A case for playing `disappointing' new music

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A mug I use is covered with quotations about music, one of which reads: ``The public today must pay its debt to the great composers of the past by supporting the living creators of the present.'' I don't know who said it, but it's the most succinct statement possible about why new music should -- and must -- be played, and with regularity.

It is hard to get audiences to listen to the new. It is often hard to get conductors to devote much time to the new. Generally, audiences would rather hear another hackneyed warhorse than something challengingly new. And surely, recording companies are still more apt to opt for yet another Tchaikovsky symphony, not a new work by, say, Jacob Druckman.

But this does not mean that the cause of new music is utterly lost. Some conductors try to keep the issue alive, if not with the very newest, then at least with something current. Riccardo Muti, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, commissioned a new work from Raymond Premru, an American-born composer/ bass-trombonist who lives in London. He plays in London's Philharmonia, which Mr. Muti once headed.

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As it turns out, ``Music for Three Trombones, Tuba, and Orchestra,'' heard in Carnegie Hall last week, is a not-very-interesting sort of quadruple concerto. It passes along in a dour mood, with asides to Hindemith, Copland, and the like, but the somber tone rarely lifts, and the melodic content of this surprisingly traditional-sounding work is not of sufficient distinctiveness to hold the listener.

Yes, it is unfortunate that new pieces so often disappoint, but ever has it been thus. And there is always the chance that something brilliant will emerge. We need to commission and to demand the new, or else we will have no musical heritage to pass on to future generations.

The next step is the sifting. Conductors, after backing the initial performances, then have to decide whether or not a piece is worth championing. Music history is littered with manuscripts that fleetingly saw light of day. We only know the great and near-great sifted in the past. Our duty to tomorrow is to ensure that a similar sifting goes on regularly.

A piece like George Crumb's ``A Haunted Landscape'' is a prime candidate for that musical sifter. Barely an hour after its world premi`ere performance with the New York Philharmonic under Arthur Weisberg, Zubin Mehta (a good friend of the new) began recording it for New World Records. He programmed it this year, and it will go with the orchestra on its coming European tour.

Why? It might be said to have instant appeal, though it sounded to my ears as if Mr. Crumb, a composer not without some interesting things to say, had suddenly become smitten with John Williams's sci-fi movie scores. Is this really the stuff a Zubin Mehta should be taking on tour to represent American music abroad, when there are other pieces that are just as entertaining but considerably more stimulating?

For instance, there is Mr. Druckman's ``Prisms,'' which Mr. Mehta programmed just the other week. It takes phrases from three ``Medea'' settings -- Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Francesco Cavalli, Luigi Cherubini -- and puts them through a contemporary aural prism. He distills aspects of the music, diffuses phrases, creates musical mists through which fragments emerge, often transmogrified into something Stravinskian. It is entertaining, thoughtful, imaginatively conceived, superbly scored.

And then there are the works that have been kept alive -- however fleetingly -- over the years which may be on the verge of finding a niche in the repertoire. For instance, Mr. Mehta raced through Elliott Carter's dense ``Concerto for Three Orchestras'' earlier this season, in a performance that bristled with an unexpected energy, enthusiasm, and sheer beauty. It is a piece that grows on you if you give it a chance, and Mehta and the Philharmonic (for which ensemble the piece was written) tackled it as if it were a repertory standard, rather than an infrequently performed, wickedly tough composition.

At Carnegie Hall, that dazzling oboist Heinz Holliger offered the late Bruno Maderna's Third Oboe Concerto with the Cincinnati Orchestra under Michael Gielen. He performed it with the conviction and dramatic flair he lavishes on all his work -- a style marked by his unique blend of pliant timbre and astounding breath control. Yes, there is a certain brainy side to the music that threatens to swamp the heart. The conductor controls aspects of the performance as much as the players do, while the soloist plays a fixed line; directions are varied at will so as to vary the piece each time it is played. But the outbursts in the score are vivid, and the devolution of the piece -- as worked out by Mr. Gielen reacting to the magnificent Mr. Holliger -- made for something quite haunting.

Would that haunting could be a term used for the new George Rochberg Oboe Concerto heard at the New York Philharmonic earlier this year, with Joseph Robinson, the orchestra's principal oboist, as soloist. Mr. Robinson's contributions were impressive. The tones he conjured from his ebony instrument were melting to the ear, full of pathos and tenderness. He phrased with elegance and played throughout as if this were the most important piece of music he had ever encountered. Unfortunately, the Rochberg muse is becoming less and less compelling. Touches of the unspontaneous underlie his work. Is it that in trying so hard to be appealing, he has lost his inner voice and a sense of his true inspiration?

Whatever the present cause, Rochberg has written notable music before. If he were to have no outlets (i.e., commissions or musical forums) for his creativity, could he ever find a new thread? Can we afford to close down any avenue of musical creativity? If we feel we can, then we are not paying our debt, and that in the long run will impoverish us all.

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