Get Carter

Yo-Yo Ma unveils a new concerto by an American master at Carnegie Hall

ALWAYS ROOM FOR CELLO Elliott Carter wrote a new cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, who performs it at Carnegie Hall on Thu 18.

ALWAYS ROOM FOR CELLO Elliott Carter wrote a new cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, who performs it at Carnegie Hall on Thu 18.

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The concerto, which pits a single musician or small group of musicians against a larger ensemble, is an apt if melodramatic musical metaphor for the struggle of the individual within the society. A concerto might feature a soloist working in perfect harmony with orchestral colleagues; in other cases, the spotlighted instrument has to struggle to be heard above an argumentative din.

Nowhere in music is this confrontation between individual and group voices more pronounced than in the uncompromising concertos of seminal New York composer Elliott Carter, whose work has challenged, provoked and delighted audiences for decades. Multiple layers of seemingly unconnected rhythms clash, jostle and vie for dominance in Carter's orchestral scores. These elements are in full force in the 92-year-old composer's eighth concerto,which was written for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and arrives at Carnegie Hall on Thursday 18, fresh from a late September world premiere in the Windy City.

Carter's aggressive new concerto emphasizes dramatic contrasts. The cello begins and ends the work unaccompanied, but during the concerto's nearly 20-minute span the instrument takes on a variety of personalities, set against a backdrop of outbursts from alternating sections of the orchestra. "I wanted to show the various kinds of character of the cello—agitated, humorous, passionate," Carter says.

One of a handful of classical artists whose popularity extends beyond the boundaries of the genre, Ma, 45, has continually challenged himself with an unusually broad repertoire, ranging from folk-music crossover projects to new concertos by today's leading composers. Even so, he never expected to premiere a new work by Carter.

"I had a lovely dinner with Elliott a number of years ago," Ma recalls. "He was 88 years young at the time. He said, 'I'd love to write a cello concerto,' and I thought, 'Yeah, right.'" Much to the cellist's surprise, in November 2000 Carter kept his word and completed the piece.

The recent attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., however, had an impact on Ma's preparations for the first performance. The cellist maintains what is probably the most frantic performance schedule in the business, but airport closures forced him to hit the road more literally in order to meet his obligations. "I learned most of the concerto on a 50-hour bus ride from Phoenix to Boston," Ma admits. "On the wobbly bus, I was struggling with it." (Ma has honored most of his performance commitments in recent weeks, but concerts in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, scheduled for the weeks between the Chicago premiere and the New York performance, have been postponed indefinitely.)

Getting contemporary music—especially orchestral works—into American concert halls is difficult enough as it is, terror-related events notwithstanding. In Carter's case, the advocacy of superstars like Ma and Chicago Symphony music director Daniel Barenboim has worked to his advantage. Barenboim has led many recent Carter premieres, including the 1999 opera What Next?, and as a pianist, he has championed the composer's keyboard music. With Ma, he has frequently performed Carter's landmark 1948 Sonata for Cello and Piano, a pivotal work in the composer's career. "When I wrote [the sonata], the players nearly died from how difficult it was," Carter recalls. "Nobody liked it; nobody wanted to hear it. Now, it's taught in conservatories."

Whether the Cello Concerto will be taught in conservatories 50 years from now is impossible to predict. The Deutsche Grammophon label canceled a planned recording of the work without explanation, and although Barenboim has encouraged Ma to perform the work with other conductors and orchestras, Carter's expectations are decidedly low.

"Any piece of music that anybody writes is an act of faith and hope," he says before adding wryly, "Of course, one of the hopes is that it will get played again! We already have six different performances planned in Europe, but I very much doubt whether this concerto—successful or not—will ever be played in the United States again in my lifetime."