Another view

Here’s the comment I mentioned in my last post, from Scott Spires, with whom I’ve been having a friendly e-mail exchange. What he says is worth taking seriously:

This is in response to your article decrying Levine’s programming of “hardcore” modernist pieces with the Boston Symphony. In the article you assert, I believe, that these hard modernists have never really gained an audience beyond the typical academic new-music crowd.

I’m a 39-year-old non-musician, just a listener, and I can say that I regard such composers as Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Messiaen, Schnittke, etc. as the natural successors to the great composers of the past. Their music has certainly inspired me, and people I know who are likewise non-specialists. What’s more, a lot more of my listening is focused on these composers nowadays than on the more popular composers. Evidence that I’m not alone is that I’ve been to many concerts featuring music of these composers, and have found that 1) the audience is younger than the norm for “classical” concerts, 2) they are more engaged and enthusiastic, 3) the house is often full.

Beyond that, let me say that much of this music isn’t hard at all! Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra isn’t any more arcane than Bartok’s. Dutilleux sounds more like Debussy or Ravel than like any modern atonalist. (I’ll grant that Carter is pretty tough.)

Furthermore, your alternative list (Reich, Adams, Torke etc.) was oddly unsatisfactory. For a  start, some of the composers on the list are pretty old (some born before 1940), hence hardly representative of truly new music. Personally, I see a decline in quality too: I would only rank Adams (and in his own weird way, Reich) as the equal of the greats from the older generation of modernists.

Finally, there is one group of composers that I feel truly suffers from unjust neglect: the basically conservative composers, mostly from northern Europe, who never broke with the old forms. To hear a symphony by the likes of Holmboe, Simpson, Tubin, Arnold, Martinu, Rubbra, Englund, or Sallinen played by a great American orchestra would be a breath of fresh air.

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