Sunday, November 20, 2011

800 Words: Top 9 Pieces of Classical Music of the 00's

(Still More Reruns. This was, obviously, supposed to be a top 10 list. I never wrote anything up for a potential tenth piece. In retrospect, this list is obviously much too America/UK heavy and I should have been bolder in what I included. I'm ashamed (really, I am) that there's nothing by superb Finnish composers like Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kaija Saariaho, or Kalevi Aho. I feel bad leaving off William Bolcom's insanely massive Songs of Innocence and Experience, which couldn't get a recording until twenty years after it was composed (and similarly about The Beach Boys's SMiLE). I feel bad that I haven't heard more Marc-Anthony Turnage, or that I haven't kept up with the developments of 'modern classic' composers like Hans Werner Henze or Krystopf Penderecki. I also think a list like this could easily have included lots more 'non-classical' albums. Perhaps Adam Guettel's musical, Light on the Piazza, or Regina Spektor's Begin to Hope, or The Mountain Goats's The Sunset Tree, or Bjork's Medulla or plenty of other 'non-classical' pieces which could one day be destined for 'classical' status. And I feel particularly bad opining in this way since I haven't even begun to brave the territory of hip-hop. So I can't even yet comment on the virtues one can (I hope) hear in Kanye, MIA, or Lil' Wayne. So here it is, a rather traditional, slightly unfinished, list of great music that a young American classical musician would have experienced in the first decade of the 21st century.)

(J. Robert Oppenheimer, alone with the bomb, recites the poem he was said to be obsessed with during it's creation. Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne.)

(Two notes:
1. It's a personal list. Only 1 and 2 are ranked. I make no claims to have exhaustively heard anywhere near all the new classical music to make any proper judgement. At this point in history, I think only a paid critic can do that. If anybody reading has suggestions for music to hear, I'm all ears.
2. In music school we're always taught about the terrible dangers of talking about music as though it means something extra-musical. Point taken, but the irrelevance of classical music to so many people bespeaks the dangers of NOT talking about music as though it means anything extra-musical.)

1. Doctor Atomic by John Adams. (2005, San Francisco)

(Bhagavad Gita Chorus. Yes, the staging is hilariously awful, but it'll get a better staging before long. Even so, the power of the music is inescapable.)

It's the decade of John Adams. We were just privileged to be there. His achievements in this decade number a Christmas oratorio to rival Handel's Messiah, the classical music statement on 9/11, a tribute to Charles Ives that in some ways improves on the original, the first great concerto for electric violin, a companion opera to The Magic Flute, and the most entertaining autobiography by a composer since Berlioz.

But above all this, and above all other music this decade, must stand Doctor Atomic - Adams's opera about Robert Oppenheimer in the leadup to the initial atomic bomb test.
Adams has always been a devoutly political composer of leftist conviction, but I defy anyone - liberal or conservative - to name a work of art in any genre that speaks so clearly to the fears of people from every creed, background and class during the post-9/11 era. The libretto (text) is pared down to transcripts of primary documents and poetry quotations (Oppenheimer was a scarily erudite man). This is the definition of music that shows rather than tells. Through the power of pure music, we feel as though all the debates of the Bush years are carried out in sound alone. As much as any artist in any genre, Adams got to the heart of what it meant to be an American in our era.

(Red Alert)

2. La Pasion Segun San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov (2000, Stuttgart)

This was the piece that made me realize I could never leave music. If Adams showed us our present through the recent past, then Osvaldo Golijov showed us our future through the distant past. People who tell you why Golijov - and particularly this piece of his - is bad are legion. But in listing the reasons why, all they managed to articulate was exactly why this piece - and its composer - is incredible. Here is an Argentinian-Jewish classical composer living in Boston who set the Gospel According to St. Mark to music utilizing a veritable encyclopedia of Latin American popular music traditions. This piece is everything classical music is not supposed to be: vibrant, sexy, partially improvised, and stylistically diverse.

(The Pascal Lamb)

It articulates the Gospel as though Christ were a martyred liberation theologist at home on the poorest streets of Santiago. It embraces every part of the music that Jesus would have heard on those streets - from the Tango to the Samba to the Habanera to the Rumba to Bossa Nova. It displays in sound what City of God does in images - the plight and the spirit of the world's most rapidly evolving continent with pinpoint accuracy, and in the process becomes the greatest and most transformative work of choral music since Stravinsky's Les Noces.

(Lua Descolorida...this could work for unaccompanied chorus too....though Golijov may have made his own choral version already. He certainly has a voice/piano version. Good man.)

Golijov was supposed to write an opera based on the Deadalus legend with a libretto by Anthony Minghella. But Minghella died a year into the project and Golijov has yet to find something equivalent to stimulate his imagination (and yes by the way, it's "English Patient" Anthony Minghella). His time off is well spent. He is now the house composer for Francis Ford Coppola as Coppola plots his gradual comeback into film. No doubt, there are few better teachers of what it means to have artistic vision. So mark my words, Golijov will be back and just as great as he ever was.

