Composer Promotes Classics In Age of Experimental Music

Zurich musician aims to revive excitement in basics

The worldwide debate over "good" and "bad" music has swirled around for decades - at least back to the days when composer Johannes Brahms, the man whom Richard Wagner derided as "that silly boy," conducted and performed his "Triumphlied" at the piano to open Zurich's orchestral "Tonhalle" in 1895.

But the debate has taken on new fervor. Voices from the old school are being raised to defend the musical classics against an onslaught of "neo-Dadaism" - instrumentation rated beyond the outer fringe of being acceptable.

An outspoken critic of what he calls "antimusic" is Swiss concert pianist and organist Theo Wegmann, a composer and co-founder of his own compact-disc publishing firm, Special Music Editions (SME). Last year Mr. Wegmann released an album of a 1992 piano concert, showcasing Russian masters Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, and his own work entitled "Mosaic."

Interviewed in the Conservatory of Zurich classroom where he teaches, Wegmann expresses outrage at today's Swiss musical establishment for supporting works he finds "technically impossible to perform and even more difficult to listen to."

To make his point, Wegmann opens a recently published music book of typical "antimusic" composition. One work offends him especially: It contains not a single musical note but offers a prose "recipe" for weighing down piano strings with boulders in order to silence the instrument forever. Ironically, he insists, it is just such "junk" that today wins the praise and financial backing of adoring patrons of the arts.

"At least the Dadaists [during World War I and briefly afterward] had some highly creative minds, some very able performers," he says. "That's not the case today. What flourishes at the moment is the product of creative bankruptcy. And our musical establishment rewards it. It's just unbelievable!"

Such reactions against atonal music - works defying both harmony and melody - inspire broad sympathy worldwide. But Wegmann and like-minded musical allies aren't just fuming at tasteless patrons of the arts and the "trash" they promote. The classicists want to revive excitement in "positive music" - enduring works likely to enrich world culture for many centuries to come.

In addition to promoting a "back to classics" strategy, Wegmann and others aim to reverse the funding drain among traditional supporters of the classics.

Flutist Hans Peter Frehner, for example, who founded the sextet Ensemble for New Music in Zurich, says his 12-year-old group of freelance musicians receives a modest subsidy from the city but still lives from hand to mouth. Like other experimental groups, it has its own eclectic following.

Wegmann has a point, Frehner says, noting that the split of civic funding for musical groups now favors the experimental over the mainstream. And the "bad boys" have built up followings rivaling those of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

But "keep in mind," the flutist says, "composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen used to be beyond the fringe. Now the 'far, far out' is part of the mainstream."

One hopeful sign to Wegmann is SME's success in gaining support from local government for its "back to classics" effort. His recent CD won a contribution from the City of Winterthur's Department of Culture. An earlier CD earned a similar grant from Canton Appenzell's directorate for education and culture.

The composer banks on finding continuing support in winning the public over to a classical repertory. Only time will tell if the SME CD-publishing venture succeeds as a business. But its head feels that one thing has already been accomplished: He has drawn a line in the sand between the classicists and the "far, far out." He hopes that a "Beware!" sign now flashes unmistakably for undecided buyers. Music lovers must now make their choice.

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