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.
There aren’t as many generalizations to make about new music in Boston as one might think—even the old epithet of “academic” starts to fray when you realize that some of the city’s least academic composers are here because of academic appointments—but here’s one that’s not unreasonable: on balance, new music in Boston is institutionally driven. It’s ensembles and schools that curate the repertoire; the scene is parceled out by group and by season more than piece by piece.
The annual Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, which started last Wednesday, has long been dominated by what used to be called the new-music mainstream, before new music sprouted so many streams that the title became dilute. Charles Wuorinen, the director of this year’s festival, certainly made his reputation in that mainstream: East Coast, atonal, academic. But, so far, this festival has been comparatively—well, funky might be too strong a word for it, but certainly more loose, more varied, than past festivals.
The Rethink Music conference enjoyed some heavy aegis: Berklee, the music trade fair organization MIDEM, the Harvard Business School, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The nominal ambition was similarly impressive: “To talk about solutions to moving the music industry forward,” according to conference Executive Director Allen Bargfrede; to “foster creativity and a thriving music industry,” according to the conference website. Roger Brown offered as inspiration the British government’s 18th-century Board of Longitude and its competition to solve that problem of marine navigation. Since we now cross the Atlantic 360 times faster than they did in the 18th century, we should be able, Brown said, to solve the problems facing the music industry “360 times faster than it took to solve the problem of longitude.”