(The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Golijov's incredible tribute to Jewish music from 1998. In this part, the ensemble intones the High Holiday prayer 'Oonetanah Tokef' as it has never been.)

- The Daniel Variations by Steve Reich (2006, London)

(I Saw A Vision. Has Reich ever written music that comes anywhere close to the drama heard here?)

I have to say, I've never been a knee-jerk Steve Reich fan the way so many other classical musicians are. But then I'm a hard person to please. It's never been enough for me that Reich showed the way for classical composers back to engagement with popular audiences in a way that brooked no compromise with intellectual content. My problem was that Reich's music always seemed like ingeniously designed toys. Behind the incredibly sophisticated designs was something that sounded to me like emotional vapidity.

(My Name Is Daniel Pearl)

Then I discovered his later music, or to be perfectly frank, his Jewish music. As a young man, Reich (seemingly like every other great musician of his generation) did his time in ashrams and drum circles. But sometime in the 80's he found a way back into Judaism (sometimes a deathknell for creativity, as a lot of Dylan fans contend), and eventually to Orthodox Judaism. And suddenly his music was transformed. A musician content for so long with shimmering beautiful surfaces plunged headfirst into music full of anguish and contrast. The Daniel Variations is his darkest music yet. Commissioned to commemorate the death of Daniel Pearl by his father, Judah, it is music that seems to have a hotline to our volatile times just as special as Doctor Atomic. In the first movement of the piece, singers endlessly repeat the famous quote from the book of Daniel "I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me." Anyone captivated by the story of Daniel Pearl will find that the music captures its essence all too painfully.

- Jatekok by Gyorgy Kurtag (ongoing)

(Quarrel. Played by the composer and his wife.)

In some ways, this is cheating. Jatekok was a project started by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag in 1970, and it continues to the present day and now numbers 7 volumes. Kurtag is like the Siamese twin of his conservatory friend, Gyorgy Ligeti. Ligeti managed to escape after the '56 revolution, Kurtag was not so lucky. A man of ill-health, Ligeti experienced his great years in middle age and made avant-garde music of awesomely theatrical power. Kurtag, now a spry-looking 83, is enjoying his golden period in old age. His music is every bit as intellectually demanding as Ligeti's, but far more intimate and at times, far more personal.

(Perpetuum Mobile, played by the composer)

Jatekok (or "Games" in English) is in so many ways as seminal a work as our time has. It plays like the intimate diary written of an infinite musical mind. Every work was written with Kurtag having either himself or his wife, Marta, in mind as a pianist. Sometimes with them both in mind for 4-hand piano. Almost every piece has a subjective title, and none is more than a few minutes. Often with just a few notes, Kurtag is able to suggest all the different facets of a life as it is lived. It just might be the greatest collection of piano music in our time.

(The beginning of a full concert of selections from Jatekok by the Kurtags put down on youtube. The entirety of Jatekok so far still remains to be recorded. But what we all can hear is amazing.)

- The Little Match Girl Passion by David Lang (2007, New York)

(Amazing...I should have ranked this with Adams and Goljiov...)

If I had to pick one piece for the most purely beautiful and moving of the past decade, this would be it easily. The piece is based on Hans Christian Anderson's fable 'The Little Match Girl' about a little girl's final hours before she freezes to death. The compositional technique involved is staggering, but it feels artless. When was the last time music felt this unaffected and natural? Poulenc? Schubert? Bach? Maybe Bach is it...this is actually the second piece of this list to be based out of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. But the channeling of Bach is far more tangible than in Golijov's setting of St. Mark. Every composer who channels Bach invites a comparison. But most other composers channel Bach's unsurpassed compositional technique, which usually has the effect make Bach's materials sound overblown and distended. Instead, Lang might be the first composer in history to write an original work that successfully channels Bach's seemingly infinite humanity and compassion. Here is a modern composer who meets Bach on Bach's own terms and succeeds. So let it never be said that the greatest music is already written. At certain points, the music's intensity of feeling is almost unbearable. If you're a musical weeper (and I am, you probably are too, admit it...) you'll find it very hard to get through some parts of this piece while other people are in the room....I have absolutely no experience in this regard....none at all....

- A Scotch Bestiary by James MacMillan (2004, Los Angeles)

(Christus Vincit. Does today's world have a better composer of traditional sacred music?)

It was a tough call with Scotland's finest. Duty says that one should pick his 'great statement,' the St. John Passion which premiered last year in London. But I gotta go with my gut on this one and pick the piece I loved the most - A Scotch Bestiary. There are composers who make incredible intellectual demands (not to mention composers who pretend to), and there are composers who make incredible emotional demands. Like only a select few before him (Beethoven, Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich, a few more...) the simple act of listening to MacMillan's music stretches your emotional capability. Everything is there from the highest humor to the lowest despair and all that lies between. In that way, he's the closest which our age of classical music has to a Mahler-like figure.

