The Borrowers

Photoshopping one of Hilary’s CDs into the back of Tiger Woods’s crashed car is the extent my creative output, so I’m not going to judge composer Osvaldo Golijov.

There is a controversy swirling around a commission for the Eugene Symphony. Respected NPR classical music critic Tom Manoff blogged about it here, and the Register-Guard picked up the story:

When the Eugene Symphony performed the Pacific Northwest premiere Thursday night of “Sidereus,” a newly commissioned work by Grammy Award-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov, two members of the audience had a sudden sense of puzzlement .

Tom Manoff, a National Public Radio classical music critic who lives in Eugene, and Brian McWhorter, a University of Oregon music professor and trumpet player, attended the concert together — mostly to hear the F.J. Haydn trumpet concerto performed by the evening’s featured guest, Andrew Balio.

But when the concert opened with Golijov’s “Sidereus,” a 9-minute composition that premiered in 2010 in Memphis, Tenn., the two men looked at each other in shock.  That’s because, both said on Friday, they recognized large parts of Golijov’s composition from a different composer’s piece, one they both had been working with recently: accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman’s 2009 work, “Barbeich.”  Ward-Bergeman was credited in the symphony program notes only for his melody. Golijov alone is listed as composer of “Sidereus.”

Neither composer could be reached for comment on Friday.

The Register-Guard writes that the Eugene Symphony was one of 35 (!) orchestras to commission the work, which was written (“written”?) by Golijov in honor of Henry Fogel, former president of the League of American Orchestras. Neither composer has commented, whereas the two orchestra executive directors, from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Eugene Symphony, brushed off the accusations by saying that “music borrowing is part of the classical tradition” and “We were very happy with the concert, as was the audience, judging from their response,” respectively. I do not envy the person who has to coordinate the PR message from 35 orchestras, two composers, the League of American Orchestras, and Golijov’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.

My question: what are the ramifications, here? If Osvaldo Golijov and Michael Ward-Bergeman are indeed personal friends and collaborators, of course they have the right to “steal” from each other, when public credit or private tacit understanding is granted. If huge swaths of another composer’s work are being sold as that of another, more famous, composer, and the more famous one is caught in the act, however, what happens? Does his publisher drop him? Does he “never work again”? Does he have to do this?

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the public spotlight. Manoff reports on his blog that he received the following e mail from Ward-Bergeman, so it seems Ward-Bergeman wasn’t, in fact, robbed blind:

I wanted to confirm that Osvaldo and I came to an agreement regarding the use of Barbeich for Sidereus. The terms were clearly understood, and we were both happy to agree. Osvaldo and I have been friends and collaborators for years.

What of the 35 orchestras, though? Did they have the right to know these terms before presenting “Sidereus” under Golijov’s name?

Sometimes the silliest classical music “news” “stories” get picked up by national outlets, so let’s see if a good, old fashioned plagiarism scam can go the distance. In the meantime, Rob Deemer has Tweeted both pieces for you to listen to. “Barbeich” is here, and “Sidereus” is here.

I was going to bring this up in Blogland, anyway, but while we’re on the topic of composers, my client Jean-Yves recorded a video with New York classical music station WQXR a couple weeks back. He had learned Shostakovich’s first symphony specifically for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and talks about his practicing process with new pieces. In it, he says a colleague showed him a video of Shostakovich himself playing the piece in 1957. At minute 1:40:

What if we knew what the composers wanted all the time? If there was a YouTube video of every composer playing every one of his or her pieces, would all subsequent performances fall into two categories: following orders or being wacky? Is knowing exactly how a composer would play a piece a blessing or a curse? Would composers even want performers to know how they, them self, would play any given piece of music?

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