Monday, December 08, 2008

Oppens Plays Carter

The Complete Elliott Carter Piano Works with a Lecture by Robert Greenberg and Ursula Oppens Performing the Piano Works
Sunday, December 7, 2:30pm
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum

Elliott Carter Centenary Celebration
Ursula Oppens, piano

90+ (1994)
Retrouvailles (2000)
Two Diversions (1999)
Night Fantasies (1980)
Piano Sonata (1945–46)
Two Thoughts about the Piano
    Intermittences (2005)
    Catenaires (2006)

Even though I am pretty much ignorant of Carter's music, I didn't want to miss out on the Elliott Carter Centenary Celebration entirely. Fortunately for the uneducated like me, the event included a pre-recital lecture by Robert Greenberg. He gave a fairly technical musical analysis of the major works on the program & rooted Carter firmly in a classical context that includes Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt & Copland. He also taught me an impressive new word: pandiatonicism. Think John Adams or the neo-classical Stravinsky.

The major characteristic of Carter's mature style is a sort of higher-order polyphony in which musical counterpoint may occur at many different levels. For example, the 2nd of the Two Diversions has 2 main voices, one of which gets slower while the other speeds up.

But the most obvious manifestation of this polyphony is the monstrous technical difficulty of the works. This is really dense music. Oppens never looked anything other than calm & confident, but she had a lot of notes to play & a lot of events to keep track of, & things often go by very quickly. She moves her hands around the piano very efficiently. Sometimes it looked like she was tossing handfuls of notes down on the keyboard. Unfortunately the venue was not good acoustically for the piano. The audience sits on risers erected in the middle of a big ballroom. It's like being at a high school basketball game. The room is dry, & the piano often sounded buzzy.

Greenberg was good at giving the audience things to listen for right away, & in the shorter pieces I could usually get some sense of the organizing principle. However, I felt completely lost in the longer Night Fantasies that closed the 1st half. I was most at ease with the Piano Sonata, since it could almost be a kind of late-Romantic piece. However, this is an early work that doesn't represent Carter's fully mature style. The final Catenaires was the one piece I had no problem enjoying. It's a galloping run of single notes, in the manner of C.P.E. Bach's Solfeggio, that was exciting, brilliant, breathless & fun.

The audience for this concert was extremely focused & attentive. I saw someone with the music for one of the pieces, following along. Oppens got a big ovation that included some foot-stamping. As an encore, she performed the 1st part of Matribute, a recent work written for James Levine. A wine & dessert reception followed the concert, so I guess Carter throws an OK birthday party.

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