I’ve been very critical of classical music press releases, which typically say nothing that would give me or anybody else — and especially someone new to classical music — any reason to go to the concerts they publicize.
Biographies of classical musicians — the ones we find on press releases, and in program books — have the same problem. They’re deadly. Long blank lists of distinctions and superlatives, and never anything to tell you what kind of artist the musician in question might be. This gets especially annoying when the musician is world-famous, and we’re asked to read a mind-glazing list of all the orchestras he or she has played concerti with. (I mean, if you’re Emanuel Ax, of course you’ve appeared with all the major orchestras in the world, and you know what? We already know their names.)
Here’s a wonderful exception, a biography of David Del Tredici that showed up in the program of a concert by the Da Ponte Quartet, in Weill Recital Hall. They were playing the New York premiere of David’s string quartet, which they’d commissioned. Here’s David’s bio:
Generally recognized as the father of the Neo-Romantic movement in music, David Del Tredici has been awarded numerous prizes (including the Pulitzer) and has been commissioned and performed by nearly every major American and European orchestral ensemble. Much of his work has offered elaborate vocal settings of James Joyce, Lewis Carroll and – more recently – a cavalcade of contemporary American poets, often celebrating a gay sensibility. Of late, he has ventured into the more intimate realm of chamber music (in addition to tonight’s premiere String Quartet No. 1, he has written A Grand Trio, which the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio brought to life). Still, the extravagant Del Tredici remains at large: In May 2005 Robert Spano conducts the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus in the premier of Paul Revere’s Ride (a setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s landmark poem), while November will see the premiere performances of Rip Van Winkle, for narrator and orchestra (Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony), in which Del Tredici collaborates with his life-partner, Ray Warman, in retelling Washington Irving’s classic tale.
This is readable, even lively. And it tells you things you want to know — what kind of composer David is, and even something of his personality.
(The Da Ponte Quartet, as the New York Times review pointed out, filled the hall with very vocal fans, something very unusual in a New York debut. Some of those fans came from Maine, where the quartet lives, and where it’s built enough enthusiastic support to pay for this concert, and to commission David’s piece. Clearly the quartet — which plays with lots of spirit — is doing something right. Classical music may be losing support nationwide, but who’s to say we can’t build new support locally? Full disclosure — the quartet is looking at my music. But I’d write exactly the same way even if they weren’t.)