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The New Merkin Concert Hall
by Steve Dalachinsky

Since its makeover and re-opening I've visited the "new" Merkin about a dozen times hearing and for the most part enjoying such varied programs as Ligeti's piece for 100 metronomes to Frank London's take on a Yiddish passion play to the Music of Eric Dolphy to Kagel/Coleman to Margaret Len Tang's take on Cowell coupled with a brilliant solo recital by Sylvie Courvoisier and the latest installment of Elliott Carter's 100th year on the planet.

This last one accompanied by a conversation with Carter who, just weeks shy of hitting the big 1-0-0, is as witty, intelligent and vibrant as ever. (He also never seems to change those red socks.)

The evening titled ELLIOTT CARTER: The First Hundred Years consisted primarily of Carter's pieces composed for winds with the added bonus of Ursula Oppens performing the difficult 2 Thoughts, 2 piano solo pieces that for me were the major highlight of the evening. She later joined the New York Woodwind Quintet for Carter's 1991 piece Quintet for Piano and Winds.

Other pieces included solo works for bassoon, flute and clarinet as well as duo pieces and the miraculous Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Woodwind Quintet. The surprise of the evening, not announced in the program, was a recent piece Carter had written for 2 clarinets that sailed us toward the evening's conclusion.

As usual the pre-concert conversation, principally about creating for winds, was the highlight for me and went something like this:

Carter: "…when I taught, the students always wrote timed pieces, so I tried to show them special ways and unusual combinations to deal with instruments to stir up the stupid students imaginations."

As for ensemble writing the idea is to "keep the voices very distinct as to produce different sonorities as part of the piece… the point being to make the instruments sound as different from each other as possible but then as with the last etude write fast and shifting to have them sound as similar (one voice) as possible." As for the French horn, he remarks that it is always refreshing to invent a piece to incorporate this instrument into the woodwinds, finding new sounds within the solo registers.

Gunter Schuller once asked Carter after hearing an early piece that incorporated the horn why Carter couldn't write more interestingly for that instrument and now that way of composing has become the model.

Carter also spoke of writing one note that gets sustained and therefore creates the possibilities of infinite variations. He mentioned that in older music the idea was to write in four very distinct parts but that now one can write with particular sounds in mind rather than just melody or tempi.

"Playing Elliott's music teaches you how to play your instrument," Oppens chimes in at one point. And so it is when you hear all these wild layered, textured pieces, many of which have no theme, and no contrast between thickness, thinness or registers yet can be "expressive without rhythmic or linear interests."

When asked how he felt when he composed and how he felt about the title The First 100 Years, he stated, "I can't say that I'm the same person who writes all those notes and I never think about my age. It's a bit tiresome already hearing about these 100 years. I GOT IT."

And so it goes. Carter turns 100 on Dec. 12 [2008] preceded by Messiaen's 100th on Dec. 11th.

As for the new Merkin makeover. If you like red that's the biggest change besides rearrangement of the toilets, the concession tables and box office. The insides of the hall are exactly the same. Great guts. Great little hall. Great sound. But I'm warning you. DON'T even be a second late for the music or you'll be locked out until the applause or the next available selection is about to be played. See you there and leave your tuxedos at home.

NYC 12/08


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