Leaf Raking Miscellany

It’s a good day to rake leaves, but I want to take a break to say:

  • I’m sorry to be missing the Christopher Rouse Organ Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra this week. There is one more performance tonight (November 19) at 8. Read program notes for the concert here.
  • It’s a pleasure to see my colleague Eric Moe‘s picture in the NY Times Arts and Leisure section today in connection with a counter)induction program at National Sawdust featuring him as both composer and pianist – this at a moment when it seems especially difficult for some composers of our generation to get the attention of the media.
  • On Monday, Nov. 21, I’ll be doing a pre-concert lecture for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s concert featuring pianists Lydia Artymiw, Charles Abramovic, Cynthia Raim and Natalie Zhu, plus Philadelphia Orchestra percussionists Don Liuzzi and Chris Deviney. My talk will be at 6:45 before the 8:00 pm concert at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. The program includes the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the Mozart two-piano Sonata, and two works by Smetana for two pianos, eight hands – a one-movement Sonata and a Rondo. No, I haven’t heard the Smetana works before either! And yet I found this video of both pieces with Martha Argerich and colleagues performing:
  • I’ve been pondering Mario Davidovsky‘s work after hearing his masterful Flashbacks in two brilliant performances by the New York New Music Ensemble recently. I hope to post here about his work soon; for now, here is the NYNME recording, from a Bridge CD:

Rouse Oboe Concerto in Philly

I went to hear Chris Rouse’s Oboe Concerto tonight with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Alan Gilbert conducting, and the superb Richard Woodhams as soloist. The piece is in what the composer calls his “genial” mode – as opposed to a demonic piece like his Pulitzer Prize winning Trombone Concerto. I was most taken with the slow music – exquisite colors, both in the sense of harmony and of orchestral timbre. The contrasting fast playful sections are brilliant, but it was the ecstatic stillness supporting the intensely lyrical Woodhams oboe that was most striking.

Gilbert opened the program with the piece Magnus Lindberg wrote for Gilbert’s inaugural concert as music director of the NY Phil – it is called EXPO (not sure why the all-caps). The piece works with a rather French sounding harmonic language, something it shared with the Rouse. Beethoven 6 closed the program in a performance memorable for some moments of remarkably soft but rich string playing and the characterful wind solos – it was a great night for wind playing all around. Bravo to Alan Gilbert for programming not one but two new pieces.

Composition Inflation

Bruce Brubaker has posted recently on the topic of repertoire inflation – the tendency of young pianists to take on gargantuan pianistic challenges at an unnaturally young age – high school students playing the Liszt Sonata or Gaspard. I share his concern – there is something absurd about the first Beethoven sonata you learn being Op. 111.

I fear that something similar that can happen in composition: the young composer who tries to write a  40 minute cantata when it might be a better idea to craft a well-made 10-minute song tryptych. Not that students shouldn’t set the bar high – it’s important to challenge oneself. After all, the reverse can also be a problem, the student who is too easily satisfied with presenting a few sparse ideas without really digging in and exploring the material.  (This kind of piece usually comes with cute movement titles.) As always, the challenge is to come down in “the place just right”.

Composition inflation can affect composers later on in their career, resulting in pieces that strive for extreme emotional content, sometimes with good results, sometimes not.

40 or 50 years ago, undoubtedly in the shadow of The Bomb, there developed a genre of apocalyptic pieces: Don Erb’s The Seventh Trumpet; Crumb’s Star-Child (complete with an army of tom-toms depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) and Black Angels; Richard Wernick’s Visions of Terror and Wonder; Rochberg’s Apocalyptica; the Ligeti Requiem; Karel Husa’s Music for Prague might fit in here. Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is perhaps an early example, with Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time being the progenitor a generation earlier, and with works by Berlioz, Verdi and Mahler in the background. Christopher Rouse is the prime exponent currently, and handles it masterfully. Don’t get me wrong, I love many of these pieces. It is just that the apocalyptic genre is not for every composer, and shouldn’t be for every piece.

