Elliott Carter, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most signifcant musical voices of the last century, has died at the age of 103.
Carter's music was rigorously built on highly elaborate systems, but it did not represent complexity for its own sake. Rather, it challenged listeners to hear sounds in new ways. The result was music that spoke to both the head and heart, with a distinct humanity that matched the personality of its creator.
Elliott Carter was born in New York on Dec. 11, 1908. He knew Charles Ives, the great American experimentalist composer, who encouraged the younger composer. After studying literature at Harvard University, he moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the greatest composers and musicians of the Twentieth Century. Upon returning to the U.S., he first lived in Cambridge, Mass., and then settled in New York City.
In 2008, the music world celebrated Carter's centenary with many concerts all over the world. That summer at Tanglewood, the entire Festival of Contemporary Music was devoted to Carter.
In October, one of Carter's true champions, pianist Ursula Oppens, visited our Fraser Performance Studio with two of Carter's works: 90+ and the Piano Sonata.
Also in 2008, Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal Flutist Elizabeth Rowe gave the American premiere of Carter's Flute Concerto, a co-commission of the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, Berlin Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony Orchestra.
By James David Jacobs | Monday, November 5, 2012
Thomas Hampson on the stage of Sanders Theatre, Oct. 6, 2012 (photo courtesy of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences)
Exactly one month before Election Day, October 6, 2012, I witnessed another periodic rite that dates back to the beginning of the republic: the Induction Ceremony of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The collective brilliance of the population of Sanders that day was truly staggering.
That afternoon, I had a front-row seat at Harvard's historic Sanders Theatre, a monument to the wisdom and contributions of generations past. It was a more-than-appropriate setting for honoring wisdom and contributions of our own time.
While there were a few household-name celebrities in attendance, the currency for the day was not fame per se, but accomplishment and influence in a specific discipline. The gathering at Sanders was the 1987th Stated Meeting of an organization that has been in existence since the very beginning of the United States, and whose original members included many of its founding fathers.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780, based on an idea proposed the year before by the nation’s future Second President John Adams in the Philosophy Chamber of Harvard College. Its original motto, Sub Libertate Florent, conveys the idea that arts and sciences flourish best in an atmosphere of freedom. Its current motto, “Cherishing Knowledge – Shaping the Future” describes what the Academy has become, and how over time it has put Adams’ original idea into action – to provide a space in which the nation’s leaders in the arts, sciences and humanities can gather to collaborate on an interdisciplinary approach to the challenges facing the country and the world. In the words of the Academy's charter, the "end and design of the institution is ... to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people."
Thus the people I witnessed taking the stage that Saturday afternoon were participating in an unbroken tradition of service that is inextricably tied to the history and progress of the country itself. There was a sense of awe among all the participants, a feeling that, for all their other accolades and accomplishments, this was something truly profound and larger than themselves.
The ceremony began with the sound of bagpipes as the Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums marched through the audience. Louis W. Cabot, the Chair of the Academy’s Board and Trust (elected to the Academy in 1958), welcomed the inductees, invoking John Adams’s characterization of them as “thinkers and doers.” Youth Pro Musica, a children’s choir led by Robert Barney, took the stage to sing “America the Beautiful., right before Academy President Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, called the meeting to order with the bang of her gavel. Here is her summation of the Academy’s history and mission:
Berlowitz then introduced 2011 inductee Daniel Day-Lewis(“Winner of two other Academy Awards,” as Berlowitz dryly put it), who read documents by Washington and Lincoln:
Secretary of the Academy Jerrold Meinwaldtook the stage to talk about the Academy’s traditions, and introduced wife and husband Bonnie Berger (from MIT, one of that day’s inductees in Mathematics) and Tom Leighton (a member of the Academy’s governing board) to read from the letters of John and Abigail Adams:
We then got to the real business of the day: the induction of the members, organized into five Classes. The first Class, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, numbered 52 inductees. Speaker was Steven H. Strogatz of Cornell University, who called Class I “the most romantic class” and told a touching “love story” of how he came to pursue mathematics: :
The speaker for Class II: Biological Sciences (44 inductees) was Margaret J. McFall-Ngai of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She spoke of recent developments in microbiology that she termed “revolutionary.”
The prominent Washington lawyer and Supreme Court advocate Maureen E. Mahoney, spoke on behalf of the 37 inductees of Class III: Social Sciences. Mahoney opened her remarks by declaring, “y’all may want to know that you’re a very intimidating audience – but not quite as intimidating as Justice Scalia.” She then gave her perspective on John Roberts’ casting of the deciding vote to uphold the core provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Class V: Public Affairs, Business, and Administration (40 inductees – Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t show up, but Sanford Weill did) was represented by Penny Pritzker,who talked about the importance of education in her own family’s rise to success from impoverished immigrants to extremely successful entrepreneurs, and how she is working to ensure that today’s children have the same opportunities to succeed that she did: “I refuse to accept a future in which stories like ours are a thing of the past.”
The program continued with a performance by baritone Thomas Hampson (2010 inductee). Hampson has been working with the Library of Congress on the “Song of America Project”, exploring the nation’s history and spirit through its songs, from the 1700s to the present day. Accompanied at the piano by NEC faculty member Tanya Blaich, Hampson sang three of his discoveries through this project: “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” by Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors”, a setting of the Walt Whitman poem by the great African-American composer Henry Burleigh; and Michael Daugherty’s setting of Lincoln’s “Letter to Mrs. Bixby”, all three of which are discussed by Hampson before the performance:
The event ended with Hampson leading a sing-along of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
As we reflect on the conclusion of another Presidential campaign, no matter which votes you cast, and no matter what your perspective is on our institutions, it is important to remember that this country has always engaged in a cycle of re-invention, re-assessment, and seemingly insurmountable crises messily resolved and followed by periods of prosperity.
