Haydn, Carter and Mahler at the BSO

Grant Chu Covell

[December 2007.]

When Elliott Carter ambled towards Symphony Hall’s proscenium to acknowledge the ovation for his Horn Concerto’s performance, it was hard to separate praise from encouragement. At 98, Carter is still going strong (he’ll be 99 on December 11, 2007). Who wouldn’t wish him the best? Next year will see more commissioned works and celebrations, including plans for a week at Tanglewood. The applause also reflected approval of BSO music director James Levine’s programming choices, which some ticket holders and media fanners perceive as alienating. I was happy to applaud the concerto not just because it is a fine piece in which soloist James Sommerville played brilliantly: Levine, the BSO, and the audience need to know that such programming is right for Boston.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 started the evening. I hadn’t seen Levine since his return to the podium after a debilitating fall and was pleased to see a vivacious conductor, even though the orchestra seemed unwilling to respond in kind. This wasn’t the nimble Haydn’s unexpected humor, chords and pauses, but a stern uncle, urging caution on the way to the double-bar.

The 2006 Horn Concerto felt like Carter-lite. Perhaps that’s an ungenerous way to characterize a thorny quarter-hour, but without seeing the score, I suspect there were none of the complexities of the 1964/65 Piano Concerto, with its page containing 70 independent parts, or the 1987 Oboe Concerto, with its viola choir shadowing the soloist. Neither did I hear any of the First String Quartet’s rhythmic daring. However, the music was unmistakably Carter, with its bracing chords and robust flourishes from winds and percussion. Instrumental arabesques have room to shine. Carter reminds us that the French horn is an agile beast, capable of color, leaps and daring tumbles. Sommerville gamboled nimbly across the work’s seven connected parts. To make the point again, the audience responded with enthusiasm, and I heard one “Encore!” from the floor. I wish the musicians could have performed this short work twice.

After intermission came Mahler’s First. I confess to being a recovered Mahler fanatic who cannot easily suffer this symphony. It’s a self-indulgent, juvenile concoction, marking an early attempt at subduing the Romantic impulse with tocsins, bells, village tunes, hunting calls and twittering birds. What had sufficed for short binary songs expands across rambling rondos with clumsy, grandiosely orchestrated modulations. The First is famous for an admittedly great effect: the transformation of Frère Jacques into a funeral march colliding with Klezmer tunes.

Levine led a grand tour and the BSO obliged. The bombastic moments passed quickly. Unexpectedly, Levine lingered at inchoate passages, where blunt transitions offset explorative harmonies and nature motives, putting me in mind of a neurotic family’s album in slow motion. Mahler fans can trace the distance, for example, between the composer’s First and Fifth, or the Sixth to the Tenth. He was definitely steps ahead of Strauss and Schoenberg in disfiguring tonality. While the applause for the Carter was hearty enough, the acclaim for the Mahler was downright Titanic.

The weekend after the concerto’s performance, an editorial appeared in the local paper (http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2007/11/18/making_music/) in support of Levine via a curiously circuitous route. Here in Beantown, we’ve seen arguments that programs are long and excessively challenging, along with expressions of resentment over Levine’s interest in Babbitt, Carter, Schoenberg, et al.

Perhaps I’m unfairly singling out one columnist. However, I cannot avoid responding to a few things he wrote. What purpose do statements like “[m]any compare Carter’s modern music unfavorably to the melody of fingernails on a blackboard” serve? Other clichés compare Carter and company to “root canal work,” alluding to the music’s “collateral damage.” Elsewhere the music is characterized as “weird.” Perspective, please! This major daily’s writer damns Carter’s music as weird?! Sure, the nonagenarian’s output may be tough to sing while walking the dog, but it is doubtful that any listener, experienced or otherwise, would call his work “weird.”

We’re urged to “applaud Levine’s penchant for risk.” In the larger scheme of things, Carter’s music is safe. While it may well challenge the uninitiated, Carter is one of America’s most bankable living talents. Were Levine to take risks, he’d introduce Lachenmann, Romitelli, Lang, Andriessen, Scelsi or Xenakis, among favorites on these pages, to these provincial Brahmin ears. Another Boston orchestra does just that and is making headway.

The editorial’s silliest bit echoes a common attitude:

“There’s a conundrum here: Is it reasonable to expect an audience lacking a foundation in 20th-century music — that would be most of us — to grasp and appreciate the weirdness of Carter? If not, does that then mean Levine should never play Carter? That can’t be right either.”

Presuming you can get past “weirdness,” try to digest the bizarre assertion. Why do people delight in an unwillingness to experience unfamiliar music? Can you imagine being so smug about inexperience elsewhere?

“I don’t know how they make 3-D movies, so I won’t go into an IMAX theater.”

“I’ve never heard of these authors, so I’ll re-read books I already know.”

“I don’t see anyone I know in this picture, so I’m not going to look at it.”

“I’ve never heard of this wine, so I’m not going to try it.”

“I don’t know the actors, so I’m not going to see the play.”

“I don’t know anything about Japan, so I’m not interested in visiting.”

“I’ve never met you before, so I’m not going to talk to you.”

Too bad solipsists ever leave the house. Has it indeed become the fashion to fear new musical experiences? Levine’s modern choices for Boston this season are Bolcom, Carter, Dean, Dutilleux, Harbison and Golijov — none particularly risky or weird. Occasionally difficult perhaps, but that doesn’t mean unlistenable. When commentators describe something unfamiliar in a patronizing or disparaging manner, they perform an immense disservice.

Perhaps Boston gets what it deserves.