By Steve Smith
When it comes to ambitious, fearless orchestral programming, there is Leon Botstein, the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, and then there is everyone else. Say what you will about Mr. Botstein’s esoteric tastes, professorial inclinations or limitations as a conductor. It’s all been said before, endlessly, and it’s not indicative of the edifying experiences his concerts tend to be for anyone whose tastes extend past the safety zone in which most other orchestras huddle.
That said, in some ways the concert Mr. Botstein and the orchestra presented at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon seemed more than usually quixotic. The program included music by Elliott Carter, the towering American modernist who died just over a year ago at 103 — and nothing but.
For all the rowdy ovations and newfound acceptance that Carter earned during the efflorescence of his final decades, for most concertgoers his name still causes unease. Serving up his music in the generous portions that Mr. Botstein favors is already a tall order for a Sunday matinee. And the orchestra, while undeniably fine, is a freelance ensemble with limited rehearsal time: not a condition that lends itself to the kind of precision needed to make Carter’s music sing.
Turned out Mr. Botstein could not have been more thoughtful in his planning. The program started with Carter’s 1960 suite from the ballet “Pocahontas,” written in 1936 and orchestrated in 1938-39. The music is brash and colorful, brimming with folksy melodies and vivacious rhythms. Opening with it showed where Carter started before he became the composer we know while also offering reassurance to an audience of respectable size, most of which remained in place throughout the afternoon.
“Sound Fields,” from 2007, showed a side to Carter that even his admirers might not have encountered before. Its near-motionless flickers and sighs for strings conjured a color-field canvas dominated by limited hues, with minute gradations.
Carter’s Clarinet Concerto (1996) is less a grandiloquent showpiece than a sequence of succinct conversations between the soloist and various small instrumental groups.Anthony McGill, a brilliant young principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, wandered the stage animatedly, pausing here and there to burble alongside drummers or melt into a muted-brass lullaby.
The concert’s second half brought two elegant vocal works from 1943. “Warble for Lilac-Time,” a vernal Walt Whitman setting, featured sweet, gracious singing by the soprano Mary Mackenzie; “Voyage,” based on Hart Crane, benefited from the mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz’s luscious tone. At times I wished for stronger projection from Ms. Mackenzie, firmer diction from Ms. Buchholz and a subtler touch from Mr. Botstein, but on the whole the works were admirably done.
The program ended with the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), a virtuosic piece in which Carter imposes order upon chaos with an architect’s rigor and a poet’s imagination. Whatever Mr. Botstein and his orchestra may have lacked in machine-tooled precision, they made up with commitment and heart, as well as a bravado that any orchestra might envy — and ought to.