Robert Gable posts about listening to Elliott Carter's Violin Concerto:

After two listens, I still can't parse Three Occasions for Orchestra. Much as I prefer my violin concertos to be aged several hundred years, Carter's Violin Concerto is easier to understand than the first piece since one voice is usually prominent. Still, it strikes me as a dour piece. Although presumably difficult to play, I don't get a sense of virtuosic showmanship and a result, this is not much fun. And if I want to experience Carter's compositional rigor, I prefer the clarity of his works for piano or string quartet (or even his Piano Concerto).

Mr. Gable is referring to Oliver Knussen's recording of the Occasions, the Violin Concerto, and the Concerto for Orchestra. (My review of a more recent recording of the Violin Concerto is here.) It won't surprise regular readers that my experience of this music is different from Mr. Gable's (I'm interested in his choice of the word "dour" and what exactly he means by it), but that's not what intriqued me about his post.

What did catch my eye is the bit about virtuosity ("Although presumably difficult to play, I don't get a sense of virtuosic showmanship and a result, this is not much fun.") This brings up a problem I have thought about for some time: How does a composer (and soloist) communicate the idea and fact of "virtuosity" in a pantonal context?

In tonal music a listener can readily hear wrong notes, flubbed notes, less-than-felicitous phrasing, and the like. They can even predict (within bounds) what's coming next in pieces they've never heard before. The feats of virtuosity are themselves part of the expressive content of many concertos. Those that fail to integrate the virtuosity with other expressive elements (if any) are heard as exercises in "empty" virtuosity.

Pantonal music doesn't typically have the predictive elements (what tonal theorists sometimes describe as "postion-finding" and "pattern-matching") of tonal music and so it can be difficult to tell if the right notes have been played, especially in a new or unfamiliar piece. It can be difficult, then, for the pantonal composer to communicate the triumph of the soloist through the overcoming of technical obstacles that is so much a part of the "narrative" of a solo concerto.*

Mr. Gable notes a preference for Carter's Piano Concerto, and that may be telling in light of the virtuoso issue. The Piano Concerto is far less colorful than the Violin Concerto (the word "dour" almost comes to mind) and its vision more tragic. The piano soloist is cast as an anti-hero whose prodigious virtuosity is eventually overwelmed by the orchestral mass. It may be that this clear dramatic structure and virtuoso struggle is more immediately apparent to the listener than the ever-changing relationships in the Violin Concerto.

One reason these thoughts readily popped up after reading Mr. Gable's post is that I am preparing to write a concerto for percussion and band, and the idea of virtuosity will certainly arise, along with a host of others that I'll blog about from time to time.

*It should go without saying that the soloist as hero is not the only narrative strategy available, regardless of the musical style.

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