|Soloist James Sommerville and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by James Levine (right), perform the world premiere of Elliott Carter's Horn Concerto Thursday night at Symphony Hall. (michael j. lutch)|
Basking in a composer's Indian summer
Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
Elliott Carter's own centenary is around the corner, but the composer seems to be the last person taking time to reflect. At 98, he has been churning out new works faster than orchestras are able to program them.
For its part, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine has been basking in Carter's long, warm Indian summer. Thursday night in Symphony Hall, Levine led the BSO in the world premiere of Carter's Horn Concerto, a work commissioned by the orchestra for principal horn player James Sommerville. And already, the next Carter premiere is cued up, as he has apparently completed work on a piano concerto that the orchestra will present next season. Between now and then, the BSO and the Tanglewood Music Center will present a five-day Carter festival at Tanglewood this summer.
But more impressive than the composer's productivity has been the vitality of the music he has been writing. The new Horn Concerto is no exception. It is a 15-minute work with seven sections that run together without pause. The orchestra part is often spare by Carter's standards, with bright dabs of color flashing up from the strings, woodwinds, or early on, the percussion. Carter gives the soloist a workout in some rapid figurations, but the dominant character of this piece is surprisingly lyrical. In one striking passage, the horn part meanders above very delicately tinctured brass chorales, but throughout, Carter uses the horn's long solo lines as opportunities for vivid experiments in timbre, as if challenging the soloist to see how many masks he can don in quick succession. Sommerville rose gamely to the challenge, navigating the passagework with apparent ease and demonstrating a wide kaleidoscope of tone, by turns powerfully focused, darkly veiled, raspy and aggressive, and brightly gleaming. The composer was on hand to take two bows, smiling widely, and then surely repairing off to write more music.
Before the Carter, the concert opened with a big-boned reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 104. The playing was mostly clear and well-characterized, but there was something less than fresh about this approach. Levine is evidently skeptical of many of the insights that have trickled into most mainstream orchestras from the early music movement, but in this case, he and the orchestra needed to make the stylistic counterargument more persuasively.
The night ended with another superb performance of a Mahler symphony. Last week, it was the epic Ninth. This week, it is the more modest First, yet a work that still showed off this marvelous orchestra at its best. Levine's reading was full of rich detail and dynamic subtlety. The delicate yet warm ribbon of pianissimo sound that the first violins produced in the opening movement was something to be heard. So was Lawrence Wolfe's haunting bass solo to begin the third movement. The finale was well-paced and full of blazing brass, including eight horns that stood up at the designated moment. Soon thereafter, the audience followed suit.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.