Missed Opportunities

At the beginning of the Thanksgiving weekend, I found myself outside an antique shop at the edge of SoHo where I saw a pile of classical music CDs going for $3 a piece. Never one to pass up an opportunity to increase the size of my record collection, I rifled through them and wound up with a stack of mostly Baroque music plus a lone CD featuring a mass by Frank Martin and a requiem by a composer I’d never heard (all the more exciting) named Ildebrando Pizzetti. The man I bought them from was extremely pleasant but assuming that I had picked up the Martin and Pizzetti disc by mistake felt obliged to warn me, “That one’s contemporary you know.” Normally such a comment would provoke a 20-minute sermon from me about the virtues of new music. But unfortunately, I was already running late, so I simply said “Yes, I know” with a big smile, waited for my change, and left.

Then, this morning, as I was rushing to catch the dress rehearsal of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera House, a solitary youngish man who was more than likely high or in some other way mentally unstable was pontificating to the rest of the world in a high-baritone relatively-pitched monotone. All I heard was: “…related to the best composer ever.”

Was he claiming to be the son or grandson of someone we all admire? Who, in his opinion, was “the best composer ever” anyway? Normally this sort of talk stops me dead in my tracks no matter the outcome. But since, once again, I didn’t want to be late (I wasn’t) plus he was probably crazy, I ran quickly on without being able to catch any more of his rant. But all through the subway ride up I kept wondering what he was talking about. It is all too rare to have a random quotidian encounter with words like “composer.”

Whereas during intermission at the Met today I saw at least ten prominent composers… It was a strange and awkward moment as these high profile unveilings often are. Everyone wanted to hear it but nobody wanted to be the first to say anything about it. Some literally stopped talking about it when they saw me approach perhaps afraid I’d write up their reactions or that theirs would differ from the ones I would later write. Odd, given how often I advocate for a non-”critical” stance. There’d be no chance of my writing a “review” of this performance even though for the record, against my better judgment, I will write here that I was very impressed with the opera.

I don’t plan to expose anyone here a la Page Six or even to go further in my description of An American Tragedy since journalistic codes of ethics, for what their worth, have traditionally treated dress rehearsals as strictly off limits to critical commentary. Yes, I know, all is fair in the blogosphere, therefore I will paraphrase one comment that I think bears some reflection here. One of the people I spoke to confessed that it was difficult to formulate an objective opinion about the work because he wished that it was his own work being done there instead, perhaps adding further fuel to Joshua Kosman’s argument that composers ought not be critics, but perhaps not.

Hey, I wished it was my work being done up there, too! But that’s beside the point. If I had written An American Tragedy, I would have let the long trombone sustain at the end of Act Two end the opera rather than follow it with a quick declamatory tonic chord. But, you know what, I didn’t write An American Tragedy; Tobias Picker did. One of the important things that is gained from abandoning a critical stance, whether you’re a composer or not, is to allow yourself to appreciate things you would not want to do yourself. Allow yourself to let in a work of contemporary choral music even if what you really like is Baroque music. Allow yourself to appreciate the infinite variety of art that is the product of being a human being rather than madly and incapably trying to focus only on what you assume or what you are told is “the best.”

O.K., that’s the rant I never unleashed on the guy in the antique shop which might have made him think of me what I thought of the man ranting about “the best composer ever” this morning. But it still leaves room for a few more questions… When you really don’t like a piece of music you hear, what precisely is it that you don’t like and why? Do you listen to music with a built in set of expectations or do you come to it new every time? (Be honest.) How often do you hear someone randomly mention new music? Do you think most people don’t talk about new music because they might be afraid to proclaim a “wrong opinion” about it?

8 thoughts on “Missed Opportunities

  1. william

    It’s always interesting how national environments shape our perceptions. For an Italian musician to not have heard (or heard of) Ildebrando Pizzetti, would be like an American who had never heard of Elliot Carter. He is one of the giants of their new music world. (I only know about Pizzetti because I lived in Italy and studied in Rome.)

    Same story when I lived in Munich for years. They fawn over grand masters people elsewhere haven’t even heard of.

