French but not French

If you buy Ned Rorem’s suggestion that the world is divided into the French and the German, Gloria Cheng’s Telarc album of piano pieces by Lutoslawski, Stucky, and Salonen is an album of French music composed by a Pole, an American, and a Finn. As Stucky writes in his booklet notes for the album, both he and Salonen look to Lutoslawski as a musical father, while all three composers share “the whole Debussy/Stravinsky outlook”.

The Stucky pieces on the disc are miniatures, a set of Four Album Leaves, and a even briefer set of variations in honor of David Zinman. Throughout, Stucky’s exquisite ear for harmony is in evidence, along with a touch of Ligeti’s influential piano etudes in the faster movements. The Salonen pieces are bigger: YTA II,  Three Preludes, and Dichotomie, the last sonata-like in its dimensions. Lutoslawski’s influence is heard in the emphasis on harmony and texture rather than melody. But there are also traces of Berio and minimalism. When Salonen gets the whole piano resounding, he manages to engage the sound of the romantic, heroic 19th century piano, but without nostalgia. The Lutoslawski Sonata on the disc is a very early work from 1934; it is good to hear this piece, but would that we had a second big solo piano piece from this composer, one in his mature style. We do have his powerful piano concerto – recently recorded by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Welser-Möst to spendid effect.

Gloria Cheng’s playing throughout the disc is exemplary, commanding fine details, brilliant passage work, and grand gestures. The beautiful piano sound – neither too close nor too distant,  neither too dry nor too reverberant, was captured by Grammy-winning producer and engineer Judith Sherman.

So where’s Meryl?

Yes, Meryl Streep was at the American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial week before last, being inducted as an honorary member. But somehow she didn’t get into the following pictures, so you will have to be satisfied with a bunch of composers.

L to R: James Primosch, Steven Stucky, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Pierre Jalbert, Shulamit Ran, Daniel Asia, David Felder, Barbara Petersen of BMI

L to R: David Felder, Daniel Asia, James Primosch

New music trivia buffs will have noted that all the composers in these pictures are published by the Theodore Presser Company – so thank you to Judith Ilika, head of promotion at Presser, for wielding the camera.


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.