Last week Elliott Carter turned 100 (b. Dec 11, 1908), and had a birthday celebration most mortals would metaphorically die for: a premiere of a new major work with world-class musicians. In this case, the conductor (and pianist, and pioneer) James Levine, the pianist (and conductor, and pioneer) Daniel Barenboim, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra convened at Carnegie Hall to premiere "Interventions" the latest work from this composer of autumnal masterworks. I can think of no artist in history--that is, NO ARTIST IN HISTORY-- who has been as fecund as Carter has since his 8th decade. Verdi composed Falstaff as an octogenarian, and is one of many artists who have had late creative bursts. No artist has had the flourish Carter has had, though, and the catalogue of works added to his c.v. in the past two decades (ie: his 80's and 90's!$%@!) is staggering. Among others, my personal library contains the momentous Symphonia ( a 45' minute canvas of Brucknerian proportions, depth, and scope), some half dozen major concerti, several chamber works, and an opera (the witty, piquant, timely "What Next?").
Last week I also attended Sondheim's most recent addition to his extraordinary canon of musicals. "Road Show" is the latest version of a musical previously known as "Bounce" and "Gold" and is his first new work since "Passion" appeared in 1994 (if memory serves me correctly). I enjoyed "Road Show" the way one might enjoy a new Carter score. Both composers have fierce partisan advocates. Both composers are more admired than loved. Both among audiences and critics. Both deserve more attention, more discerning criticism, and more airtime for their modern, timely, ascerbic, "difficult" scores to be appreciated, understood, and absorbed. In response to criticism about the "tunefulness" of his songs, Sondheim has quipped that any tune is hummable if one has heard it enough. I think both composers speak to the present time's need for substance. In a world of sound-bites, slogans, catch-phrases, tags, fads, and the ephemera of fashion and pop "culture" Carter and Sondheim represent pole-stars of substance and significance for their respective fields of symphony and musical. As such, they illuminate the unexamined reaches of the self, as Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" searingly states: "For there is no place that does not see you/You must change your life."