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Reopening the Symphony's Doors

A New Breed Of Classical Composers Welcome Back The Pleasure Principle

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/26/2007

Composers in Conversation: John Adams

Theatre Project Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 7:30 p.m.

If much of the contemporary classical music written between the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton proved unpopular with listeners, the reason, its defenders declared, was the music's daring nature. In truth, the problem with the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, Anton Webern, and the like was that it was not daring enough. Too often, these writers took the convenient way out; they cleared the way for their cerebral puzzle-making by banishing the pleasure principle with all of its messy melodic emotions. They were championed by academics who enjoyed the privileged position of puzzle solver, and the result was an intellectually complex but arid academic music, as easy to write as it was hard to hear, as hard to perform as it was easy to forget.

In the '90s, however, a new generation of composers came to the fore. Though their styles vary wildly, they are united by an embrace of the pleasure principle; let's call them the Ardent Modernists. They seek pleasure not in a schmaltzy nostalgia for the past, but in the stretched harmonies, expanded tonalities, and assertive rhythms of the present. They prove that contemporary classical can experiment and innovate without sacrificing sex, humor, and angst.

Leading the movement are a trio of like-named and like-minded Americans--John Corigliano, John Adams, and Joan Tower--who combine soaring melodies, unruly rhythms, and subversive harmonies to create grand orchestral dramas. Taking a more irreverent approach are Germany's H.K. Gruber and Scotland's James MacMillan, bringing a playful sense of humor to a genre that often takes itself too seriously.

All five of these composers are coming to town this season as part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Composers in Conversation series. It begins with Adams this week and ends with Tower in June; in between are not only Corigliano, Gruber, and MacMillan but also such Ardent Modernist composers as Tan Dun, Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark O'Connor, Steven Mackey, Christopher Rouse, and Thomas Adès. Each composer will not only have one or more works performed by the orchestra, but also are scheduled separate sessions to talk to audiences. In addition, Adams, Dun, Gruber, MacMillan, and Adès will conduct the BSO through their own pieces.

The series is the first major payoff from Marin Alsop taking over as music director of the BSO this week. The conductor has emerged as a major advocate for new music, not only programming it for her concerts, but also talking it up in her many interviews and even recording works by Tower, Rouse, and Corigliano. In fact, Corigliano's newest album, The Red Violin Concerto (Sony Classical), features violinist Joshua Bell performing with the BSO and conducted by Alsop.

The Red Violin Concerto reassembles bits and pieces from Corigliano's score for François Girard's 1998 movie The Red Violin and expands them into a proper concerto. At first, it sounds like retro romanticism: The main theme, thrillingly played by Bell, provides a melody that thrums with yearning. But that melody and its successors are soon subjected to the challenges of discordant counterpoint, aggressive percussion, and raw string noise--as if to suggest that no yearning is pure and no satisfaction easy. At times, Bell wanders away from the original lyricism into strange note choices that severely bend the harmony, but the harmony never quite breaks.

The same sort of drama can be heard in a chamber setting on pianist Andrew Russo's recent interpretations from his recent Corigliano (Black Box). Russo plays two extended solo pieces, a duet with violinist Corey Cerovsek and a duet with fellow pianist Steven Heyman. Like Bell and Alsop, Russo is able to balance the rewards of the composer's lyricism with the taut tension of his deliberate problem-making; the pianist moves naturally from the longing quality of spare fingering to the knotty tangle of two-fisted banging.

In contrast to Corigliano's urbanism, Adams brings a more pastoral sensibility to Ardent Modernism. Adams' most recent album is The Dharma at Big Sur/ My Father Knew Charles Ives (Nonesuch), with each of the compositions taking up an entire 26-minute CD. Big Sur's lead instrument is Tracy Silverman's electric violin, and the amplification as well as the jazzy "blue" notes lend the main melody a happy/anxious edginess in contrast to the meditative harmonies supplied by the acoustic strings, which sound as implacable as nature itself. The tension between the lone individual and the impersonal backdrop proves exhilarating. It's an apt reflection on both the elation and terror Jack Kerouac--the author who penned the composition's two namesake novels--felt in confronting California's mountains and rocky coast.

My Father Knew Charles Ives opens with slowly shifting, disorienting harmonies. Before long this bit of Emersonian transcendentalism is brought back to earth by a small-town New England parade full of high-stepping brass phrases and parodies and quotations of Fourth of July repertoire.

Adams' father did not, in fact, know Ives, the early 20th century Connecticut composer, but both Ives and Adams' father were New Englanders who tried to balance practical business careers with bohemian aspirations. Ives' give-and-take between folk materials and complexity, between highbrow ambitions and lowbrow humor, prefigures the same tug of war in Adams' music. Ives can be seen as the godfather of the Ardent Modernists, a movement that re-establishes a continuity of development after a skipped generation.

If Adams implies humor in his writing, the composers James MacMillan and especially H.K. Gruber are blatant about it. When Gruber joins the BSO in October, he will conduct the title composition from his new album, Frankenstein!! (Chandos). This cartoonish look at Mary Shelley's monster, subtitled A Pandemonium for Chansonnier and Orchestra, was recorded with the BBC Philharmonic, which was obliged to play toy instruments as well as its regular ones while Gruber spoke/sang the irreverent nursery rhymes. It's Peter and the Wolf for the South Park era.

MacMillan does something similar on his latest album, A Scottish Bestiary (Chandos), which offers playful portraits of hyenas, monkeys, bees, chickens, and parrots. The album also contains his Piano Concerto No. 2, which MacMillan will conduct with the same pianist, Wayne Marshall, at the Meyerhoff in April. On its face, this is a more serious piece, but the mischief soon returns: The strings refuse to go where they're expected and stubbornly dance off on their own tangent. Such wit is yet another welcome breath of fresh air.

Joan Tower, whose album Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman was recorded by Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in 1997, has a new album, Made in America (Naxos), with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Half the disc is devoted to Tower's Concerto for Orchestra, which Alsop will conduct in June. The 28-minute piece exemplifies the best traits of the Ardent Modernists: ear-catching, romantic melodies pitted against a turbulent backdrop of off-kilter harmonies, hammering drums, and the irreverent upending of expectations.

The contrast is even sharper on the composition Tambor, where the percussion is so assertive that the piece sounds like Samuel Barber arranged by Phil Spector or remixed by RZA. When rhythms this threatening are linked to optimistic melodies and disruptive, mocking harmonies, the resulting tension is as modern as Ornette Coleman and yet firmly linked to the classical tradition of Beethoven. It's a combination of old and new--formalism and feeling--that marks the best of the Ardent Modernists' music. They're providing the best reason in a long time to head to a symphony hall.

Marin Alsop leads the BSO through Adams' Fearful Symmetries and Mahler's Symphony No. 5 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Sept. 28-30. Adams conducts the BSO through his own works at the Meyerhoff Oct. 4-6.

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