Martino on Schoenberg’s pastry

Jim Ricci at Deconstructing Jim has an interesting post regarding Don Martino and Schoenberg, including excerpts from Martino e-mails such as the following unexpected comment: “S’s music is to my ear (after Pierrot) uniformly ugly and pedantic with the countenance of stale and heavy German pastry.” I was startled to learn from this post that there is an unperformed Martino Concerto for Orchestra resting in a desk drawer – Gil Rose and BMOP, we need you.


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.

Overton overtones

Yet another important post by Ethan Iverson at Do the Math, this time on Hall Overton, the fellow I mentioned below in connection with Robin D. G. Kelley’s book on Monk. Let me add a couple of points around the margins of the post:

-A good survey of the music of Miriam Gideon –  perhaps my favorite of the “mid-century classical music women geniuses” mentioned by Iverson – can be found on New World Records. I believe Gideon is best known for her vocal music, but this retrospective disc includes both vocal and instrumental pieces, including a very fine piano sonata. (Correction: The New World album has many fine pieces, but Gideon’s piano sonata is actually on a different disc, an older CRI recording, with Robert Black playing. Should not have relied on my memory of the contents of that disc! New World Records is handling the tremendous catalog of the late lamented Composers Recordings Inc., and has re-issued the more recent albums on CD. Their site seems to say that while earlier CRI recordings will eventually be put on CD, the old LPs are still available – though I would have to say I haven’t tried to order one. Ethan Iverson, who has been trying to track down the Gideon sonata score and recording, has written to New World about this. The score, by the way, is available through American Composers Alliance.)

-Iverson mentions attending a concert by Robert Helps playing Roger Sessions, a program also attended by, among others, Garrick Ohlsson and Alfred Brendel. Ohlsson, who is a wonderful advocate for Wuorinen, would be fantastic in Sessions, the Second or Third Sonatas in particular, rather than the more introverted First. But try to imagine Brendel playing Sessions; it’s hard to know what to think. The Schoenbergian side of the music would come to the fore?

– Myriad classical composers have worked as jazz pianists (as an example, find out about John Harbison’s recordings from the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival here), but I agree with Iverson that it is tough to come up with classical composers who played piano with jazz musicians of historic importance as did Overton and Mel Powell. There was a legend around my undergrad school that one of my teachers, the late composer Rudolph Bubalo, had played piano for Sarah Vaughan; no way of confirming that now, surely no recordings to document it. If you look beyond the piano for a musician performing on a truly high level in both classical and jazz worlds, the first composer you would bump into would be, of course, Gunther Schuller. A less well known example is the late Donald Martino, who was a good enough jazz clarinetist to have played with Bill Evans. I’d be interested to hear what Iverson would have to say about Martino’s quite superb piano music. Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus is very high on my list of greatest American piano pieces. (Note that the link is to a disc that includes Robert Helps’s reading of the Sessions Third as well as Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus.)