Edward Cohen died ten years ago, at the age of 61, composing right up until the end—having, it was reported, outfitted his hospital room with an electric piano. In the intervening decade, opportunities to hear the results have been rare, so the February 18 memorial concert presented by MIT and the Radius Ensemble was not only an appropriate commemoration, but at least a small correction as well.
New music seemed to explode out of the ground around Boston in the beginning of February, and performances included the Boston premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, performed by the group Sound Icon and a free-jazz improv show at the Lily Pad in Cambridge, performed by a group of local players: David G. Haas (piano), Jeff Platz (guitar), Scott Getchell (trumpet), Kit Demos (bass), and Luther Gray (drums).
Symphony Hall in Boston is a temple, and proud of it, from the plaster casts of Greek and Roman statuary keeping classical watch to the cold-comfort design of the seats. But, like many temples, Symphony Hall is now part sacred space, part museum, harboring gods both potent and obsolete. At its best, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 6, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s only world premiere this season, also captured something of that dance between the spark of immediacy and the accumulation of history.
It is a pleasant irony that, the other day, as I was in a coffee-purveying establishment reading the latest round of recording-industry shills going on about how an even more draconian copyright regime is necessary to ensure creativity and innovation, I happened to hear Michael Bublé and Shania Twain duetting on a version of “White Christmas” that is a near note-for-note remake of The Drifters’ version.
French and German accents can still be found across the Boston musical landscape—the Boston Symphony, under James Levine, seemed to double down on its Munch-era French specialization, while the Boston Lyric Opera, under new leadership, has been taking tentative steps into the realm of Regietheater. New music has always been more of a grab bag. But a couple of concerts this month at least took that old German-French axis as a starting point—though the music ended up in rather more cosmopolitan territory.
Maybe it’s the city’s surplus of heritage, maybe it’s autumnal reminiscence, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the start of the season in Boston brought a bumper crop of new music deliberately glancing off older music and/or styles. That’s part and parcel with contemporary music—the past is always present, even if only as something to deliberately ignore—and the new-old juxtaposition is practically orthodox in mainstream classical programming.