(Soweetan Spring. This gives the feeling of MacMillan at his most compelling. Born almost exactly a century after Mahler, he gives the exact same feeling of letting every sound he hears around him into his musical landscape.)

But like in Mahler, he's perhaps easier to love when he's in a lighter mood (note to any Mahlerians reading this, I'm the Ayatollah of the Mahler fanclub. Every note is holy text. So there...), and nothing brings his lighter moods out like nature. The program notes for the piece contain all sorts of grandiose desciptions of MacMillan's musical depiction of animals, but the composer admitted that he was most inspired to write the piece by the music from Tom & Jerry. To be sure, there's darkness aplenty, but it's always offset by an uncannily deft touch. In fact, this piece may have my single favorite musical moment of the past ten years: a full-throated choral incantation of a IV-II-III Amen, immediately followed by muted trombones going waaa-waaa-waaa-waaaaaaaah (V-TT-IV-III).

(from Seven Last Words On The Cross. It would be an interesting program - albeit too long and sacerdotal - to do both the Haydn and the MacMillan in one sitting.)

- Tevot by Thomas Ades (2007, Berlin)

(Tevot. In it's entirety)

It's been a slightly rough decade for this composer of Mozartian talent. His opera based on Shakespeare's The Tempest has extraordinary moments punctuating what sounds otherwise like a dutiful attempt to be a Great English Composer. The Piano Quintet feels like a series of completely disconnected ideas, and while the Violin Concerto is a fine work (albeit I haven't heard it since the premiere broadcast in 2005), it hasn't set the world on fire either. Now pushing 40, he's too old to be an enfant terrible. Music that shocked the public ten years ago can now be rendered tame. But it's been a necessary decade for Ades, and Tevot shows he's returned to form a stronger composer.

(Ecstasio. The Ades of old.)

Tevot is a Hebrew word with a double meaning. On the one hand, it's the plural of the word 'ark,' on the other it is the Hebrew plural for the musical term 'measure.' Ades's idea of the piece is one of an ark that carries people to safety through a turbulent storm. Storm at sea is one of music's stock landscapes, and any list of the composers who endowed such scenes with excitement must include Debussy (La Mer), Sibelius (Oceanides), Mendelssohn (Hebrides), Britten (Peter Grimes), and especially Wagner in The Flying Dutchman. But what distinguishes Ades from the others is the sense that this storm is more internal than external (though one can make arguments for both Britten and Wagner). Perhaps it's the storm music Mahler never wrote. It is by turns frightening, exhilarating, and in the end triumphant. By the end of the piece, it's clear that Ades is the only composer who could write finest orchestral work of the decade and still be viewed as a disappointment. But I don't think there's much reason to be alarmed. Ades, who in his early years was a musical ironist par excellence in his early years looks to be finding sincerity a good fit. He will mature much further yet.

- Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson (2005, Los Angeles)

( No estes lejos de mi un solo dia, porque como)

When the news spread of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's death, nothing in American music circles elicited similar mourning since the death of Leonard Bernstein. She was thought of as a patron saint to American music lovers. Her performances were written of like holy rites in which critics fell over themselves trying to describe what they obviously viewed as an experience of the divine. But just as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson reached her prime, she experienced a metastasized breast cancer that claimed her life just after she would be immortalized. Only six years earlier she halted her career to care for her sister when she died of the same illness. Perhaps unaware of the significance of what he was about to do, her husband Peter Lieberson composed a set of five songs to Neruda love poems. Shortly after Lorraine died, Peter developed serious cancer of his own from which he made a full recovery. In light of what was soon to happen, the texts are almost scary to read today. The final song of the set, is entitled "My Love, If I Die and You Don't."

(Amor mio, si muero, y tu no mueres... As it turned out, cancer claimed Peter Lieberson just a few short years after it claimed Lorraine)

The Fifty State Project by Sufjan Stevens (please keep it going) (The Seer's Tower) No, it's not cheating. Not at all. There was some sort of fantastic madness in Sufjan Stevens's ambition to make an album about every state in America - a project that if ever completed would last at least three times longer than The Ring Cycle and probably require the combined forces of Sufjan Stevens accompanying himself on a couple dozen instruments roughly 7000 times over (a not-very-educated guess). It is the kind of ambition that drives composers into the madhouse, but also moves history and shows the world just how big music can be. It was a project worthy of any classical composer, but only achievable by one thoroughly embedded in the rock tradition. (Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie) Perhaps Sufjan Stevens is our Mahler. Writing the final chapter in the story of American musical hegemony, under-appreciated by those who should love him best, and trying to bring together all the diffuse strands of his place of origin welded together in manners no one before him thought remotely possible. Whatever he is, he is a composer worthy of inclusion, and a very serious musician whom classical music dismisses at its own peril. Even if he fails to come even close to finishing it, he should do as much of it as possible. Because neither he or any other musician could come up with a better idea. (Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head)

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