The journey from a first glimpse of Elliott Carter, then close to 60 years old, at a rehearsal for an early performance of the Piano Concerto in Chicago (I was too shy to say hello) to the experience of conducting it in his presence in London nearly 40 years later encloses an abundance of memories both personal – of Elliott and the amazing, inimitable Helen, their kindnesses to my family and to me – and musical. It occurs to me now that at the time of that early sighting he would have been at work on the Concerto for Orchestra, which made a huge impact on me when it came out a few years later, and it was indeed at a Tanglewood seminar in which he introduced that work that I finally plucked up the courage to introduce myself. For the time being I was simply a devoted English composer-fan, attending as many Carter performances in London as I could and maintaining a respectful personal contact.
But in 1982, very shortly after starting to conduct in earnest, I was asked by the London Sinfonietta to take charge of the première of In Sleep, in Thunder. You can perhaps imagine how exciting but also frightening this prospect was. Elliott was courteous and friendly, of course, but very demanding in rehearsal too – much more so than I was used to, and certainly far more than in later years – and I was inordinately anxious not to disappoint him. Although those performances went reasonably well, it was in fact some years and many concerts later before I sensed his trust in me as a performer, and to this day I wonder whether it was Helen who gave him the okay. On the other hand, the many pages of corrections, revisions and minute suggestions that accumulated around the early outings of any new work at that time make me wonder now how much he in fact trusted himself in some practical respects – balance above all.
In the late 1980s I was much involved as the Occasions grew from one to three, but it was still with a little trepidation that I called Elliott and told him of my plan to perform the Concerto for Orchestra at Aldeburgh in June 1990. This genuinely surprised him I think, but surely not more so than my request that for the purpose of ticket sales would he mind terribly if the concert began with The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra? There was a long-ish silence and I expected the worst. “Why not” he finally said, “After all, my piece is a kind of Old Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” followed by mirth on both ends of the line (in my own defence, I’d like to add that the concert ended with Jeux!). That performance, and the recording that followed it, was a turning-point in our association, and I hope began to pay back what I took from his music in order to make my own. Later, to have been “in” on the conception and first complete performances of Symphonia, one of the true monuments of late 20th-century music, has been one of the greatest honours of my life. I’d like to end with an anecdote that gave me a revealing glimpse of Elliott as he might have been as an iconoclastic modern-music-loving young man in the 1920s. Around twenty years ago, a group of friends went to an all-Stravinsky concert in Avery Fisher Hall. During the intermission, we encountered Elliott and Helen and were talking, as one does, about the music in the first half, about differences of opinion regarding tempi, the respective merits of the pieces and so on. Elliott was curiously quiet, but then this most historically conscious of composers was heard to say “Well, I don’t know about that, but I still like it better than all that old stuff!”