson leaped into the audience to greet the composer.

A poem by Luis de Góngora y Argote inspired Michael Jarrell’s MACHLESE Vb: Liederzyklus for soprano and ensemble, about language, translation, and the difficulties of fully understanding dense texts. Jarrell takes the same sonnet in German, Spanish and French, then adds an instrumental section—all of which he compares to examining an object from multiple angles, as if pondering a sculpture. Jarrell’s vivid palette is heavy with percussion—especially bells and chimes—yet (like the rest of the ensemble) used with a light, exacting hand. Soprano Charlotte Dobbs navigated the delicate vocal part—now peaceful, now nervous—with the patience of a tour guide faced with multiple paths, and Jarrell was on hand to receive the applause.

There’s a bit of Bernstein in Robertson, who prefaced Pierre Boulez’s “…explosante-fixe…” with a lucid, entertaining road map of what to expect during the roughly 45 minutes. Written for an ensemble of strings, brass and winds (no percussion) and live electronics, it features three flutes front-and-center—Robert Langevin (on MIDI-flute), Mindy Kaufman and Alexandra Sopp—capping sensuous legions of glittering trills and waves of effervescence. Although performed without pause, the three sections were separated by brief episodes in which the ensemble seems to be calmly checking its pulse, while the stage lights were slightly dimmed. In his comments Robertson related a story of traveling with Boulez to Chile, and the composer unable to sleep, showing a childlike fascination with the clouds scuttling by outside the airplane. That sense of air rushing past, of clouds of sound—and above all, of a mutable, dynamic landscape—proved to be exactly the right image to plant in an audience about to hear the piece.

Bruce Hodges