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.

Festival Chamber Music in Review

 Festival Chamber Music in Review
 Ayako Oshima, clarinet
David Jolley, horn
Yuri Funahashi, piano
Calvin Wiersma, violin
Theodore Arm, violin/viola
Ruth Sommers, cello/director
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
February 2, 2011

 Festival Chamber Music is a rotating group of enterprising top-notch New York musicians. They like to take time out from their busy lives as performers and teachers to present new and unfamiliar works in a variety of instrumental combinations, as well as staples of the standard repertoire. Founded in 1988 by its director, cellist Ruth Sommers, in Dobbs Ferry, the group moved in 1992 to New York City, where it performs an annual series of five concerts to sell-out audiences.

Its most recent program was of particular interest. It featured Beethoven’s popular Piano Quartet, Op. 16 in E-flat major in an excellent performance, and works by two virtually unknown Czech composers: the Quintet for piano, violin, cello , clarinet and horn, Op. 42 by Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900), written in 1893, and the String Trio by Gideon Klein (l9l9-l045), one of the so-called Holocaust composers, written in 1944. Fibich, though born in Prague, did not follow in the footsteps of his compatriots Smetana and Dvorak, the fathers of the Czech nationalist movement; rather, his music–though never openly derivative–is steeped in the Romantic German tradition. In the Quintet, Fibich’s compositional skill shows in his modulations (which use a lot of deceptive cadences), and in his ability to exploit and combine the instruments’ colors and timbres to best effect. The first and last of the Quintet’s four movements are in sonata form; the Scherzo, marked “with wild humor,” foreshadows Shostakovich in its acerbic sarcasm, but this is relieved by two cheerful Trios, a waltz and a polka. A solo piano passage leads back to the da capos. The Quintet’s centerpiece is the slow movement, a truly beautiful, long-breathing melody, stated first by the piano in solid and arpeggiated chords, then repeated with a florid violin obbligato. The work’s most pervasive characteristics are its democratic distribution of the solos, its unabashed romanticism, and its surging, soaring melodies; but the heart-on-sleeve quality of the music is so genuine that sentiment never lapses into sentimentality.

Gideon Klein already had several compositions to his credit when he was sent to Terezin in 1941. At 20, he must have been one of the youngest of the composers who perished in the Nazi death-camps, and, if this String Trio is any indication, also one of the most talented. A brilliant pianist, his ability to use the string instruments’ resources was remarkable. Though naturally still under the influence of contemporary stylistic trends, the Trio displays a personal voice and an astoundingly mature emotional range. Its three movements are all based on Moravian folksongs. The first and last are fast, skittish, jumpy, abrasive, and dissonant, often punctuated with Slavic and Hungarian off-beat rhythms; the last one ends in a Bartokian dance and a crash. The Trio’s core is the much longer, slow, middle movement: a set of variations of contrasting tempos, textures and characters that encompass defiance, grief and despair, leaving the listener shaken and heart-broken. Klein became one of Terezin’s heroes, organizing its musical and cultural activities. The Trio was written nine days before Klein’s deportation to Auschwitz; he died there a year later.

Heard at two rehearsals, the playing of this demanding program was excellent. Pianist Funahashi alternated imperceptibly between leading and supporting, always sensitive, never too loud; hornist Jolley and clarinetist Oshima were outstanding in their prominent roles. The Quintet had an almost orchestral sonority at times. The string players negotiated their often stratospheric parts with aplomb; cellist Sommers provided a firm foundation, violinist Wiersma was a strong leader in the Beethoven and Klein; Arm, doubling on violin and viola, had the courage to play the bigger instrument first, but kept his intonation intact – no mean feat.

These fine, adventuresome musicians deserve our admiration and gratitude for bringing these unjustly neglected works to our attention in such committed, persuasive performances.