Elliott Carter’s The American Sublime for baritone and large ensemble is not his final composition, but it is the last to receive its world première, which occurred on Sunday at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. The chamber work is the perfect example of a musical work that exists alongside its texts but never relies on them. The work, which was conducted by its dedicatee James Levine and performed by the MET Chamber Ensemble with Evan Hughes, is set to five poems by Wallace Stevens, including The American Sublime and This is the thesis…. Mr Levine led the musicians through a remarkable performance whose scattered yet distinct clouds of sound evoked the warmth, irony and philosophical musings of the texts.

Evan Hughes © Matthu Placek | CAMI
Evan Hughes
© Matthu Placek | CAMI

The words and music both grapple with the concepts of the sublime – “The spirit and space, / The empty spirit / In vacant space” – as well as the earthly – “the odors of the summer fields”. Carter’s music was almost uncannily apt, such as the sixteenth-rest in all voices following the line “There seemed to be an apostrophe that was not spoken”, before the music skittered back into action. Or the woodwind notes flowing along beneath the lines “He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way / To keep on flowing”. Perhaps the most sublime moment, the moment that seemed to most convincingly marry ‘the real’ (the musicians sitting before us in all their fleshly glory) with ‘the unreal’ (the sounds and sensations melting across our ears), was the final one, in which Mr Hughes, sans accompaniment, sang a subtly ascending “Merely in living as and where we live”.

On the other hand, Charles Wuorinen’s It Happens Like This, set to absurd(ist) poetry by James Tate, felt mostly subservient to its texts. The 40-minute work was highly engaging but relied too much on the momentum and humor of its literary component. The seven poems, spoken and sung by Sharon Harms, Laura Mercado-Wright, Steven Brennfleck and Douglas Williams, drew us in with beginnings like “I was outside St. Cecelia’s Rectory smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me” and “I was standing at the kitchen sink washing a few dishes, when I hear this knocking at my door. I looked out the window, but there was no one there. But the knocking continued. I looked down, and there was this wild turkey staring at me.” The vocalists assumed different characters and voices (both narrative and musical) throughout the work, sometimes casually addressing the audience and other times entering a frantic dialogue with each other, their voices blending into colorful stacks of sounds, occasionally interrupted by the blurt of a trumpet or a snarl from the percussion.

These musical interjections felt at times like distractions from a fascinating, theatrical poetry reading. There were impressive musical moments, such as the sharp shifts from spoken to sung words and from staccato to legato. But these moments would not have been enough to sustain an audience without the entertainment value of the many intervening patterns of words and stories. The wailing trombone, spattering piano and ponderous pizzicato were dreamy details that felt like tongue-in-cheek accompaniments underscoring the poetry rather than speaking for themselves. The piece was conducted by its composer in a surprising program change; Mr Levine explained that the work had been written for him but Mr Wuorinen had had to step in and conduct its 2011 première at Tanglewood (due to Mr Levine’s spinal injury) and would do the same for this performance. Mr Wuorinen seemed quite comfortable conducting the cantata, which he described in the program notes as depicting “the contrast between the everyday quality of the surface and the very strange interior”.

The wordless pieces on the program each stood out in their own way. Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments, one of his earliest neoclassical works, was expertly delivered by all eight musicians but particularly bassoonists William Short and Mark L. Romatz, whose lines bounced along and against each other with astonishing precision. Despite a few lackluster passages during the second movement, this was a crisp interpretation of Stravinsky’s more bland, less riotous music. Under Mr Levine’s direction, the music hopped and meandered about in rhythmic clarity, contrasting with the jaunty cacophony of the next piece, Charles Ives’s Scherzo: Over the Pavements. The mishmash of rhythms and tempi exploded into clumps of sounds and ideas, occasionally punctuated by thuds on the bass drum or crashes from the cymbals. The collages of sounds were intended to capture the different beats and footfalls of people and horses passing by on the street outside his window in New York City. Through the clusters of clattering chords and phrases could be heard individual, imagistic refrains such as the recurring three descending notes of the piccolo, which might have represented the changing colors of a stoplight.

The highlight of the concert was a quick wash of colorful, fragile sounds via John Cage’s Atlas eclipticalis. The score was created by projecting maps of the night sky onto staff paper and creating microtonal constellations, with variations in pitch and dynamics indicated by the size of the note heads. The musicians, of which there may be up to 86, make their way through the constellations according to the timing of the conductor. During Sunday’s performance, the pointillistic patterns sleepily nodded and blinked at each other, overlapping and reaching across one another and, eventually, fading away like the stars against the morning sky.

***11