Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

Contemporary Classical: A Listening

Some years ago, I was covering a concert at Carnegie Hall, whose program included a new work. A world premiere. When it had ended, I leaned over to the critic across the aisle from me and said, “I’m so sick of that piece.” He threw back his head and laughed. He knew exactly what I meant.

We had never heard this specific piece, of course — but we certainly knew the type. It was the “perpetual-motion piece,” as I sometimes call it, or the “frenetic piece.” Busy busy busy. There are other standard types, too.

There’s the sci-fi piece, with glubs and glurps and other such sounds. Relatedly, you have the spooky-jungle piece, with hoots and growls and so on. Then there’s the end-of-the-world piece — very popular. The post-apocalypse piece, the “bleakscape,” as I have termed it. You also have the cinematic, Disneyesque piece, filled with swells and tinkles.

All of these pieces tend to be loaded with percussion. Music historians of the future might label our age “The Age of Percussion.” I often say, “Today’s music has more pots and pans than Williams-Sonoma.”

A herd mentality exists in classical music, as in other fields. Composers are loath to stray too far from their fellows. People say that all Vivaldi concertos sound alike. That’s not true, but if it were, they’d have the excuse of having been written by one person.

There are other types I could mention, including the environmental piece, the global-warming piece: I call them “greenpieces.”

Let me not be too dismissive or snotty: There is good music about. But we may be in something of a drought, greatness-wise. Who was the last great composer? Shostakovich, who died in 1975? You will also get votes for Britten (d. 1976), Bernstein (d. 1990), and others.

“You can never tell who’s great or durable in your own age!” people exclaim, sometimes anxiously or angrily. The answer is: Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.

Arvo Pärt is a figure to be reckoned with, the genuine article. Someone once said to me, “Who’s a good composer today, and don’t say Arvo Pärt!” I think my questioner meant that too many say Pärt. Well, I do too. Pärt is one of the holy minimalists, i.e., practitioners of compositional minimalism who are inspired by religion. The grandees of regular old minimalism are still around, chiefly Philip Glass and Steve Reich. A few years ago, Glass composed his Violin Concerto No. 2, subtitled “The American Four Seasons.” It is intelligent and ultimately very moving.

Say this for the minimalists, if nothing else: During the second half of the 20th century, they helped keep tonality alive, while it was under assault. The serialists ruled the roost. (Practitioners of musical serialism.) Ned Rorem labeled them the “serial killers.” Some of them were talented and commendable. But Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions (all of them talented and commendable): Will anyone listen to their music in the future? I have my doubts.

There is a lot of intellectualism in music today, and less inspiration. Brainy people choose to compose. They could be doctors, lawyers — even scientists — but they choose to compose. Which is too bad: They’re brainier than they are musical. I don’t know what Bruckner would have scored on his SAT. I do know he was a genius.

I also know that there’s a lot of pretending among critics and others. They pretend that dreck — especially atonal or politics-tinged dreck — is high art. They have either drunk the Kool-Aid, because life is easier that way, or they know better but are terrified to be thought square. On a naked emperor, people see, or pretend to see, fine robes.

Bless the candid. I regularly ask important musicians, “Who’s worth listening to, among today’s composers?” In 2009, I put this question to Lorin Maazel, the late conductor (who was also a composer). Immediately, he said, “Penderecki.” Then he said, “Um . . . well . . .” He paused for a long time, smiling at me. He was saying, in effect, Pickin’s are slim, aren’t they? Later, he spoke up for Rodion Shchedrin and Aaron Jay Kernis — who are well worth speaking up for.

And Penderecki, yes. Two years ago, I heard a new solo-violin piece by him. I thought it had a chance of making the standard, or semi-standard, repertoire. I was able to tell him so, too, as he was sitting behind me.

Recently, I heard a cantata by Thomas Adès — formidable. I also applauded an opera by Marc-André Dalbavie. And a piano trio by Justin Dello Joio (son of Norman Dello Joio, the American composer who lived from 1913 to 2008). And a tone poem by Christopher Rouse. Like many others, I greatly admire Michael Hersch, who, I must disclose, is a friend of mine, but who should not be penalized for that.

I also appreciate performers who roll their own: who compose their own music, as performers once did, before the split between the performer and the composer set in (about a hundred years ago). These include three pianists: Stephen Hough, Marc-André Hamelin, and young Conrad Tao (b. 1994). Their music is good or less good. My point is that they’re composing, which musicians really ought to do. They’re in the game.

Most days, I don’t sweat the future of classical music, which has been sweated forever: Charles Rosen, the pianist-scholar, said, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest tradition.” Music is one way in which people express themselves. It is also a way in which people praise God (and such praise has resulted in some of the greatest music). The creative instinct is unkillable. Beauty, though it may be suppressed, is unkillable. And genius will out.

But may more of it out, soon, please?

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