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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Leon Botstein

By Logan K. Young l.young@classicalite.com on Nov 14, 2013 11:42 PM EST

Be it a concert that reframes musical war horses or one that gives music, herself, an avant frame (during the middle of a labor dispute, no less), the American Symphony Orchestra is certainly one of the more daring ensembles you'll hear play Carnegie Hall.

Under the baton and brain of Leon Botstein, the ASO takes its founder Leopold Stokowski's avowed intention--namely, that orchestral music shall remain accessible and affordable for everyone--and gives it a new charge: Orchestral music should also edify the public at large.

But as Botstein duly notes in this exclusive discussion with Classicalite editor-in-chief Logan K. Young, in the sound world of late Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Elliott Carter, intellectual heft never does betray the "immensely musical."

Logan K. Young: Contemporary audiences will surely be familiar with works like the Clarinet Concerto and, of course, the Concerto for Orchestra. So, what draws you and the ASO to an early ballet like Pocahontas or the Walt Whitman setting of Warble for Lilac-Time?

Leon Botstein: The answer lies in the theme of the concert--to give the audience a sense of the arc of the composer's career. Elliott Carter came of age in the '30s, when the kind of populist, Roy Harris-style was in vogue. Schooled in the Nadia Boulanger tradition, these early Carter works, too, have an angular, perhaps jazz-like influence. They're very similar, very reminiscent of Aaron Copland. Listeners will hear an affinity for nostalgia, à la Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. There's a general atmosphere that they share in the rediscovery efforts of a shared past: the WPA, Charles Seeger, Alan Lomax, etc. Of course, Carter thinks of the world in his own way--rhythmically. Which leads us, then, to the Carter of the '60s. An incredibly dense and complex work written for the New York Philharmonic, the Concerto for Orchestra is a single, continuous musical essay that revels in the density of sonorities. Meanwhile, pieces like his famous Clarinet Concerto and Sound Fields for string orchestra have an association with the New York School of Morton Feldman, with some minimalist tendencies from Cage. In "Elliott Carter: An American Original," we hear the breadth of a single man's artistic journey.

LKY: As that original, Elliott Carter was truly the last of a breed--that arch modernist kind, so to speak. And I doubt we'll see another such composer reach, and then breach, the century mark. Are we only still talking about, still performing Carter because he's so fresh in modernism's memory?

LB: Carter has the benefit of great longevity, as well as being an innately gifted writer about his own work. Just read his essays. I new him, slightly, as he came to several ASO concerts, including our performance of the Concerto for Orchestra in 1999. An elegant and urbane man, he adapted well to new sounds. And he never got angry at the neglect of his body of work, unlike a Ralph Shapey or a Roger Sessions. In other words, he didn't become Milton Babbitt. Moreover, Carter came to be seen as this grandfather of modern composition. Having seen his kindness to performers, well, he did not take the Schoenberg approach. Like Charles Ives, yes, he had his own heretical ideas. And while he might've been trained in the European style, he didn't really became a disciple of Europe. Carter had a homegrown side to him. Again, just look at his book on harmony. It's his way of showing both sides.

LKY: You've mentioned Carter's fascination with rhythm. Can you, Maestro Botstein, define Elliott Carter's premise of "metric modulation"...in your own words?

LB: Yes, once more, it's a fascination with rhythm. When I had the chance to talk to him about this, I inquired about what he puts in the preface to Concerto for Orchestra. It's more forbidding on the page than it actually sounds. His tempo changes are all quite natural. Starting with that pulse of 84, his variations in time end up creating this continuous musical line that's not mathematics at all. In fact, there's often an Italian musical term that also expresses the modulation--rubato, an accelerando, ritardando poco a poco. Ultimately, it's an overall shape he's after. And while that gestalt doesn't show in the metrical bar from the player's point of view, you can still feel the notation. Most of the meters are interchangeable, and even from a practical case, Carter's 'metric modulation' is immensely musical.

LKY: Recently, Tim Page in the New York Review of Books noted how composers' stock (especially for Wallingford Riegger and Roger Sessions) tend to decline after their death. Granted, it's only been a year since Carter died--Tuesday, November 5, exactly--but what might be the plight of Elliott Carter?

LB: His place in the repertoire will have an ebb and a flow. His chamber works will receive the most listens, particularly the string quartets and even the Clarinet Concerto. No one has to wonder about Carter's legacy. He was a supremely confident person of distinction. In one word: elegant.

LKY: In November of, say, 2063, what will we hear on the ASO's "Classics Declassfied" for him?

LB: Either the Concerto for Orchestra or Symphony of Three Orchestras...they best reflect the two sides that were Elliott Carter--that is, European modernist and American original.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Leon Botstein, American Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Leopold Stokowski, Elliott Carter, Concerto for Orchestra, Walt Whitman, Ives, Milton Babbitt