4. The Aesthetics of Chamber Music vs. The Orchestra
FRANK J. OTERI: I was thrilled to be at the awards reception at the Conference of Chamber Music America and to see you being honored with their most important award. It was the first time it was ever given to a composer for the act of writing music. William Schuman got the award years ago, but it was for his work as an administrator. I think your receiving this award is wonderful recognition for having done so much to contribute to the chamber music repertoire, in the writing of string quartets and as well as numerous works for other combinations. Why has chamber music been such an important concern for you throughout your lifetime?
ELLIOTT CARTER: I really can’t answer that in a fundamental way. I can answer it in a superficial way, but I’m not sure that I’m really answering it completely. What I can say is that one of the things that struck me right away as soon as I wrote that first string quartet was that the difference between a group of string quartet players and an orchestra, is that the string quartet will rehearse a piece ‘til they play it well and an orchestra is paid by the hour for a rehearsal. If the number of rehearsals is very limited, it becomes less and less possible, especially in America. That’s one of the reasons why my works are more frequently played in Europe because a lot of those orchestras, like the radio orchestras, are subsidized and have many more rehearsals. And even orchestras that are not as good as our American orchestras, can rehearse so much more than any American orchestra could, so that they give a better performance than we would get here most of the time.
FJO: Last summer, I spoke to Zarin Mehta, who runs the Ravinia Festival, and he gave me a very honest answer about why more new music isn’t being done. Usually people in administration will say, “Well, the audiences don’t like new music.” But he didn’t say that. He said, “We cannot afford the rehearsal time.”
FJO: And the standard with orchestra rehearsals is three rehearsals, if you’re lucky, and that doesn’t do justice to most new pieces.
EC: The basic problem turns out that three or four rehearsals, whatever number of rehearsals, is only the beginning. The important thing of a performance is that it has to be played with conviction and with very great musicality, just the way that you would play Mozart or Beethoven. If you get somebody just sort of scraping through, you wouldn’t want to hear it even in a Beethoven symphony.
FJO: And many arguments can be made, like contemporary music is much more difficult… But the older music is not as difficult because people have played it before. How many times has someone in an orchestra played Brahms?
EC: Let me say that just to play a scale beautifully is not so simple. I mean, you can tell that when you hear these people play. Alicia de Larrocha plays a scale and it’s absolutely wonderful. I mean, in a Mozart concerto. This is not something that you do easily. Some things take a lot of practice, and a great deal of taste, intelligence, and sensitivity.
FJO: Well, what can we do to get around this problem with American orchestras and rehearsals?
EC: I don’t think that there’s any way… I really don’t know. This is, I refuse to think about this. I’ve thought about it a lot and I don’t know how to solve it. I have very great lucky in this particular respect. Mr. Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, both of whom conduct the Chicago Symphony, are willing to take the effort to play my pieces very well. This is very unusual. But I think that in the end, they play them, and the audiences, I suppose, like them. They get good reviews, and here’s Mr. Barenboim bringing my opera to New York, and he might even play that Symphonia, I don’t know, but he’s played all different parts of it, let me say, one time or another, which is more than any orchestra in New York or anywhere else has done. And I think it’s just a matter of having the individual conductor with his vision, and a belief in the music and a belief that it should be done. After all, the whole music profession depends on these people playing this music as if it had a point and had meaning, and was meaningful. And just to go through this in some sort of a desultory way, is a waste of time and it’s hard on the composer and even harder on the audience.
FJO: With chamber music, there can be better performances because there’s more rehearsal time and more dedication to detail. Chamber music has allowed you to really explore a unique musical syntax which is actually a chamber music-informed vocabulary in that it allows all the musicians to have their own personalities and to celebrate in the differences between players. Whereas when we think of an orchestra, we usually think of a nameless, faceless group of people. Even when you’ve written for orchestra, you treat the orchestra like a gigantic chamber ensemble.
EC: I’ve tried to do that, yes. It takes an awful lot of work, so many notes. [laughs] But, I mean, I’ve tried to do it in my Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras. It’s a bad habit, I just write these pieces that have all these peculiar things happening in them, and, but it seems to me this is very important. I mean, I know how to write entirely different kinds of music. But I don’t want to. I think it’s a waste of my time.