Unfortunately, Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra (1953-55) was scheduled as penance. The octogenarian Carter (who was present and took bows) is the highly respected dean of American composers. All honor to his white hairs. The Variations was 23 minutes of clever but pointless academic exercise that I (and most of the audience, to judge by their restlessness), could have done without. The MET Orchestra played it perfectly.
Allan Kozinn, in the New York Times:
Mr. Carter's 25-minute work tests the orchestra more vigorously, but in this ensemble's performance, there was never a sense that hurdles were being jumped. That isn't to say that the score no longer poses them. Unlike conventional variation sets, Mr. Carter's proceeds not only from a principal theme, but from two ritornellos - a fast one that decelerates, and a slow one that picks up speed - and each variation juggles a handful of ideas. Rhythm, tempo, timbre, texture and placement (in the antiphonal Variation No. 7) are all explored. Few musical parameters are left unvisited.
Mr. Levine's reading presented the work as an organic, arching construction. The structural details were presented clearly, but there was also a more direct, emotional punch as well as an extraordinary level of ensemble polish that must have made the work accessible to even the most casual listener. The most innovative touches, though, were the connections Mr. Levine made with earlier music, mostly by way of unusual phrasing decisions. In the second variation, for example, a flexibly rendered woodwind passage briefly evoked the jazz of the 1940's.
Other passages sounded as if they would not be out of place in Debussy (although those gave way to rhythmically sharp, muscular stretches that Debussy would not have countenanced). There was even a touch of pure Romantic portamento in some of the string passages, certainly an odd but not unwelcome touch. Time was when the Variations for Orchestra would have received dutiful applause. This performance drew a standing ovation. Mr. Carter, who at 96 attends most of his New York performances, was on hand to acknowledge it.