Clarity of Focus

Steve Reich won’t be turning 75 until October, but he was given an advance birthday celebration on the main stage of Carnegie Hall on Saturday night when four different celebrated new music ensembles—So Percussion, the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, and the Bang on a Can All Stars—performed four of his recent works. It was an unprecedented event for Reich who mused during the post-concert reception that this was the first time there had ever been an evening of his music at Carnegie during which he wasn’t on stage.

Indeed, honoring any composer this way is all too rare an occurrence. When Elliott Carter turned 100, the Boston Symphony performed only one piece of his at Carnegie Hall—the all-Carter chamber program had to wait for the following night at Zankel. Even the mythified composers of centuries past rarely get the full-on treatment with the bizarre exception of all the ongoing Beethoven cycles done by groups ranging from solo pianists and string quartets to symphony orchestras. Even the Mostly Mozart festival doesn’t feature a whole lot of all-Wolfgang Amadeus programs. Yet so-called “portrait concerts,” like the pioneering series at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, are an ideal way to be exposed to an individual’s particular sound world.

While I was in Zagreb, one of the European delegates to the ISCM World New Music Days railed against concerts that featured more than one work by a composer on the program. In his opinion, it was really important for a concert of new music to always be a mix of a variety of voices in which no one dominated. But is it really optimal to present listeners with so much (sometimes contradictory) sonic information? Certainly after that week in which I attended 15 concerts, only one of which included two works by the same composer, my mind was teetering well beyond information overload.

Saturday’s Carnegie Hall audience certainly seemed appreciative of being able to focus exclusively on one compositional voice. And by having a concert devoted exclusively to a single composer, despite the personnel and timbre shifts from piece to piece, there was a clearly audible through line in the program—something that can rarely be discerned in hodge-podge concert programs of new or old music.

The idea of mix and match mostly doesn’t exist in other genres of music. Portrait concerts of individual artists are the way it’s done. And when there is an assemblage of multiple voices, think Woodstock or Live Aid, that is a big event.

4 thoughts on “Clarity of Focus

  1. pgblu

    While I’m really kind of against railing against things, I do think there’s a case to be made for having lots of variety in a contemporary music concert, with the idea that the concert then gives a sense of ‘the lay of the land’ that is contemporary music making. I wouldn’t say that concerts devoted to a single composer are a bad thing, though, by any means.

    The reason I’m writing, though, is to say that I don’t see consecutive, stylistically contrasting pieces as contradicting one another. How does the term contradiction come into play for you, Frank? The oft-implicit assumption that a piece of music is a piece of dogma?

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  2. Colin Holter

    I think that sometimes portrait concerts make for good programs, and sometimes not – those that manage to present as much “contradictory sonic information” as possible within a particular composer’s output are usually the ones that do me right, I guess.

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  3. harold.meltzer

    The idea of mix and match mostly doesn’t exist in other genres of music. Portrait concerts of individual artists are the way it’s done.

    Hi Frank,
    I’m not sure that’s true. Think of a cabaret, or a trio you’d hear at the Blue Note, where a performer culls music form whatever sources work best, or think of a band that covers everything under the sun. As for other fields: group shows, in both galleries and museums, are probably as common as showings or retrospectives of a single visual artist. More people encounter poems and short stories from anthologies and magazines than they do from “the collected work of…”

    And the programming failures of “hodge-podge” don’t stem necessarily from the idea to program different composers. Through lines can be made in all kinds of ways, not just in a collection of a composer’s work.

    Harold

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  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Of course Harold Meltzer is correct in his assertion that “[t]hrough lines can be made in all kinds of ways, not just in a collection of a composer’s work.” And indeed there are numerous examples of presentation of the work of multiple creators that are successful. And in fact, in the visual art world events like the Whitney Biennial garner much more attention for the artists shown therein than would single artist shows for most of the individual artists due to their lack of name recognition among the general public. And obviously the idea that work has been gathered to reflect our time (or any other time or a specific theme as in the case of many successful exhibitions and concerts) is an extremely appealing one. Admittedly I was playing provocateur to some extent.

    But that said, I do think that the concert world could use more high profile single composer events. As luck would have it, I actually attended another such event last night. The Philadelphia Orchestra was visiting Carnegie Hall and devoted their entire program to two works by Igor Stravinsky from his neoclassical period in the 1920s: the ballet score Apollo for string orchestra and the stark but massive opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex for soloists, chorus, and full orchestra. Hearing these two similarly inspired (but very different) works back to back allowed for a much deeper understanding of Stravinsky’s stylistic transformation during that time, one that reveals a curious common ground between so-called modernism and the seeds of so-called post-modernism. If either of these works were presented alongside pieces by, say, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, their impact would not have been the same.

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