99 years of Elliott Carter's masterpieces in 5 days

Whether listening to an opera or a concerto, this composer inspires and intrigues.

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    Maestro: Elliott Carter, a New York-based composer, began writing music in the 1930s. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for music and the United States National Medal of Arts for his classical music compositions.
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Elliott Carter's music is a favorite of James Levine, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).

In the past, I have heard Mr. Levine respond to modest questioners asking about Mr. Carter's music or the other new music Levine might consider bringing to the BSO.

In response, Levine suggested that people should read the program notes, listen to the music, and, if it contains anything that interests you, listen to it again. If not, forget about it.

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Listeners have been unable to forget Carter's music since the 1930s and his first big work, a ballet about Pocahontas, for the New York City Ballet. Since then, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes and has received all sorts of honors for music that leave people cold – or all fired up. That may be because his music often defies what is expected – sounding soulless to some and intensely human to others.

I'm not quite as old as Carter, who turned 100 in December and has written as much music after age 80 as before, but I decided to check out Levine's theory of how to listen to music at the five-day festival of Carter's music he organized last summer at Tanglewood music center in Lenox, Mass. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year of Carter's 100th birthday.]

Although Levine wasn't present, Carter attended, and he rose to his feet time and again to join and accept the applause. In an interview with former Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer, Carter said, "These pieces of music, if they spoke English instead of notes, they would be very grateful."

The melodies and countermelodies of the festival linger on, courtesy of the website: www.TanglewoodWebTV.org.

Quite frankly, I had forgotten about some of Carter's music. But the 10 concerts by students and professionals, plus analytical discussions, interested me. And I didn't have to wait long to listen again to the world première of "Sound Fields," which was short enough to be immediately repeated.

During the festival, the well-attended programs ranged from pieces for one player to four players and included various chamber and orchestral pieces.

The five-day festival concluded with the BSO performing in the Seiji Ozawa Hall, where most of the concerts took place. The piece, "Three Illusions for Orchestra" and the "Horn Concerto," with James Somerville playing French horn, were led by the kinetic BSO assistant conductor, Shi-Yeon Sung.

The festival also featured an internationally recognized composer/conductor, Oliver Knussen, who took over for the performance of the "Boston Concerto," and Carter's largest orchestral work, "Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (I am the prize of flowing hope)."

To me these grand pieces have so much going on that they could alone account for Carter's controversial reputation.

But he was disarming in what he wrote when "Boston Concerto" was premièred in 2003: "The marvelous Boston Symphony was very important to me in the '20s and '30s as a Harvard student. At that time I went every Saturday and stood on the steps of Symphony Hall for a rush seat in the balcony. Those years also included singing with the Harvard Glee Club and the BSO in many of the great choral works. I am so grateful for those years and I have, I hope, written a 'thank you' piece – 'Boston Concerto.' "

Perhaps Carter thought of those singing days when the piece, "Mad Regales," the festival's second world première, returned to a cappella vocal music after nearly 70 years. The piece is written for six voices and the music is set to poems by John Ashbery.

Another piece, "Mosaic," written for harp and ensemble, was an American première.

"The score is formed by many short mosaiclike tesserae that I hope make one coordinated impression," Carter wrote.

This composition asks the harp for "slap pizzicato" and other effects that were no problem for the BSO's fine principal harpist, Ann Hobson Pilot.

But slap pizzicato? Sounds like a jazz term. But are there any jazz influences in Carter's music?

David Schiff, author of "The Music of Elliott Carter," said in the program that the "Piano Sonata of 1946" "invoked jazz." And during a panel discussion he smiled and said he thought he heard some influence of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk in the piano part of Carter's "Cello Sonata of 2000."

"I've never heard Carter say anything about it," Mr. Schiff later added in an e-mail, "but when I play through the part (in private!) I like to give the many staccato notes that mark the pulse a kind of Monk edge to them."

Schiff's private performance was not on the program, but many other pieces of Carter's music fulfilled Levine's instructions – if anything interests you, listen again.

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