Bringing downer to house Elliott Carter works left impression on Orchestra 2001 audience.

Posted: November 17, 2008

In an era that thinks music's job is to entertain, the most subversive composer alive might be Elliott Carter, whose 100th birthday is Dec. 11. As if to drive the point home, Orchestra 2001 and artistic director James Freeman stacked Saturday afternoon's program with two recent Carter works, which also apparently served to drive the audience away.

Whatever happened to the idea of curiosity as a core music-lover quality? The concert drew a pitifully small number of listeners to the Independence Seaport Museum - perhaps a few dozen, making it feel more like a rehearsal than a concert - to hear the important Philadelphia premieres of the Asko Concerto from 2000 and Dialogues from 2003. What is it about Carter that repels listeners? On first approach it has an arbitrary quality. And it's true that melody doesn't emerge in an easily recognized form.

Either you like the aesthetic or you don't - the minimally acerbic dissonances, his particularly recognizable choice of strange intervals, the alternating nocturnal and volcanic atmospheres. But despite knotty harmonic language, the logical structure always gives you a helping hand. Not to mention an eventful narrative.

Just consider the last five minutes of Asko: The music builds toward an arrival point, then dissolves into a decidedly spooky texture of harp tremolo and piccolo. The lower-register instruments work hard to thwart something else going on in the small ensemble. Small cabals resort to cheeky interjections. A bassoon solo grows so grotesque the piece has no choice but to end.

Pianist Emanuele Arciuli told the audience that the title of Dialogues was a paradox, since the piano and small orchestra spend the entire concerto basically not talking to each other. I'm not so sure. But this is a piece that jabs, stomps around, quietly gropes, asks some accusatory questions, and then slinks off to a defeated finish. Less goes on in some marriages. Arciuli's impressive encore, Monk in the Kitchen by Michael Daugherty - wrought in bold slashes of jazz and virtuosity - was somehow just the right thing to hear after the Carter.

O2001, as it has taken to calling itself, opened with a rarity, Piston's Divertimento for Nine Instruments, which made a virtue of the colorist limitation of having no brass and percussion. And it ended with the 13-instrument version of Copland's Appalachian Spring, under-rehearsed and shaky, adding to the feeling that this was a Center City rehearsal for the group's repeat yesterday in Swarthmore. This letdown of an ending ensured that Carter's music was the concert's most memorable.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.

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