This past Sunday at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra performed a very bold program made up entirely of music by modernist composer Elliott Carter. The music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, is known for his adventurous programming. Although Carter gained a significant amount of popularity in his last few decades, and his music is frequently performed in well-known concert and recital halls, an all-Carter program still has the potential to be very overwhelming. First of all, for the performers, much of Carter’s music is extraordinarily difficult. Additionally, even for a knowledgeable audience, this could be a difficult concert to follow. I am a big fan of Carter’s music, but the specific programming would be a very important factor in how I felt during a concert such as this.
Of course, Botstein had considered all of these things. The review of the concert in the “NY Times” calls it: Serving a Challenging Meal by Starting Off Easy. The program was very thoughtfully constructed so that it was balanced for both the audience and the orchestra (which is made up of freelance musicians, so rehearsal time is limited). The concert opened with the “Suite from Pocahontas”. The beginning of this is very powerful, and the entire suite displays a wide range of colors along with “folksy melodies and vivacious rhythms”. Any audience members familiar with the story of Pocahontas can become involved in the music through the story.
The next piece was “Sound Fields”, which is very easy to listen to. The consistent sound is altered with slight color and harmonic changes in the strings. These two pieces set the stage well for the more complex “Clarinet Concerto”. According to the review, the clarinetist, Anthony McGill, was very engaging as he “wandered the stage animatedly”. The second half of the concert was similarly structured, as it started off with the beautiful vocal pieces “Warble for Lilac-Time” and “Voyage”, featuring a soprano and mezzo-soprano respectively. The concert concluded with the “Concerto for Orchestra”, which displays the most modernistic elements of anything on the program.
I think that this is a great way to present modernist music. For the members of the audience already familiar with Carter’s music, they could appreciate hearing the changes his music went through. For those unfamiliar with Carter’s music, the program was designed in a way that allowed them to begin to understand the music through pieces that are more easily accessible. Having dedicated musicians on stage, including Botstein and McGill, who have a passion for sharing modern music is also important. The review states that, “Whatever Mr. Botstein and his orchestra may have lacked in machine-tooled precision, they made up with commitment and heart, as well as a bravado that any orchestra might envy”. Although Carter’s music is very much about precision, it is the display of heart that will encourage audiences to return to this type of concert. I hope that other music directors will be brave enough to give concerts such as this, but conscious enough to put a great deal of thought into the specifics of programming.