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CLASSICAL: Musica Nova

The rhythms of time


"It's weird to talk about him in the past tense." With that heart-felt sentiment, conductor Brad Lubman references the recent death of legendary American composer Elliott Carter. "He was 103 and lived an extremely long and fruitful life," says Lubman. "At a certain point, you thought he was going to live forever."

On December 14, Lubman will conduct Carter's "Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord with Two Chamber Orchestras" with the Eastman School of Music's Musica Nova, including guest artists Angela Jia Kim at the piano, Daniel Pesca at the harpsichord. Scheduled before Carter's death in November of this year, the performance will become a tribute to his memory.

Carter (1908-2012) came late to composing by today's standards, although he went on to compose and win coveted accolades for more than 60 years. He majored in English at Harvard University for his undergraduate degree, before earning a master's degree in music. Under an early influence of American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954), his later musical studies included three years with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930's. Carter earned his doctorate in music from the cole Normale Supérieure (Paris). By 1960, he won his first Pulitzer Prize; a second followed in 1973. Carter was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1963, and the American Academy of Arts & Letters in 1969. He was awarded an American National Medal of Arts in 1985, and the French Commander of the Legion of Honor the same year.

Although Carter composed modern music, Lubman says one of Carter's favorite pieces was a section from Mozart's "Don Giovanni," composed in 1787, when three orchestras play simultaneously.

The December 14 program will also feature two works written in 2011, by American composers Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938) and John Zorn (b. 1953). Fred Sherry, cello, will be the guest soloist in work written for him by Zorn, titled "À Rebours" ("Against the Nap").

According to Lubman, "Carter, Zorn, Wuorinen. It's like saying Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. You could say these are the 20th century and 21st century composers coming out of New York City, the way we say the others were the First Viennese School."

Musica Nova is a new-music ensemble at the Eastman School of Music with its own origins in that early to mid-1960's timeframe in which Carter was composing the "Double Concerto." Lubman became music director of the group in 1997. Earlier this year, Musica Nova, in conjunction with Ensemble Signal, performed a concert that included the Pulitzer-winning "Double Sextet" by Steve Reich — a piece that also involves two ensembles with a single conductor — which brought down the house in Kilbourn Hall.

Lubman met Carter on several occasions, twice working with him in rehearsals of Carter's works, once in the early 1990's in NYC for a piece called "Triple Duo" and then again the late 1990's for his opera, "What Next?" He describes Carter as "a wonderful, charming, and erudite man and musician."

Tempo is the hallmark of Carter's compositions, and not just "tempo" in and of itself, but the idea of having several, different tempos going on spontaneously. Lubman says, "In almost all of Carter's music, the different tempos are engineered to fit into one beat for the conductor, meaning that if I'm conducting in 3, Carter will give different polyrhythms to different instruments which, mathematically speaking, are in different tempos."

Speaking specifically of the upcoming performance of the "Double Concerto," Lubman put into words the coda in the last three to four minutes of the piece. On the stage will be two, separate, different ensembles — one associated with the piano, the other with the harpsichord. Lubman, atop the conductor's podium, will be in the middle. And, during the coda, Lubman says, "The ensemble on my right is in 3 and to my left the ensemble is in 2 or 4, depending on how you count it. I conduct simultaneously in 3 in the right hand and 2 or 4 in the left."

According to Daniel Pesca, a composer and pianist who will perform at the harpsichord for the "Double Concerto," "the hardest part of all is conducting the damn thing." Pesca credits Lubman's "absolutely unshakable sense of pulse" as the key to the anticipated success of the performance. Pesca says, "The rhythm of the music just kind of vibrates from [Lubman's] body through the air. He feels rhythm in a very bodily way, but stays rooted in a sort of physical groundedness."

The juxtaposition of Carter's use of a piano and a harpsichord in the same work is not lost on Pesca, who says, "The tension comes from how these things really don't mix. There's a dialogue between these two instruments that's very fraught with tension, which finally explodes into chaos."

Pesca takes his interpretation of the "Double Concerto" even further, passionately defending that Carter's music, including this work, is just as relevant today as it was when it was first written in 1961. "It's incredibly complicated on the surface," says Pesca. "Once you listen beyond that and get more into the language of the piece, you realize there is a human drama being played out. The harpsichord has its own orchestra, as does the piano. These are the generals with their own little battalions, and in the background is a really large spread of percussion instruments that at various points in the piece threaten to overtake it by sheer volume as if moving towards anarchy."

Pesca double-majored in piano and composition for both his bachelors of music degree from the Eastman School of Music in 2005 and his masters of music from the University of Michigan in 2007. He is currently studying at ESM for his DMA.

Pesca says, "The thing that motivated Carter was his vision, and he found a way." Pesca pulls Russian composer Igor Stravinsky into the conversation on Carter's merits. "I want to quote Stravinsky on this piece. Stravinsky said it was a masterpiece of American music. Stravinsky had rather finicky tastes, so this gives you a sense of how pivotal this piece is."

Perhaps the best argument in support of Pesca's argument that Carter is timeless is that Carter's "time" was quite literally up to three months before his death, when his final composition to be released was "12 Short Epigrams for Piano."

Lubman relates to Carter "aiming for what he always wanted," which was for music to reflect the time period in which he lived. "Carter was always saying this in interviews: in an older time of horse-drawn carriages, times were simpler, there was one pace, there was a unified rhythm. But, in the 21st century in a big city, very often you can find a multitude of things not related and you perceive them all and they are each in their own tempo," says Lubman. "This is the hallmark of all of Carter's work."