Network at The Barnes

There always has to be an angle. That’s what foundations and funding sources insist on from presenters and performers these days, and the angle at last night’s concert by Network for New Music at The Barnes Foundation was the notion of having a group of composers write pieces in some way inspired by the museum’s collection. (The Barnes’s title for the event, “American Composers Respond”, sounded too much like a title card from a newsreel dating from shortly after Pearl Harbor.) There were new pieces by Kristin Kuster, Jeremy Gill, Stephen Hartke and Louis Karchin, all of relatively modest dimensions, and all meriting the listener’s attention.  Stephen Hartke offered The Blue Studio, a set of perfectly timed and characterful miniatures for piano trio, while Louis Karchin’s Luminous Fields, inspired by Rousseau, set in motion fleet gestures in harmonically bright colors, using harp, flute, cello, and pitched percussion. The concert took place in the reverberant space of the Light Court at the Barnes, and that resonance enhanced the moments of three-dimensional depth in the minimalist strata of Kristin Kuster’s folding planes: frosted panes, inspired by the Barnes building itself. Jeremy Gill captured something of the intense colors and fluid approach to form in the cutouts of Matisse in his Sons Découpés. Network’s performances were typically fine throughout the evening.

Here’s (left to right) Jeremy Gill, Stephen Hartke, and Kristin Kuster after the show:

 

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Gerald Levinson, Jay Reise and Stephen Hartke:

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and Jerry again with myself and Lou Karchin:

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Excellent music excellently played isn’t good enough for grant givers these days, but for listeners, it will do just fine, and that was the gift granted us by Network last night.

Upcoming In New York, Philly, Boston

– Lots happening for Stacy Garrop this month, including premiere performances by the SUNY Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players at Stony Brook (Nov. 10) and in NYC at Symphony Space (Nov. 11).

Michael Gordon‘s remarkable Timber (written about previously here, with a link to video) will be played by Mantra Percussion at the Crane Arts Center in Philadelphia on Friday November 11 at 8:00. The evening-length work is scored for 6 2X4s – talk about Music for Pieces of Wood!

– Music of Stephen Hartke is featured on the next Cantata Singers concert, Friday. November 4. in Boston’s Jordan Hall. The sublime oboist Peggy Pearson is soloist.

Notes-and-Rhythms

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.

Répons response

Michael Kimmelman’s piece on Boulez in the NY Times today is mostly about Boulez the persona, then about Boulez the conductor, while Boulez the composer is a distant third. But what got my attention in the article was related to the composer angle. According to Kimmelman, Boulez’s Répons has been “rarely performed, just a few dozen times”.

On what planet is a piece that has been played “a few dozen times” accurately characterized as rarely performed?

In the real world, most composers – including those who are doing work at least as interesting as Répons, maybe more so – consider themselves very lucky if a piece receives a second or third performance. A tiny handful of American composers might have some pieces that are performed “a few dozen times”, but those pieces would never be thought of as “rarely performed”.

The premise behind Kimmelman’s remark about Répons is that the piece should be more widely played – after all, it is by Pierre Boulez; after all, it is “the first major work he wrote using the electronic-music institute in Paris, Ircam.”  This premise overestimates Boulez’s importance as a composer. If I had to pick a favorite member of the post-war European avant-garde, it would be Berio or Ligeti, not Boulez. If I had to pick an atonal piano sonata from the post-war era, it would be George Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, not the Boulez 2nd. Try to imagine Boulez’s standing in the field if he wasn’t a leading conductor. Wouldn’t he be on about par with Dutilleux?

Répons is certainly impressive to see (I saw the piece done in NYC in the 1980s). There are six soloists, ensemble, surround sound, enough electronic gear to launch the space shuttle – but the musical payoff is not commensurate with the apparatus at hand.  (Mario Davidovsky used to joke about pieces that metaphorically use the space shuttle to drive down the Jersey Turnpike.) The moment when the electronics kick in is admittedly dazzling, but after that first entrance, the thrill soon wears off.  I remember two things from the piece in the versions I have heard: a quirky mixed meter allegro section, and mostly a whole lotta’ trills – not enough to carry a piece of that length. (The DG recording runs about 40 minutes, I understand later revisions have yielded a longer piece. Maybe there is more going on in those longer versions.) The recent Boulez piece I rather prefer is Sur Incises, which is scored for a mere nine players, without electronics, yet is more varied in its gestural repertoire. I get a more satisfying sense of narrative (fractured though it may be) from Sur Incises than from Répons.

However, my main concern is not Boulez, but the problem of the 2nd performance. In the orchestral world, there is a certain amount of prestige when an ensemble does a premiere, but the glamour quotient for subsequent performances falls off fast. (The exception is when there is a fad for a particular composer’s work, and then being on the bandwagon has its own kind of chic.) Too many first-rate pieces languish. To pick three such pieces at random: Melinda Wagner’s Trombone Concerto; Stephen Hartke’s Symphony #3, Augusta Read Thomas’s Orbital Beacons – these are all pieces well deserving of a “couple dozen” performances, but I don’t think those performances will be forthcoming; I hope I am mistaken.

Of course, there are exceptions, and of course, I and my colleagues are profoundly grateful for the opportunities that orchestras do give us. In my own recent experience, I am extraordinarily grateful to the Chicago Symphony for arranging a tryout of my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Civic Orchestra last spring. Composers for orchestra don’t get the out-of-town tryout that a composer for the musical theatre does. The second or third performance of an orchestral work affords a chance to test the myriad corrections and adjustments that a first performance suggests.

While orchestras are right to look to new music as a way of invigorating concert life, the seedlings of interest planted by such efforts will have shallow roots unless compositions are given an ongoing life and composers a more than sporadic presence in our concert halls.