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Magna Carter | The Nation

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Magna Carter

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When the Concerto for Orchestra premiered at the New York Philharmonic in February 1970, I was studying abroad. As soon as I learned that Boulez would be conducting the Cleveland performances, I decided to go. The dates fell during the break between semesters at Columbia, and come January I was looking out the window of a Greyhound coach trundling across the wintry wastes of Pennsylvania. Boulez, though still the four-star composer-general of the European musical avant-garde, was at the time becoming more active as a conductor. He was already renowned for his ability to bring lucid order to the most rambunctious of modern works. A few years earlier, in Cologne, Boulez and two other conductors had realized Stockhausen’s Gruppen, a composition for 109 players divided into three orchestras that were often required to perform simultaneously in different tempos—different by arcane ratios like 13:11. At the podium, Boulez behaved like a cross between a traffic cop and an IBM mainframe, in full command of the music and showing no trace of emotion. Until 1971, Boulez had not bothered to conduct any American music; he once quipped that there was no American music as good as Hans Werner Henze’s, “and that is not setting your sights very high.” But now he was pursuing a conducting career in the States and felt obliged to find some American sounds worthy of his genius; Carter’s Concerto, which presented technical challenges of coordination similar to those in Gruppen, fit the bill.

About the Author

David Schiff
David Schiff, a professor of music at Reed College, is the composer of the opera Gimpel the Fool and author of books on...

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My friend Peter Kogan, now a timpanist with the Minnesota Orchestra, played percussion in the Cleveland Orchestra at the time, and he arranged for me to attend the rehearsals and performances of Carter’s piece. Although I had played double bass in school and for community orchestras, I had never sat in on the rehearsals of a professional orchestra, and the rigid, contractually defined temporal discipline of the routine—ruled by a large, looming rehearsal clock—surprised me. For a Thursday night concert, there would be four rehearsals, the first being on Monday and each lasting exactly three hours, from 10 am to 1 pm, with a single twenty-minute break. At 9 am, the musicians were free to warm up on the stage; fifty-five minutes later, they were in their places as the concertmaster walked on and the principal oboe sounded an “A” so that the orchestra could tune. At exactly 10 am, the conductor would appear and the music-making would begin; at 1 pm sharp, a union rep would nod to the conductor and the rehearsal would end. I soon understood how Boulez’s disciplinary and mathematical skills (he had excelled in math before taking up music at the Paris Conservatory) would be as important as his musical abilities: rehearsals would become a double struggle of time management, both around and within Carter’s music.

The Monday morning before the concert, I found a seat in Severance Hall as the orchestra members gradually filled the stage. The composer soon arrived wearing a rumpled trench coat and carrying a large black case containing the blue-printed copy of his manuscript score (computers had not yet taken over the job of musical notation). I was the only other person in the hall and introduced myself to Carter. He asked if I wanted to follow the score, pulling an extra copy from his case. It measured twenty-four by eighteen inches, and some pages were packed with more than sixty staves of music (in a Beethoven symphony, by contrast, there are rarely more than twenty per page).

Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra was one of eighteen works commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark its 125th anniversary. Leonard Bernstein, who had never performed Carter’s music before (and never would again), conducted the premiere performances and the first recording. Carter’s score could not have been more different from Bernstein’s contemporaneous work, Mass, with its famous “Simple Song,” yet Bernstein grasped its turbulence and sonic splendor: the concerto sounded complicated and complex without being oblique; its percussion-rich sonorities and sweeping motion seemed as much in tune with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” as with Perse’s poem. This palpable agility impressed one of the work’s best-known admirers, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, who would underwrite a later recording conducted by Oliver Knussen.

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