I first started thinking about this when I heard John Harbison’s bass concerto a few years ago. I was struck by how the piece was content to be what it was – that it didn’t have to carry stupendous emotional weight or an apocalyptic scenario. I don’t mean it was dry – the piece is elegant, imaginative, and expressive without sentimentality. Now, in part this has to be ascribed to the medium – it is hard to imagine a bombastic double bass concerto. But it also can be traced to John’s willingness to write something that didn’t have to compositionally or emotionally show off (the soloist does get to shine, of course.) It is a little easier to do this when you have more opportunities to write for orchestra, since there is less pressure to make a single piece be everything and do everything.

I hope my own music has enough expressive range to encompass the explosive and the playful, the intimate and the epic – but not necessarily all of those in every piece.

Made in USA

Anthony Tommasini’s piece in today’s Times about the NY Phil’s programming of American music touches on a tricky subject. I’m glad, of course, to see the Philharmonic doing new music at all, and particularly glad to see American composers Marsalis, Rouse and Kernis on the bill for next season. And it does seem reasonable of Alan Gilbert to say that a longer view of the programming over a couple of seasons is necessary to get an accurate sense of his priorities. (Of course that point cuts both ways – he can’t exactly take credit for programming the Kernis which has been in the pipeline for some time.) The Philharmonic is a global citizen, and has a responsibility to bring the work of top composers like Adés and Lindberg from other countries to New York. That is an important service that nourishes our cultural life.

And yet – the Philharmonic also has a responsibility to be a cultural leader in this country and in New York City. Consistently commissioning and presenting a substantial amount of music by American composers is an essential part of that leadership. Here’s hoping that the next composer-in-residence with the Philharmonic will be an American, someone who can give an American face to American music at the Philharmonic.


Anthony Tommasini’s Arts and Leisure essay in the Times today speaks about the end of dogma in programming new music, citing an evening by the Ensemble ACJW at Poisson Rouge to make the case.  Tommasini mentions the stylistic debates that dominated the lunch table during his time as a student at Yale, but it is not news that those arguments have quieted down.

More interesting to me in the article is the staying power of the high modernist composers that everybody is supposed to hate (the article mentions Babbitt and Davidovsky among others). It turns out that the music is less about compositional ideology (Davidovsky in particular is the most asystematic of uptown composers) and more about – among other things – a celebration of virtuosity. Since a performer is always happy to play something that makes him/her sound brilliant, it is not surprising that Ensemble ACJW would program Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 or that the Jack Quartet would advocate for Xenakis, or that the superb violinist Miranda Cuckson would issue first-rate discs of music by Shapey and Martino (about which more in a future post).

The other point of interest for me is one that Tommasini makes, but then backs away from as a “passing worry for now”, and this is the problem of the neglected “notes and rhythms” composer, to use the playful phrase of John Harbison that the article quotes. Tommasini mentions Hartke, Stucky, Rouse, Melinda Wagner, Currier, and Tower as (quasi-)mainstream  voices that may be “slipping from the view of young musicians and audiences”. (I say “quasi-mainstream” because “mainstream” is a pretty vexed concept today. Also, check the composer links at right if you want to add more names to the list.) Part of the problem here is that these composers offer journalists or publicists little on which to hang a story – nothing about identity politics, technology or violent rebellion against mentors – merely excellent music.  (The exception on that list being Sebastian Currier, whose impressive use of multimedia has not yet received the recognition it deserves.) If these composers are “slipping from view”, it is because their pieces all too often “slip away” after the premiere – the problem of the 2nd performance that I wrote about earlier. This is not a “someday” problem, as Tommasini suggests; rather, it is a problem now. Shouldn’t there be a dozen flutists planning to play Melinda Wagner’s Flute Concerto? Shouldn’t there be young groups touring with the string quartets of Harbison or Currier? In a healthier musical climate, repeated performances would mean the merely excellent would remain squarely before us instead of slipping from view.