View From the East: Honest Voice



Greg Sandow

Something happened as I got ready to write this column—I thought I got bored with the music I was going to write about. I guess that’s an occupational hazard for critics, since we’re forced to pay attention to all kinds of things, whether we really care about them or not. In this case, though, I picked the music—John WilliamsConcerto for Cello and Orchestra—because it really did interest me. So what went wrong?

The Williams concerto came in the mail on a Sony Classical CD. I hadn’t known it was being released; I’d never heard of the piece, even though it was premiered way back in 1994. In fact, I didn’t even know that Williams wrote anything that, with a shudder, we might call “serious.”

I shudder, I have to say, because the words “serious music” have been badly abused, when they’re used as synonym for “classical.” The truth, as we all know by now, is that not all classical music is serious, and not all serious music is classical. But on the other hand, we know Williams mainly for his film scores, and in some sense film music, even when it’s supposed to touch deep feelings and important themes, isn’t always serious—or maybe I mean “honest,” a subjective label, I know, and one that belongs more naturally to ethics than to art. But then if art doesn’t have morality, what meaning can it have?

I’m almost surprised to find myself writing this, because it gets me into the creaky old “art vs. entertainment” argument, where any hen scratch Elliott Carter puts on paper is thought, almost by definition, to be better than even honest music written for a film. And besides, I’ve liked some Williams’ scores. Most of us, I’m sure, could make our lists of films he’s done, with our comments on them. Mine might read “Star Wars: irresistible, who cares if it’s derivative? Jurassic Park and Superman: synthetic, with expertly manufactured main-title themes; Schindler’s List, A.I., Minority Report: really fine, artistic.” I’ve also talked to Williams, and found him honest and disarming. As far as I could tell, he lives for music. He drops a lot of names, but they’re not from Hollywood. “You don’t know [I've forgotten just who he mentioned]?” he’d say, amazement in his voice. “But he was the best bass player in New York recording studios in the Fifties!”

But then so much movie music is (to use my own word) synthetic, sometimes horribly so, sounding like it’s manufactured by the yard from pre-existing models for commercial purposes. It’s the product of a world where films are tested, to see if their endings please their audience. Even commercial film scores might be lit by fitful gleams of life, but the life that shines in them can seem largely artificial, because of all the ways pop culture warps our consciousness. Not, though, that high culture is necessarily any better, since it, too, is warped, by its determination to be superior. (Enter into the record here a wonderful remark of Theodor Adorno‘s in his book Minima Moralia. Even people fighting the prevailing system, Adorno writes, are warped by it.) Nor would any of us dare to say that lots of concert music hasn’t been derivative, or even (think of so many dry atonal academic scores) somehow manufactured for…well, not a commercial purpose, but, years ago, partly at least for careerism. But still—no matter how hard, how just about impossible, it is to find true innocence today—there’s something worthy in the hoary (and sometimes sentimental) vision of an artist working all alone, as opposed to joining a commercial team.

And so here we come back again to Williams, writing independent concert works, not apparently designed for anyone or anything. Or, anyway, no more designed for their occasions than music by reputable classical names—John Adams, say, whose recent piece for the New York Philharmonic commemorating 9/11 was written for an occasion, but no one blames him for that. Similarly, Williams’s cello concerto was written for the opening of Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, thanks, of course, to Williams’s Boston Symphony connection; he was music director of the Boston Pops. But that’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be an honest piece, and in fact its honesty is what struck me first, when out of curiosity I ripped open the CD and played it.

The orchestral fanfare at the very start might be a bit derivative; it’s full of white-note dissonance, in the best Copland/Stravinsky style. But when the cello starts—the soloist is Yo-Yo Ma—we’re in a world that’s much more new, and much less like anything we’d associate with Williams. The cello melody is long and thoughtful, stretching itself, as if to test its legs. Under it are lightly swirling winds, with little rhythmic figures coming alive inside them, each one starting with a four-note scale. At first the cello echoes both the orchestral fanfare and the scales inside the swirling winds, but then takes off on its own, playing with the rhythm of the fanfare, using that to climb toward new melodic ground. Nothing that the cello plays is simple. I hear an expert classical composer transforming his material. To damn this with the label “movie music” (or, in the language of aesthetics, to scent the taint of kitsch), I’d have to seize upon two shakes of what sounds like a bell tree in the accompaniment; they’re brighter and more silvery than the music around them, and, I could almost say, a little more contrived.

But this is a very tough judgment. For instance, are these bell-tree jingles just “more silvery,” or are they, as I almost wrote, “lots more silvery”? “Lots more silvery” sounds like special pleading to me, as if I were loading extra weight on my description, to make it carry a heavier load of disapproval. I don’t think the music can support that; the bells aren’t all that notable. Besides, they’re also heard (or something very like them is) under the opening fanfare, so I can’t say their reappearance under the cello solo came from nowhere. That, of course, could make them even worse—not just a garish moment, but a motif of garishness—but, honestly, now, would I have even noticed them, if I didn’t know that John Williams was a film composer, and was therefore looking for bad film traits in his music? Shame on me.

