Boston: Dusting Off the Cobwebs

Julia Werntz
Julia Werntz
Photo by Michele Macrakis

Thanks to the presence of Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director James Levine and Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg, it’s finally possible to see a meeting of two remote Boston worlds: the “new music” world and the formerly mostly-old-music BSO world. Among other significant changes since Seiji Ozawa passed the baton, the BSO has begun programming far more works from the 20th and 21st centuries. This activity has included several commissions, as well as many works by Boston composers. Various guest conductors seem to reflect the new spirit in their programming. As a result, not only have Boston-area composers, performers, and other new music connoisseurs begun attending and talking about BSO concerts in noticeably larger numbers, but the BSO’s traditionally conservative audience base is at last being exposed to steady, powerful doses of contemporary music from composers such as Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Thea Musgrave, Kaija Saariaho, György Kurtág, Lukas Foss, and Charles Wuorinen, as well as Boston composers John Harbison, Yehudi Wyner, Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gandolfi, and Gunther Schuller.

The new programming is causing a stir, which is evident in the heated debates that audience members and columnists have been engaging in on the pages of newspapers like the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix. For some reason, it’s still old Arnold Schoenberg from the early 20th century who seems to cause the most trouble—probably because many view him as the source of “the problem.” It’s hard to believe that in 2005 the dispute still rages over Schoenberg in particular, and those perceived to be his artistic descendents, such as Babbitt and Carter. Even Edgard Varèse’s Amériques still scandalizes some now as much as it did when it premiered in New York in 1926. People, in Boston at least, can still feel “insulted” and “admonished” by such “hyper-modernistic” “disconcerting noise.” (All quotations from Globe columns and letters.) For some of us, this is a little like reading complaints in the year 2005 about the provocative way Little Richard moves when he performs, or how the Beatles wear their hair too long.

For the sake of the new music virgins in the BSO audience, we can only hope for a positive outcome from all this—for example a new awareness of the diversity of musical styles from the 20th and 21st centuries. With at least seven works by Schoenberg programmed next season (only three of them tonal), Levine does appear to have a mission to give Schoenberg’s music the exposure it has been denied for so long, and to give audiences a chance to finally listen to the music itself rather than to all the talk about the music. Perhaps ears and minds will open to the entire century-old province of music without tonal centers. But if some still fail to find “eternal joy” or “an affirmation of the conscious soul” (what another Globe reader found lacking) in any music from that vast and multi-faceted strain, perhaps along the way they will have discovered it in the music of Tan Dun, Sir Michael Tippett, Thea Musgrave, Osvaldo Golijov, or Michael Gandolfi. Or at the very least become conversant and more sophisticated about the music of our time.


Composer Julia Werntz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and their daughter Anna. Since the mid ’90s her music, mostly chamber pieces, has been almost exclusively microtonal. Her music has been performed around the Northeastern United States and Europe, and may be heard, together with works by composer John Mallia, on the CD All In Your Mind (Capstone Records). She is currently working in collaboration with choreographer and dancer Christine Coppola and violinist Gregor Kitzis on a piece for solo violin and viola and dance, based on poems of E. E. Cummings.

Werntz curently teaches music theory as an adjunct faculty member at universities in the Boston area, and also is Director of the Boston Microtonal Society, together with her former teacher and BMS President, composer and jazz saxophonist Joseph Maneri.