We in Toronto were fortunate to have enjoyed numerous opportunities to know Elliott Carter. In fact he visited us, through the invitation of New Music Concerts, seven times and thirty-nine different pieces were performed on our series. Our concert public and musicians loved him and developed a real appreciation for his music. He too seemed to be pleased with the performances and said they expressed “a special warmth that was sometimes missing elsewhere.”
Perhaps because of his painstaking, accurate writing style and fascination with compositional detail, the music world’s general concept of Elliott Carter’s complexity rarely showed itself in rehearsal. I always compared the challenge of playing his music to performing Mozart – the right tempo, the right dynamics, the right color, the right expression and the right feeling for line. Rhythm was the one thing that rarely came up in our music making and the challenge of rhythmic modulation for which he was famous never took a moment of our rehearsal time. Although I do like to tell the story of our first concert with Elliott in 1977 when we performed the Double Concerto with soloists Ursula Oppens and Paul Jacobs. Never having had the challenge of conducting two meters at the same time, after considerable effort I was proud to achieve two in one hand for the “piano” orchestra and three in the other hand for the harpsichord. Of course the greatest challenge was turning the pages of the score. Anyway, after about a half an hour of rehearsing, Elliott came up to me, obviously having thought about it and said very gently in his considerate and drawn out fashion “Bob, wouldn’t it be better if you conducted three against four?” In fact it is the sound of Elliott Carter’s voice that stays with me most, locked in my memory forever. Sentences like “Where are we going – to get some hooch?” when my family and I took him wine tasting in Avignon. Vieux Telegraphe was his wine of choice.
It goes without saying that he is one of the world’s most important composers and his music will live on forever. But what I will remember most is his voice and a sparkling personality with a memory to match. He always found time to congratulate you on your achievements when in fact he was the achiever. To pick up the phone and hear Elliott say “Bob, you know that staccato D natural in bar 93, I think we should change it to mp instead of piano…” or to telephone him in New York to hear a demanding “Hello! Who is it?” followed by some frustrated mutterings and fussing with the telephone until he realized to whom he was speaking. And then he broke into a warm and most informed conversation continuing from the last time we spoke perhaps six months ago. To use one of his favorite words, the experience was “extraordinary.”
He was loved by all our family and the contemporary music audience of Toronto and will live on in our memories forever.
Toronto, 14 January 2013