Composers -- at last -- are using today's new musical language

A few years ago at the opening of the annual Fromm Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, Gunther Schuller noted that composers were beginning to sit back and assess the innovations that had been made in the expansion of the musical language. He noted that we were now entering a new era of assimilation.

In recent weeks I had a chance to hear three works by three composers that represent contrasting aspects of contemporary music. Through these three one can hardly assess where music is going at this point -- there are no obvious trends to be deciphered as yet -- but it is interesting to note just how big a difference there is among composers today.

Iannis Xenakis's music was shocking in its day.When "Metastasis" was first heard in 1955, it created, in the composer's words, "quite a scandal." Serialism was still the language of the avant-gardists back then, and Xenakis's more mathematical compositional style roused them lividly. Though a seminal piece, it is no longer particularly interesting, as is so often the case with works that break new ground. As the purely theoretical formulas that fascinated Xenakis gave way and began to be tamed to the needs of communication -- the essence of music -- his compositions took on a newer invention, a richer thrust. Thus, when Zubin Mehta programmed "Metastasis," he preceded it with the US premiere of "Imprints," written in 1975. It seems odd, considering how interesting a piece it really is, that it has taken so long to get to this country, but such is the state of music directors' commitment to new music today. It seems that in most orchestras across the country, the commitment is to the recording companies, which invariably means war horses and other popular favorites are scheduled and performed, then recorded. What this is doing to new music as well as classics of the recent past has yet to be tabulated, but the long-range negative effects will be profound.

"Imprints" was inspired by waves washing footsteps out of the sands of the seashore.The pitches rarely change, there are numerous stunning effects, and throughout it seems that Xenakis really took pains to create a communicative work that, in its undulations which eventually envelop then swamp the basic core , makes for a brief (12 minutes) but compelling piece. The Mehta performances of both works were dutiful, the New York Phil- harmonic played sturdily. But it was not until after the intermission of the program that things took spectacular wing with a stunning performance of Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" (in honor of the composer's 100th anniversary). Here the orchestra played handsomely, and Mehta gave a supple, volatile, superbly detailed account of this masterly score.

It is quite a long way from Xenakis to David del Tredici. The latter is as conventional as they come today in his musical language. Of late, del Tredici's all-consuming occupation has been Lewis Carroll and "Alice in Wonderland." It was the subject of the bicentennial-commissioned "Final Alice," of the commission for the opening of San Francisco's new symphony hall ("Happy Voices") , and of the piece that eill precede "Happy Voices" and which won him the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Music, "In Memory of a Summer Day," for soprano (amplified) and orchestra (huge).

But this work could have used considerable trimming, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding. Attention does not sustain itself in the course of this work, and for all the superior effects and illuminations of the text -- both in the "Simple Alice" sequence, and the more fantasaical, phantasmagorical "Ecstatic Alice" -- the offshoots from the imaginative trunk are too often distracting and confusing. And in the tremendous "Triumphant Alice" sequence that is a sort of march-scherzo full of asides, explosions, deviations, and thrilling developments , one is too often forced out of the mood to ask why this, or why that, and not receive any clear answer.

As del Tredici teaches at Boston University, it was fitting that the annual BU Symphony Orchestra concert in Symphony Hall be devoted primarily to the Boston premiere of this work. It received a handsome performance. (How amazing to find a student orchestra coping with such music as well as any second-string orchestra in this country, and even as well as an off-night for one of the top- six!)

As del Tredici progresses on his sunny, Scriabinesque, self-indulgently huge-scale technicolor Hollywood epic style of composition, Luciano Berio is forging his own paths that combine his fascination with words and their sonoric possibilities with the Italianate propulsion of emotion and theatricality.

In one movement of "Sinfonia," Berio took the scherzo from Mahler's Second Symphony and overlaid it with a dazzling fantasia of words, musical quotes, and sentences from poetry and lectures, etc., to create a dazzling maelstrom of images and sounds that connected on an immediate as well as subconscious basis.

In "Coro," Berio seats a member of the chorus next to each instrumentalist in the 44- piece orchestra, and it is the interaction, contrasting, and juxtapositioning of those sounds that animates this new work of a scant hour's duration.

To call it easy, or even likeable after only one listening, is overstating the case. But repeated encounters, either through the less- than-ideally recorded DG performance, or live in a concert hall with the Cleveland Orchestra, gets one acclimated to the sounds involved. And with a score to help out, one slowly but inevitably begins to sort out the details of the piece, one slowly begins to hear the magical, gripping, often grim, invariably overpowering moments that comprise the 31 uninterrupted sections of the work.

Much of the text is in English, some is in Spanish (a poem by Garcia Lorca), and other languages pass by as well. Berio is not so much composing a setting to the words as creating a dramatic musical, expressive framework for the comunicative potential of the words. Sometimes complex rhythmical fragmentations underlie basic recitations of a sentence. Sometimes words and instruments share the same musical line, other times, that line is divided -- now singers, now intrumentalists. It is all mind-bogglingly difficult to execute, and it is therefore no wonder that when the Cleveland Orchestra offered the US premiere of the work in its hometown as well as in Boston and New York, that the Cologne Radio Chorus was flown over. That group had performed the world premiere with the orchestra for which it was commissioned, the Cologne Radio Orchestra. The chorus is a virtuoso ensemble, even more secure in the piece now than it was on the records, and occasionally clearer of enunciation than on that record.

"Coro" is not without its severe problems for the performers. Singer and instrumentalist alike are beset with the mightiest of challenges. It must be said that both chorus and the Cleveland Orchestra players rose magnificently to the challenge.One can, however, only look forward to the day when this score will be deemed as accessible as Mahler is today, so that the fullest potential is this most dramatic, theatrical of pieces, will be fully realized.

Lorin Maazel's conducting was as clinical and emotionless as it had been for the Mahler Sixth that dominated the program heard in Boston the night before "Coro." The Cleveland is one of the most spectacular orchestras in america today , and the degree of technical skill with which the Mahler had been performed proved dazzling, even breathtaking. But Maazel, no matter how intellectually lucid his Sixth was, failed to communicate the angst and the emotional dilemma at the core of the work, thus robbi ng it of much, if not most, of its thrust and impact.

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