Those bell-tree shakes in fact propel the music nicely forward. And in its outline, the cello concerto is ambitious. It’s in four connected movements, and lasts half an hour. When I first heard the second movement, it sounded static to me (purposely static, that is), the cello playing solos against curtains of dissonance. The third movement is busier and quicker; the last is lyrical. When I read Williams’s liner notes, I learned that he calls the second movement “Blues,” and feels it’s visited by ghosts of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. I don’t know if I’d hear that without his help, but then he knows Ellington and Strayhorn better than I do. I was probably mislead by cascades of notes for piano, harp, and glockenspiel, which sound more to me like a 20th-century classical trait. I’m listening to this movement as I write, and just now heard a wonderful section with lazily falling cello lines over thick and low late-evening chords. Here it comes again, with a flute obbligato, and then a crown of high strings; worthy of Ellington’s memory, I’d think, and not so boring after all. I should say that when I first heard the piece, I thought I liked it. But that was in my car; I wasn’t listening too carefully. It was when I paid attention to the CD, listening through headphones, that I found it boring. Williams had technique, I thought, but maybe not much inspiration. The music didn’t seem to move with any force from one moment to another. But maybe my first impression was right, after all.

The scherzo has some busy cello stuff over light stitching from the harp and timpani; again, it sounds like current classical music, not (and this should be the last time I say this) like anything from the movies. Later it gets loud with brass, which dissolves itself into timpani, and then the solo cello starts again. I like the way it sounds, though maybe the pounding of the brass isn’t the most original climax I’ve ever heard. It seems a bit rhetorical. Now I think the movement must be ending, with a light flute shrug. I’ll check the timing; yes, it’s over. Now comes the final “Song,” introduced with a reminiscence of the opening fanfare theme played thoughtfully, or at least with an air of thoughtfulness, by a solo horn; the effect is just a little obvious.

As I write all this in real time, so to speak, with the music playing, I wonder how the “Song” will strike me. At the start, it sounds atonal, but as I listen more, I’d say that it was just chromatic. The cello rises over broken harp chords, bending, turning, starting a slow cadenza (Ma plays wonderfully here). And then it enters a land inhabited by low, dark chords and (again) the harp, but without the sliding informality of the second-movement blues. This is really quite beautiful (even if Ma slipped out of tune), but not unpredictably so; the way the cello rises in its passion is something I think all of us have heard before. But Williams doesn’t write his swells of feeling worse than many other composers; in fact, I’d say he does it better than most.

Which brings me to my central question: Why don’t we hear this piece on concert programs? I was going to ask that even when I thought it bored me, since I didn’t find it any worse than other not-so-thrilling new works I’ve heard. It’s true that, as I’m listening, I hear another passage that sounds too forced, too much like familiar rhetoric, an orchestral tutti that’s surely meant to be emotional, but wears that almost on a name-tag, as if it said, “Listen: Here comes the passion.” But then I think that’s a problem with lots of current classical pieces; they avoid emotion, or else pour on a simulacrum of it, clumsily, as if direct expression was the one thing composers, for all their craft and arsenal of styles, don’t find comfortable. This, in turn, would reflect classical music’s uneasy place in contemporary life. The standard classical repertory often sounds, by current standards, just a little sentimental, especially when we moon over what, like a verbal tic, we keep calling “masterpieces.” Popular culture, on the other hand, can be vastly sentimental, or else ironic. New classical music thinks it has to be beyond all that. But what can it be? Its place in the world, its meaning, its raison d’etre, isn’t obvious at all. John Williams is no more immune to this difficulty than anybody else. The emotion in his music sounds honorable, but not quite necessary, as if it’s not quite clear why it should be expressed this way, or what it really signifies.

But still I wonder why orchestras haven’t programmed this concerto. My question gets a little urgent in my mind, as the cello enters softly once again, the harmony now touching (but only very lightly) on the first unclouded triads in the piece. Why shouldn’t serious musicians play this work? After living with the CD for all this time, I don’t think I’ll really grasp the music till I hear it live. Though clearly it’s completely serious, deeply felt, written with enormous skill and care; it offers a fine challenge to any soloist (and has obvious marketing potential, but let’s not even talk about that). And there’s other music on the CD, too—three solo pieces, expertly written for the instrument, and at first deliberately rough and raspy, that are meant to evoke African-American history; a lovely Elegy for Cello and Orchestra; and finally Heartwood, a more thoughtful piece for orchestra and cello, inspired by photographs of oaks. This might be the most impressive work on the CD, for its sobriety and restraint, but everything is serious, worth attention from both orchestras and cellists.

And let me give a quiet shout for Williams’s liner notes, which speak with the same warmth and generosity that struck me when I talked to him. Here we have a notable composer, someone who, I guess, doesn’t need the exposure others do. But why don’t we play his music more? I can’t imagine where I got the notion that, on close listening, I didn’t like his stuff. It seems to hold up fine, and I’d like to hear it live.