Elliott Carter was a real maverick composer. Born into the era of Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg, Carter went onto to create an exciting world of new music in the 20th and 21st century. Never slowing down, Carter composed over 40 new works between the ages of 90 and 100. The result: Carter’s music is current and exciting today... and he has an incredible repertoire of music.

Carter © Meredith Heuer
Carter
© Meredith Heuer

Sunday evening, patrons at (Le) Poisson Rouge were treated to an all-Carter program in honor of the late composer. Some of Carter’s collaborators – cellist Fred Sherry, also Carter’s good friend and long-time collaborator, pianist Ursula Oppens, clarinettist Charles Neidich, violinist Rolf Schute and vocalist Tony Arnold – all performed alongside Ensemble LPR, (Le) Poisson Rouge’s new bespoke orchestra. Like Carter himself, the concert was riveting, with each musician breathing life into the disparate themes, rhythms and harmonies that make up Carter’s eclectic musical style.

In the opening piece, Con Leggerezza Pensosa – Omaggio a Italo Calvino, Rolf Schulte (violin) made himself known. Holding his hand farther up the bow (a striking visual if you’re not used to seeing violinists perform that way), Schulte tackled each rhythmic complexity, each double-stop, each breath of silence and sound with ferocity. But he was not without a sense of humour. In the solo piece Fantasy, Schulte again attacked Carter’s music head on. But just as quickly as it began, Fantasy halted to a stop, and Schulte adjusted his glasses and stood tall, almost as if he were giving his own personal nod to Elliott Carter right then and there.

Cellist Fred Sherry’s playing was no less severe; his feet tapped briskly and his whole body jerked and swayed with each tempo change. But perhaps it was his flannel sweater and wiry white hair that made him appear more boisterous and chipper. In the duet with Schulte, titled Duettino, Sherry was playful and engaging, responding to every one of Schulte’s melodic lines and rhythmic gestures (and throwing it right back at him).

Clarinettist Charles Neidich also displayed his own personality on stage. In the clarinet solo, Gra (a piece written for Witold Lutosławski’s 80th birthday), Neidich swayed back and forth in a waltz-like rhythm (even though the piece sounded nothing like a waltz). But seeing Neidich’s “dance” lent Carter’s song a whimsical quality; and despite frenetic rhythms, the clarinet was sprightly and light-hearted.

Tackling works post-1950, Sunday night’s program consisted of mostly atonal music with feverish tempos and eccentric harmonies. Tempo e tempi was no exception. Written for soprano and small ensemble, conductor Michael Nicolas sat down (with his back to the audience) and kept time for the ensemble, as well as those audience members frantically trying to figure out what – if any – tempo was leading the piece. But in Carter’s music, getting lost in the rhythm is all part of the experience. In a single piece, Carter frequently changes the pace of the work, and in some cases, gives each instrumental voice their own set of tempi. Amidst such a frenzied backdrop, soprano Tony Arnold’s (soprano) clairvoyant pitch provided the perfect contrast. Her voice was both sensual and spiritual, lending a thoughtful lightness to the heavy drama embedded in the rhythm and tempo.

Ending the night with the Quintet for piano and string quartet, pianist Ursula Oppens and Ensemble LPR took to the stage. A hectic and chaotic piece, the strings faced the music head on, battling with the piano, but then imitating it in parts. And then after a fifteen-minute frenzy, the music stopped without warning or heed – of course.

Elliott Carter’s playful and engaging musicality shown throughout the entire concert, but his music is not without its influences. Clear tendencies towards woodwinds, the oboe and clarinet for instance, reminded us of Stravinsky; twelve-tone chords and atonal harmonies harkened to Schoenberg; and sometimes, one even heard remnants of a jazzy riff. It was just like Fred Sherry said: “Whatever you think you heard, you are correct.” That’s just it. Elliott Carter’s music cannot be singly defined, and neither can modern classical music. And so Carter’s legacy lives on, not just in one memorable evening, but in his contemporaries’ performances and in groups like Ensemble LPR, musicians committed the diversity inherent in creative new work.

So here’s to Elliott Carter – a musical maverick, even at 103.