Why concerts are boring
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IRONICALLY, at a time when art music seems to be acquiring a fresh, new sense of stylistic direction, I have been sensing much discontent. At least, the vogue for saying pessimistic sooths about music's survival (as a living, breathing expression for us in our own time) has not evaporated since the late ' 70s.Skip to next paragraph
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There is still much discouragement about the shortchanging of living composers in numbers of performances. The cry comes from many corners over declining musical literacy and taste, and over the monolithic musical-masterworks and punk-rock markets.
Many concertgoers are bored, and they don't know why. I go to concerts, and it hits me over the head that many in the audience are listlessly unleavened by a ritual (the concert) that has lost much of its relevance for them.
I don't advocate overthrowing the public concert, for, as a means of finding and sharing the nameless charisma that is the soul of musical expression, it remains potent. But people are feeling, I think, the inertia of what has overtaken concert music, slowly since the start of the century and more rapidly since the '50s. Concerts (and concert repertoire) have become reinforcers of what general musical education has conditioned us to take in as culturally legitimate music.
During the 1930s and '40s much less of that conditioning prevailed than today - and a lot of music's present-day economic and marketing difficulties come plainly to mind as reasons for this. Nevertheless, a vastly greater segment of the concertgoing public expected to hear new musical works and was rewarded, in the main, by compositions that spoke to these listeners, both stimulatingly and directly. That period, at least in American music, was a Golden Age - largely because of the palpable sense of involvement and commitment shared among performers, composers, and listeners.
It is this sense of involvement and trust - including the composing of music which incites it - that will ultimately do as much as anything for the enlivening (and growth) of art music.
We've recently seen the reemergence of this vein of compositional concern after years of the postwar dominance of Serialism and the academic, faceless, international-modern sound. There is an interest in recapturing the head/heart balance. And, while an overbalance in the emotional direction has taken place, we are able to talk these days of some New Horizons. That was, in fact, the title of a contemporary music festival by the New York Philharmonic last year.
The subject of a renewed Romanticism in music has been grossly oversimplified and misread by ignorant journalists and partisan musicians, but such is taking shape, and the best of it, I believe, carries with it one of the main keys to ending music's all-round ennui. Composers like Ellen Zwilich, Stephen Albert, Allan Blank, Joseph Schwantner, and Ronald Perera, although they have each been producing music for many years, have attracted attention in the past several seasons, and I definitely hear something in their music that relates to the deeper expressive horizon that has been lighting up during this same period.
I cite those artists mainly because of their consistent genuineness. It is not merely increased ''listenability'' that marks this seeming renascence, and that is a crucial point where wheat and chaff need to be distinguished.
Schwantner's music, for example, in its surge of success, has spawned a host of imitators. They produce some not-quite Minimal, not-quite Modernist sounds, seeking that trance-state-with-rude-interruptions that Schwantner brings off so arrestingly (although even for him that idea has become a bit routine).
But the even more important element in nurturing what promises to be an enormous lift for music's continued well-being is to remove the cynical stigma of trendiness from it. In this regard, the composers known today for their accessible music can be divided into three camps. First, there are by-and-large older figures, such as David Diamond and the late Peter Mennin, who never left the notion that the listener needs to be engaged by a piece.
Second, there are the younger (some only slightly) ones, such as those cited above, who seem on target with a fresh, broad idiom that addresses both the mind and the ear intelligently and affectingly.
But, also, there are the ''bandwagoneers'' - those composers who have seen the obvious merits of ''buying into'' what must look to them like a worthwhile play for an increased audience, and are more than willing to shed the austere styles that kept them professionally respectable before.
Whether it is to Orient-aping Minimalism they turn, or to puerile pastiches of Mahler - construed as what Romanticism must mean to the public today - these are the mistaken ones, along with those who promote and purvey them, who confuse mere accessibility with ''new horizons.'' In fact, in passing these non-nourishing pieces off as the real Romantic item, they are making the same mistake that many did during America's '30s and '40s Golden Age, in placing insipid examples of tonality and populism on an equal footing with the works of tonal, popular, but masterly composers like Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and Samuel Barber.
History, as always, will vindicate the wheat and discard the tares. But history is, in part, I hope, an educated posterity, and, in the interest of a still-fragile promise of future vitality, a word to the wise about discrimination could never hurt.
A listening list:
* Ellen Zwilich: Chamber Symphony (Cambridge Records, CRS 2834)
* Stephen Albert: To Wake the Dead (CRI label, CRI S-420)
* Allan Blank: 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; other pieces (CRI S-250)
* Ronald Perera: Apollo Circling (Opus One 27)
* Joseph Schwantner: Wild Angels of the Open Hills (CRI SD 497)