Saturday, February 2, 2008

Elliot Carter Focus Festival Concerts

Went on Tuesday January 29 and again last night, Friday February 1 to hear the Focus Festival centenary celebration of the American composer Elliot Carter. There were about 150 people each night at the absolute most in a hall that looked like it holds 600 at least. Unbelievable! Or, unfortunately, believable. Speaks to the reality of new music audiences in America, I suppose. But come on, why isn’t Elliot Carter’s 99-yr old smiling face on the cover of the Time Out New York this past week to promote these concerts? Wouldn’t that have helped fill those seats? Strange, though, as the first night (with Boulez conducting) was sold out and tonight (the last night) with James Levine conducting is also sold out. Those are the two nights that one had to secure tickets in advance for. All the other nights are free. Were the weeknights somehow perceived as less important because there’s no ticket price or advance commitment required? Or is it because there’s no celebrity conductor?

I agree with most of Alan Kozinn’s NY Times review of the Tuesday concert. The highlight for me was actually two readings of the Asko Concerto, written for the eponymous Dutch ensemble in 2000. The boisterous bassoon solo at the end of a piece full of subgroups-within-larger-groups, duos-alongside-trios, was a particular highlight. And to actually hear a piece twice on the same program wsa quite welcome. The second time around (and low attendance numbers) gave me a chance to move closer and hear with more detail the many layers going on in the piece. I was there with Sara and Reuben Radding, who blogs about the Focus festival here. They both really dug Tempo e Tempi, a 1999 piece for soprano, two winds and two strings. The vocalist, Jennifer Zetlan, did a fantastic job seemingly grabbing pitches out of the air. The ultimate highlight, though, came at the end of the program when Elliott Carter stood up from his second row seat. He was given a rousing standing ovation from a surprised audience who (mostly, I think) didn’t realize he was there. We were about four rows away from him.

Last night there were two major highlights for me. Fragments I, the second of the three short string quartets played at the beginning of the first set, consisted entirely of natural and artificial harmonics and was devastatingly beautiful. Despite having to cup my ears to really hear the piece (I must have looked pretty silly), it was sublime. The last piece in the program, Brass Quintet (1974), was the other highlight. Gorgeous fanfares, pedals, muted lines ensemble and solo passages, bass trombone instead of tuba, and just a treat to hear some brass in the room! Peter Jay Sharp Theater is lovely but somehow the sound is a little muted. Even with amplification, the central role the harpsichord played in Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harspichord (1952) was difficult to hear from the sixth row!

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