Last week I heard fantastic performances of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto and Elliott Carter’s Dialogues for piano and orchestra performed by the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, conducted by Petr Kotik, at an unfortunately very sparsely attended concert at Alice Tully Hall. As luck would have it later that week, in the same hall, another group with a different soloist, also performed the Ligeti Violin Concerto, and Dialogues seems to keep turning up all the time. All of which has led me to think about what I’ll call The Tipping Point of Becoming Repertoire.
When does a piece of music go from being a curiosity item to full-on repertoire? How long does it take? I don’t delude myself that Dialogues or the Ligeti have entered the illustrious pantheon inhabited by, say, Brahms’s First Symphony, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, or Beethoven’s 9th which every one seems to play everywhere every season. To this day, there still isn’t a single piece of music created in the past century that is as ubiquitous in classical music programming as the 19th-century warhorses. Even a work like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which admittedly gets trotted out quite a bit, is ultimately done so as a novelty item. But a variety of pieces by Bartók, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich turn up all the time now with nary a whiff of surprise. And specific works by Barber, Bernstein, and Copland are hardly rarities in subscription concert fare. But none of these works have a sound that is radically experimental in nature, so they are not completely incongruent with the sound world of the 19th century-repertoire around which they will inevitably be surrounded.
Older works which have a defiantly different approach to the fundamental elements of so-called classical music still can’t get a foothold in this milieu. Whether it’s the dodecaphony of Schoenberg and Webern (Berg’s rapprochement with romanticism makes his music an easier fit), the microtonality of Hába, or the polystylism of Henry Cowell—all composers who I feel are equal to Bartók, Prokofiev and Shostakovich—true challenges to the hegemony of romantic tonality remain on the sidelines nearly a century later.
Both the Ligeti Concerto and Dialogues to my ears are every bit as compelling and worthy of repeated examination as anything in the established canon. But might their completely idiosyncratic approaches to pitch, rhythm, and timbre preclude them turning up as often on programs as Tchaikovsky?