Paradoxes and Conundrums from the Classical Music Terrain

There’s been a lot of chatter about how new music is really a different animal from classical music, but is that completely true?

I don’t often attend concerts that are not primarily new music, even though I listen to quite a bit of older music on recordings. But over the past week, most of my live music experiences had little to do with contemporary American music. Last Tuesday, I went to hear and see Paul Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue at City Opera. Then on Wednesday night, it was the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra at Avery Fisher. Saturday and Monday, it was more standard symphony orchestras (New York Phil with Marin, then Cleveland with Welser-Möst). My only real new American music fix was Jenny Lin’s program at the Thalia last Thursday, although admittedly the HK Chinese Orchestra’s all post-WW2 program featured a great piece by Tan Dun who is, at least to some degree, an American composer, and Cleveland gave the NY premiere of Chen Yi’s intense and powerful Si Ji (Four Seasons).

Yet aside from not knowing most of the folks in the audience at these concerts, and getting stares and comments like “What are you doing here?” from the few folks I did know, there were not that many disconnects between these events and my usual concert-going fare. In fact, there were some bizarre similarities.

For starters, City Opera’s set for the second act of A & B could have been lifted directly out of a production of Robert Ashley’s Dust. Perhaps now that they have the proper backdrop, they should present Dust! While both of the two symphony orchestra concerts I attended featured a newer piece (Chen Yi for Cleveland and Scottish composer James MacMillan’s breathtaking Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the Phil), these two concerts were essentially about older, familiar terrain. (Oddly, both orchestras played Brahms’s First Symphony, a fact that seemed tailor-made for me to rant about the sameness of standard repertoire programming, but I’ll resist the urge.)

Yet, despite always finding Jenny Lin a remarkable soloist—for the record, I found Marin Alsop remarkable too, but this is a review of neither—I was as familiar with part of Lin’s program as I was with the Brahms First, three of the six composers featured in fact. Ligeti’s Etudes, Vivier’s Shiraz, and James Tenney’s Chromatic Canon (albeit a slightly different version of it) all sit comfortably on my CD shelves and probably wind up in my player more frequently than a Brahms symphony ever does. So is it fair to say that Thursday night’s program was more a new music program than the others?

Ultimately, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra was probably the only really “new music” concert I attended all week—I’d never heard a mass of these instruments live before—even though much of the music they played was geared at reinforcing a traditional Chinese sound, albeit through somewhat non-traditional means. (Folksong transcriptions are not quite the same thing when played by a very large ensemble, and the music was often more akin to Copland or Dvorak than anything from Shanxi province.) In this context, Tan Dun’s Fire Ritual was as much the piece of exciting, genre-transcending oddball new music as Chen Yi’s was for Cleveland. But it was also the only piece I had a recording of, so in that sense, it was the most familiar and hence the least new.

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