Tenri Cultural Institute presents Wa Concert Series- The Originality of Greatness: Celebrating Elliott Carter’s 109th Birthday in Review

Tenri Cultural Institute presents Wa Concert Series- The Originality of Greatness: Celebrating Elliott Carter’s 109th Birthday in Review

Charles Neidich, Ayako Oshima, clarinet; Alexi Kenney, violin; Fred Sherry, cello; Lucy Shelton, Amber Evans, sopranos; Mohamed Shams, piano; John Link, musicologist
Tenri Cultural Institute, New York, NY
December 16, 2017


Only a musician with unforced naturalness of phrasing, total command of his instrument, and a puckish humor such as is possessed by Charles Neidich, could make an entire evening of Elliott Carter’s thorny chamber music approachable. He also assembled a team of superlative collaborators—four of the evening’s seven musicians had major experience working with Carter, including close personal friendships. This kind of advocacy is crucial if his music is to stay in the repertoire. Carter died just five years ago, a couple of weeks shy of his 104th birthday, and he was composing virtually up to the end of his long, productive life.

In illuminating remarks by John Link, it became clear that Carter viewed the lion’s share of his music as representing vivid characters. Each note had to be played with the fierce delineation that he had in mind, whether that represented one character with conflicting emotions, or interplay between several characters. Carter did not compose unless he was truly emotionally motivated to do so, even though the popular perception of his output is one of atonality and layers of rhythmic complexity (which are certainly there!). Most of Carter’s works have what I call an “arch” shape, with a satisfying sense of rightness to their endings; although some just end abruptly, like a candle flame being blown out. Carter’s curiosity was relentless, exploring literature, languages, and food with intensity and humor.

Mr. Neidich opened the evening, partnered by the evening’s excellent pianist Mohamed Shams, with the easy-to-take Pastorale, it was the earliest work on the program, showing some of the late-romantic traditions Carter would leave behind definitively. Hiyoku (Two Wings) for two clarinets had Mr. Neidich in duo with his wife Ayako Oshima, also a phenomenal clarinetist, as well as the chef behind the prodigious feasts laid out for all the audiences at these Wa concerts. Their ensemble was understandably perfect. Mr. Shams shone in the Two Thoughts About The Piano solos, the second of which, Caténaires, was a blistering perpetual motion toccata that seemed powered by nuclear energy. Duettino brought together violinist Alexi Kenney and veteran Carter specialist, cellist Fred Sherry (former artistic advisor of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, founder of Speculum Musicae and Tashi), sharing violent alternations of bowed and plucked notes with equal ferocity.

Another lifelong devotee of the contemporary music world, Lucy Shelton, shared duties with a younger soprano, Amber Evans, in the Poems of Louis Zukofsky. Here, Ms. Shelton’s years of commanding performance showed her total mastery not only of the difficult music, but intelligibility of every word; her attentiveness to the clarinet showed her fabulous attention to detail, while never removing emotion from her often witty presentation. Ms. Evans’ songs had more difficult tessiturae, perhaps that impeded some of the words, but her voice was true and powerful. I’m sure Carter was, as mentioned before, moved by this poetry, but I find that his settings often do “get in the way” of the words, my limitation I’m sure.

After the intermission of this long evening,Mr. Kenney, Mr.Neidich, and Mr. Sherry combined to present the Omaggio a Italo Calvino, as Con leggerezza pensosa was known. These players exude the Carter style with utter naturalness. Then Mr. Neidich played the brief solo Gra, which led me to wonder if the title was the Gaelic word for love. Alexi Kenney was brilliant in the solo violin work Rhapsodic Musings. I regard this as Carter’s answer to Ravel’s Tzigane, and Mr. Kenney’s intonation and style were perfection itself, with every double stop interval of a seventh (and they are cruel!) as pure as one can imagine.

Finally came the staple of Carter’s chamber offerings, the great Sonata for Cello and Piano from 1948 (revised in 1966). This four movement behemoth was dispatched with firm command and a wide variety of colors by Mr. Sherry and Mr.  Shams. It doesn’t sound nearly as forbidding as it looks on the page, and even makes sly nods to tonality (heavily disguised) and the old Dies Irae that had so fascinated composers from Berlioz to Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Forgive me, Elliott, for noticing! The work is also cyclic, that is themes from the first movement reappear at the end, adding to the work’s comprehensibility, as did this perfect performance. The enthusiastic audience really hollered its approval after it was over.