On the premiere of Elliott Carter’s “Conversations”

When I was 13 years old, my imagination was set scampering by Elliott Carter’s “Variations for Orchestra” (1954-55). At that time  I was visiting the Edinburgh Music Library on a weekly basis, digging for treasure in the scores department. Those that exhibited modernist credentials were duly borrowed and among the Boulez, Berio and Stockhausen that I had on permanent renewal was the full score for the Carter. This music simply looked so fascinating on the page; its intriguing tempo games and crystalline instrumental details combining with an evident and monumental sense of drama. I managed to catch a BBC broadcast of the work played (brilliantly) by the BBC Philharmonic and putting the sounds to the symbols on the page was even more of a thrill that I imagined it would be.

More than twenty years later I receive in the mail the full score for the now 102-year-old Elliott Carter’s latest work, the “Conversations” for Solo Piano, Solo Percussion and Chamber Orchestra. The first light-headed chill and personal resonance comes in the very first measures; “Variations for Orchestra” starts with three discrete chords for the wind, strings and brass…and I see that, eerily, my new work begins with precisely the same aural-palette-cleansing device. I read on. And appear to have a modern masterpiece in my hands, a gem of scherzando wit and ebullience. I am humbled, but not enough to delay my race to the marimba to check out the licks and chords I will be playing shortly. They crackle and scream, they laugh and shock. This is going to be a lot of fun.

I had decided in the first place to inquire about this double concerto idea a couple of years ago. Carter seemed to be ignoring his advanced age, so I thought I’d do the same and ask Boosey and Hawkes about the idea of having him write a work for percussion and piano soloists with ensemble. I thought it might catch his imagination, especially in the light of recent works for percussion (the marimba Figment and Tintinnabulation), and the sensational ensemble pieces “ASKO Concerto”, “Dialogues” and the “Boston Concerto”.

Extremely happily, the premiere was with dear friend and close colleague Pierre-Laruent Aimard, plus new friends the BCMG and old friend Oliver Knussen. I have many great experiences from about ten years ago playing with Olly as a part of the London Sinfonietta (Andriessen and Henze at the Proms, Xenakis works), including the UK premiere of Carter’s opera “What Next?” where I even donned a builder’s hard hat as part of the concert performance. So it was with great zest and inquisitive spirit that we worked together again on this new work. The rehearsals were fascinating and I recall thinking at one precise moment (as a clarinet group of five suddenly transported us into a faster tempo where the same speed of notes were divided into groups of three) “Wow – a REAL Carter piece!”

At the premiere in Aldeburgh the work received hungry applause and we immediately played the piece from the beginning once again. Each performance is going to uncover something new with this work, and second time round I felt even more free to explore the latent mischief and expressivity within the work. In “Conversations”, the final gesture of cackling winds and strings followed by soft extremities of register from the soloists leaves much ambiguity in the air…but one certainty also – Elliott Carter has much more to write.

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