Context is Everything

Last week I heard a new chamber orchestra called The Knights play a concert at the visually stunning Angel Orensanz Center called Rewind which I should have loved. Repertoire from over a dozen composers spanning centuries was juxtaposed back to back, even music by a 17th-century composer named Biagio Marini whose music I’d never heard before.

But they never stopped playing. There was not so much as a moment’s pause for reflection between the pieces, some of which, like Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, beg for it. So, while the playing was top notch and the musical choices were all interesting, the concert didn’t quite work for me. I couldn’t completely process everything running together. It was like being in a room covered floor to ceiling with paintings by different artists overlapped without even frames to separate them. Or worse, eating a plate of sushi and having it turn into falafel mid-mouthful.

Colin Holter continued the argument against single-composer concerts last week, referencing something I had written months earlier, even going so far as to call it “The Oteri Principle.” But, despite obviously being flattered, the Rewind concert made me long for a single-composer program and it requires me to clarify this so-called Oteri Principle somewhat.

A single-composer concert can be a really profound experience in the same way that a single-artist exhibition in a museum can be. And, single-composer recordings of contemporary music as well as older repertoire are still usually more interesting to me than multiple-composer discs. Not being a denizen of the iPod generation, the same is true for other musical genres where an entire album by a single recording artist or group usually has more heft for me than a compilation.

Yet I was floored when the night after Rewind I heard a choral concert by the newly-formed collective C4 (which I should state here for the purposes of full disclosure includes my AMC colleague Ian Moss as well as several other friends). This concert also featured a little bit of a lot of different composers. In fact, the music was further mixed up by having the composers, most of whom also sing in the chorus, conduct someone else’s music instead of their own. The event was a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but each individual composition retained its own identity, which wasn’t always the case with Rewind. Plus the juxtaposition of multiple compositional voices in C4 was a by-product of a collective created by the composers themselves so it made musical sense too.

Ultimately there does not need to be a hard and fast principle. Multiple-composer concerts and single-composer concerts can both be effective and extremely rewarding events. Of course, it usually helps to have some context whatever approach you decide to take. It’s also important to remember that a concert, like a great meal, should leave you feeling like you still want just a little bit more.

3 thoughts on “Context is Everything

  1. Colin Holter

    I’m sorry to have misrepresented you, Frank! I’ll try to keep my cannibalization of others’ NewMusicBox articles to a minimum from now on. Effective tomorrow.

    At any rate, I think your point about single-composer recordings is a good one; for me, though, this really underscores the huge experiential difference between a live performance and a recording. I find single-composer recordings helpful because they offer a digest of what a particular composer’s music sounds like – in that sense they have kind of an eduational function, and, like scholarly monographs, it only makes sense that one such recording would deal with a relatively circumscribed subject (for instance, a single composer). As far as I’m concerned, though, there’s nothing auratic about a compact disc compared to a concert.

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  2. Garth Trinkl

    Frank, though I may be mistaken, I believe that you are referring to the Angel Orensanz Foundation and Museum’s use of a sublime Lower East Side Synagogue, at the opening of your post.

    Thanks for checking.

    PS. Thanks also for your interesting article about Jennifer Bilfield (and her composer husband) and Stanford U.

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  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Garth, indeed you are correct and it is Angel Orensanz and not Angel Orensatz. That’s what happens when I sit in front of a computer for 10 hours straight. But luckily the internet is not hard copy so I am able to fix it. Thanks for pointing it out!

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