    I always remember this when I return to the States and see similar types of people kowtowing around their compositional savants.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

    Reply
  2. JohnClare

    Frank-
    I can so relate. I’m always astounded how – in my view – people seem open to new movies, new theater and new *insert art form here* – and yet not to new music. And if they do, are in fact timid to talk about a new work.
    I just heard Jennifer Higdon’s new Percussion Concerto Saturday. At the pre-concert talk, an usher came in towards the end and told Jennifer and those attending, “I usually hate new works…but your piece kept my attention.” There were many things I wanted to say to him, but I hadn’t heard the Higdon yet, and he disappeared afterwards. (Also at the talk and concert were two other composers I knew of, both seemed very receptive!)
    I admit to judging a new work rather quickly…but usually try and hear it several times if possible (a recording is ideal). I also have adopted the rule of trying not to listen to too many new works in a day – that may sound odd, but in preparing for interviews (sometimes back to back composer interviews with available studio time) I generally am getting in the mood (or mode) and listening to their music. (I wouldn’t be interviewing them if I wasn’t familiar with their music – this is different)
    Anyway, back to “judgin’” a new work, that open mind is so important. I know we can all get in familiar patterns (ruts?), whether its eating the same thing or listening to the same music. It’s those new recipes and new works that make life fun and interesting. It doesn’t always turn out right (how could I know that curry was so hot?!) or maybe it is just right (I’m so excited to hear Jennifer’s percussion concerto again- and gonna catch the premiere of the Trombone concerto in 2006!)
    My two cents this morning…

    Reply
  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Tom,

    Since it was a dress rehearsal, I had no access to a program or a synopsis. And since Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is more than 1000 pages, I shamefully confess that I have yet to read it (although I have fond memories of reading Sister Carrie back when I had more spare time). So I was basically coming to it cold.

    It was totally compelling from beginning to end, which is something that is incredibly difficult to pull off. I left the Met feeling extremely heavy emotional weight both from the libretto and the music. I am still feeling that weight although admittedly it is only 24 hours later right now. I don’t know if that weight can be conveyed on a recording (either audio or video); this is a live experience. But since this dress rehearsal is my one and only encounter with the work, I really shouldn’t make assumptions. I’m going back now and listening to all the other Picker that’s been recorded. So much for my earwitness report…

    Reply
  4. Garth Trinkl

    I trust that you are not referring to either of K.-H. Stockhausen’s composer-musician sons, Markus or Simon. I hope that they are well, and that they are not living homeless on the streets of New York City.

    A little care and sensitivity when referring to artists, schizophenics, transsexuals, intersexuals, and others who are different, I believe is in order.

    Many “artists” are, in fact, “aliens” to many of those around them.

    Renaissance Research

    Reply
  5. mjleach

    Stockhausen
    Using an ironic icon, I would assume one would know I was joking and not take literally what I’d written. Also, most people know that Stockhausen claims to have originated from Sirius. I should have included “had he had a son while on Sirius….” I was fantasizing on his life there and conflating that and what interesting person Frank may have missed meeting, trying to make him regret even more that he hadn’t stopped. I’m sure Markus and his siblings are stable and prominent enough to not be offended and to take a joke.

    Reply
  6. Garth Trinkl

    Thank you for the clarification, Mary Jane. Of course, I assumed that you were, largely, joking.

    Some artists have claimed that they were the off-spring of Princes or Countesses — if not far-off Kings or Queens. Stockhausen’s belief (or constructed myth) seems to me a fairly harmless or even amusing fantasy, if he indeed ever truly believed this for long.

    And who knows where, ultimately, our souls come from? Stockhausen’s thoughts are not that different from some of those related by the philosopher Plato in his
    Timaeus.

    (I can’t now recall the details of Wagner’s trauma concerning the identity of the father. Stockhausen, of course, has been deeply influenced by Wagner. In addition, Stockhausen’s mother, I believe, developed some form of psychosis, if not schizophrenia, and was institutionalized throughout K.- H.’s childhood in 1930s, Germany. Many will recall that K. – H.’s father died as a soldier in WWII.)

    Renaissance Research

    Reply

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