One constantly marvels at how prescient the founders were at anticipating both the peaks and valleys of the American experiment. The Academy of Arts and Sciences is yet another example of how the founders anticipated our needs, providing an ongoing repository of wisdom and experience from which we will continue to draw for many years to come.
By James David Jacobs | Monday, September 17, 2012
Violinist Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot (photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco, courtesy of Sony Masterworks)
The Jewish High Holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and extending through Yom Kippur, is a time of celebration, reflection, and renewal. This year those qualities are deepened through the release of Eternal Echoes - Songs and Dances for the Soul on Sony Classical.
Three living legends came together to create Eternal Echoes: the renowned classical violinist Itzhak Perlman; Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, who keeps the ancient cantorial tradition alive from his pulpit at Manhattan's Park East Synagogue; and Hankus Netsky, a pioneer in the revival of klezmer music. Their musical common ground finds its roots in the Ashkenazi tradition, the Jewish culture of Central and Eastern Europe.
Like Yiddish, the language common amongst the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, the musical language of the Ashkenazi is a fusion of modern European and ancient Middle Eastern styles. It expresses the full range of human emotions, from exuberant joy to deep introspection to heart-wrenching sorrow.
Those emotions come through in the music the same way they exist in life itself, occupying the same space almost simultaneously: the harmonies switch constantly from minor to major, the rhythms from straightforward to syncopated, and a tune that starts out slow and sad is likely to end fast and happy.
As Hankus Netsky, the founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and the Contemporary Improvisation Chair at the New England Conservatory explains, "I liken it to the blues. When Jews prayed, they cried. We have a word, krehts, meaning to groan - like the blues have a moan or a wail. The Jews have a sobbing kind of feeling, even when they're happy. That's why this music is universal."
Hankus Netsky and ensemble at the Eternal Echoes recording session (photo by Antonio Oliart Ros)
You’ll hear that on Eternal Echoes, which brings in yet another dimension: a tune that starts out with a solemn prayer frequently ends in a joyous dance. While many traditional cantorial melodies and klezmer dance tunes have common folk sources, the connection between them has never before been made this explicit.
Netsky, the album's musical director, freely admits that bringing together different strains of Jewish music is an "agenda" of his and is in line with his idea that klezmer is not just a re-creation of music from the past, but a "living tradition."
Join me for conversations with Itzhak Perlman and Hankus Netsky, along with excerpts from Eternal Echoes, all this week on Classical New England. See the schedule and listen on-demand above, and to purchase Eternal Echoes, visit ArkivMusic.
By Brian McCreath | Sunday, September 9, 2012
Richard Wagner, one of history's most complex and confounding figures, becomes a little more understandable at his Swiss villa. But only a little.
It's hard to think of an individual who embodies more extreme contradictions than Richard Wagner. The dark side of Wagner generates a list of characteristics unleavened by their familiarity: an ego of gargantuan proportions; a flagrant home-wrecker; a financial manipulator usually one step (barely) ahead of his creditors; and, of course, an outspoken anti-Semite.
The positive side starts with the music: revolutionary, seductive, majestic, overwhelming. In the context of his creations, how important is Wagner's dark side? It's the perennial question surrounding a person whose incredibly outlandish artistic vision was matched only by a series of equally outlandish life events.
My background as a trumpeter pre-disposes me to have some kind of affection for Wagner's music, I suppose; it's simply a thrill to play. But moving beyond those trumpet parts and into the operas themselves and then into the circumstances of Wagner's life has always been daunting to me. So having the chance to visit Tribschen, Wagner's Swiss home in exile, with a group of Classical New England listeners during our 2012 LearningTour was an opportunity to at least try to understand Wagner the person.
It helps - and quite a lot, in my opinion - that Tribschen is the setting for one of the more charming stories from Wagner's life. (I know. "Charming" and "Wagner" ... not easy to integrate.) It was at Tribschen in 1870 that Wagner wrote Siegfried-Idyll, a 20 minute, loving, musical birthday card to his wife Cosima, the woman he married earlier that year. (The story of their relationship takes us back to that bafflingly dark side, but let's not go there, at least for the moment...) It was apparently performed for the first time at the bottom of the stairs as Cosima's birthday morning wake-up call.
Since then, the Idyll has been inextricably linked to the place, and, indeed, the score in Wagner's manuscript holds pride of place in what is now a Wagner museum at the house. The Idyll even constituted the first music to be performed at the newly inaugurated Lucerne Festival in 1938 and has been programmed during the festival each year since.
Being there, at Tribschen, meant standing in the same room in which Wagner was a host for Liszt, Nietzsche, and King Ludwig II. It meant gazing across the lake to see the same view that Cosima saw from her bedroom window. Did it all make Wagner more understandable? Yes and no.
As at similar sites I've visited - St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked; the Budapest Opera House, where Mahler's Symphony No. 1 was premiered; Bertramka, the home where Mozart stayed while visiting Prague - I could picture Wagner's life in more detail. I could imagine him putting the finishing touches on Die Meistersinger. I was in awe of his regular treks in the nearby Alpine mountains. And that story of the premiere of the Idyll has far more specific surroundings than before.
But all those dark characteristics still seem just as dark.
There's never a necessity to relate personally to the creators of art. If the art has integrity, we relate to it, not the artist. In the case of Wagner, the picture of the creator is more detailed and colorful than ever before for me. Hearing and watching his music and operas will carry with it some meaningful added context after visiting one of his homes. Wagner remains an artist whose genius is indisputable. And he remains someone whose life, to me, is even more fascinatingly improbable than before.