Monday, May 7, 2012

Looking in the Wrong Place for New Classical Music

A friend of mine once came up with the word “outeresting” to describe things that were not only uninteresting in themselves but drained you of interest in anything when you encountered them.

I was thinking of that the weekend before last at the New York Philharmonic, where, besides classics by Berlioz, Mozart and Debussy there was the world premiere of a concerto by Mark Neikrug, whom neither I nor Marcia had ever heard of. This was a really big deal; the performance was preceded by an interview by the conductor, Alan Gilbert, about how emotional the piece was and what it was supposed to be about. My take is that it was about 30 minutes.

The concerto isn’t available at YouTube, but here’s a music video based on a early piece by the same composer, “Through Roses,” that premiered in London back in 1980. Very outeresting:

The New York Philharmonic has featured a number of “modern” works over the past few years that we’ve been attending concerts there. What they all seem to lack is any sense of direction. They may be pleasant to listen to, unlike serial music and other “experimental” forms, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere. They remind me of Silverado, a movie from 1985 that was supposed to revive the classic western. It started with what seemed to be a warmup for the main story, but it never got to the kind of story that made the classic western classic; the warmup was all we got.

Now there is contemporary classical music that you won’t find being played at the New York Philharmonic, but it comes from composers who are known mostly or only for film and TV music. Angelo Badalamenti, for example. He’s still known best for scoring Twin Peaks, but he’s composed music for dozens of movies, in a number of different styles. In “Opium Prince,” one of the tracks for The City of Lost Children (1995), he masters the classic Russian style so well that we can imagine the piece being a lost and rediscovered movement from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker:

Nino Rota (1911-79) is best known for the Godfather theme and for having been Federico Fellini’s composer for most of his films. An extra on the Criterion DVD of is a fascinating featurette about Rota, who also composed concert music – a number of his concertos and other works (among them a ballet version of Fellini’s La Strada) have made it to CD in recent years. Yet his most innovative work may have been his score for Fellini’s Casanova (1976), which draws on influences as diverse as Mozart and Stravinsky and juxtaposes them in strange ways. But I’ve never heard anything else like the first track, “Venezia Venaga Venusia.” Really ethereal, even in a self-referential nod (1:14) to one of Rota’s familiar melodies from La Dolce Vita:

Ennio Morricone has more movie scores to his credit than you can count, and he’s even conducted his music in concert (those performances, like the movies he has scored, are available on DVD). The piece below, “Penance,” is from The Mission (1986), a historical drama about the Jesuits who converted the Guarani Indians of Paraguay in the 18th Century, but treated them fairly – unlike would-be colonists from Spain. At 1:25 here, Morricone fleetingly samples “Dies Irae,” a Gregorian chant from the 13th Century that had been used before by composers as varied as Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich:

Although he has a number of film scores to his credit, Jon Brion has composed only one classical orchestral score. But what a score! I read somewhere that he took on the assignment for Magnolia (1999) because he figured it was the only chance he’d get to compose music for a full orchestra. I honestly don’t know why he wanted to do that; his musical roots are in rock and pop, and he’s famed for his Friday night gigs at Largo in Los Angeles. But I’m sure glad he did. This edit of a piece with the unwieldy title “Stanley/Frank/Linda's Breakdown” is an example of something an admirer of my father calls “organic syncopation,” the layering of a rhythm and melody analogous to the heartbeat and breathing:

Now if the New York Philharmonic wants to commission a work that will really rock the classical audience, it could count on Brion to come through. Likewise Badalamenti and Morricone and others I myself may not be aware of. There have been crossover composers before – just think of George Gershwin and Kurt Weill. Maybe it’s time to look to a new generation of crossover composers to bring some vitality to the concert halls.  

No comments:

Post a Comment