A performance for the present day

I’ve said many times — most recently here —  that classical music needs to be a contemporary art.

But what does this mean? That’s a long discussion, one that deserves a full chapter in a book, or maybe even a book of its own. But I’d like to start on it now, with some blog posts in the next month or so.

And what I’d like to address today is maybe the hardest part of the discussion (or at least the part we might not have thought too much about), which is what — once classical music becomes truly contemporary — our musical performances might be. It’s easy to imagine ways that our presentation might change, what the hall looks like, when the audience should applaud, what we wear, whether we have special lighting, and many more questions like that, which we talk about a lot.

But what happens to the music? That’s harder to answer. I said (in the blog post I linked to at the start of this) that making classical music contemporary of course “means doing a lot more music by current composers, but it means more than that.”

So what else does it mean?

pekka blog

Pekka Kuusisto

Even the start of an answer will take more than one blog post, but to begin, I’ll offer one of the best (and certainly one of the most contemporary) classical concerts I’ve heard in a long time. Which was a violin and piano recital, given in January at the Phillips Collection in Washington, by Pekka Kuusisto (a Finnish violinist who was new to me), and Nico Muhly (who of course is one of the best, and best-known, American composers).

Here’s the program:

Arvo Pärt, Fratres

Nico Muhly, Drones & Violin

Nico Muhly, Drones & Piano

Philip Glass, The Orchards

Johann Sebastian Bach, Partita No. 2 for solo violin, in D minor

Improvisation on traditional Finnish songs


Nico Muhly

Note, though, that the movements of the Bach were played all through the program, alternating with the other music, so that the Allemand followed Fratres, and the great Chaconne came just before the Finnish folksongs.

As I’ve done before, I’ll quote my wife Anne Midgette’s review in the Washington Postsince I agree with it, and she puts things better than I can:

[T[he two musicians brought a sense of such intimacy and spontaneity that a listener felt more a participant than a passive recipient. Each movement of Bach’s second partita, for instance, began as if it were a completely fresh idea that happened to have struck Kuusisto as he stood by the piano. Each progressed as if he were thinking his way through it, musing on what might come next. This music felt every bit as new as the two works by Muhly, one a four-movement essay (“Drones & Violin”), one a shorter sally (“Drones & Piano”).

And it’s a rare performer who can polish off the Chaconne, the final movement of the second partita and one of the towering monuments of the violin repertory, and then flip his Guadagnini around and start strumming it like a banjo as he sings Finnish folk songs. Indeed, it’s a rare performer who can make you want to listen to a Finnish folk song after you’ve heard the Bach — something of which Kuusisto was perfectly aware. “It’s worth staying for,” he told the audience, drawing a laugh.

Muhly, I might add, was arresting at the piano. I don’t know how he’d be in the classic piano repertoire, but in what he played, he emerged as one of very few musicians — Maya Beiser, Leontyne Price, Prince (as a guitarist) — who only has to sing or play a single note to pin you to your chair. (Longtime New Yorkers might remember Al Carmines, a minister at an activist Greenwich Village church, who wrote musicals and played the piano this way. He’d begin a song, and you were his.)

Where this fits

And about the program — a perfect balance, first of all, of new and old, with equal time spent on both, and with the old piece sounding new. And the new pieces, beyond that, were all in styles that echo far beyond the concert hall.

This, too, is a long discussion. But, briefly, new classical pieces might fit into three broad categories. Modernist stuff (marked by dissonance, and, often, irregular rhythms); pieces that sound (despite updated harmony) like the older music in the classical repertoire; and then a big third category, which we  might very roughly call minimalism and beyond. (And which includes pieces that blend classical music and pop, even if those might not sound as if they stem from minimalism, because without minimalism, which (re)opened classical composition to a steady, driving pulse, the pop blend might not have happened.)

If you want names, try Elliott Carter, Paul Moravec, and David Lang. Understand that I’m not making value judgments, not saying any category stands out for good or bad music. And forgive how broad the categories are; plenty of pieces might have traits of more than one at once.

But still the categories are useful, and I’d say that only the third really sounds contemporary, especially outside the classical world. And even within it, since modernism lost its dominance a generation ago, and the pieces that sound like standard classical music — even if they make the classical audience sigh with relief — by their very nature don’t do much that’s new. While third-category music resonates with many things outside classical music, including many kinds of pop, visual art, graphic design, fashion, film, you name it.

So back to the concert, where the pieces by living composers all clearly fall in category three. And were terrific pieces. Which made the concert comfortable, though I’ll note — because some of us are quick to think that classical music is being dumbed down, and that these third-category styles are helping do that — that none of the pieces were facile. All had many sides to them, meaning that they gave me things to think about, as good art should. But they did that without making me travel to a different universe (as modernism often does) or revisit the past.

With them I breathed the same air I breathe outside the concert hall. Which was also true during the Bach, which was completely free of the subtext I feel I hear at most classical performances, as if a voice were whispering, nonstop, through Brahms and Pierre Boulez, “This is classical music.” Kuusisto’s Bach had none of that. If there was any subtext, it might have been, “This is music. For these few minutes, I’m making it my music. Listen to all the great things it does!”

Which brings me to one last point. This was a very personal concert. Muhly and Kuusisto didn’t come on stage as high priests, acolytes of classical music. They came on as Pekka and Nico, two guys playing music they liked, including some that one of them had written, and some that came from the other’s homeland. So we knew who they were. And could see that they were having a wonderful time.

The audience — a typical one for classical concerts, made up of people over 50 who love classical music — just ate it up. Were unabashed in their enthusiasm.

(Which shows, by the way, that category three new music (except for long early minimal pieces, like Glass’s Music in 12 Parts, where for minutes on end hardly anything seems to change) can go down well even with old-style classical music fans. I’m reminded of something I heard back in the 1990s from the producer of a classical presenting series. She wanted to do an entire program of Arvo Pärt. Her board was aghast at the very thought. A whole program of new music? She asked them to listen to some Pärt. And the board changed its tune, said they might fire her if she didn’t do the concert.)

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  1. Richard says

    Why always this Woody Allenish angst over new music and new ways of performing?

    Maybe we live in a time of widespread cultural mediocrity, and maybe the role of classical music is to remind us of what we have thrown away in our foolishness to embrace anything shiny and new.

  2. ny says

    i heard pekka kuusisto play several years

    ago and was also completely mesmerized by

    him, just like you described, and i agree

    that presenting music in this very modest,

    natural way should be more the norm in

    classical music. it was really amazing and
    like nothing i’d ever heard before.

    what i have a problem with is making

    categories, and then saying that only

    category three really rings true for our

    present day, or is doing anything ‘new and


    even though most of what i listen to would

    probably fall into what you call category

    3, there is no way i would come down and

    say that only music coming from that

    perspective stands a chance at being new or

    relevant today. i mean it’s just a very

    closed off and boring approach to art.

    shouldn’t the point of art be that we don’t

    know what we’re looking for and/or that we

    might find something that does something we

    didn’t realize was possible or that opens

    doors to something that gives us a

    completely new kind of musical experience,

    or i don’t know? if we already know where

    that will come from or what that will be

    like that’s pretty closed off.

    i think it’s really important to remember

    that there is no guarantee that music will

    be innovative by virtue of any point of

    view or category we make for it; and there

    is nothing that makes category three

    automatically better or new or relevant or

    whatever. if anything i feel like most of

    what falls into category three can be really

    lacking in giving me any kind of experience

    i don’t already know or want.

    but to write off a whole perspective of

    those coming from a more modernist

    viewpoint, for example, as working from

    the wrong place is a bit ridiculous; sure

    they can be often stuck in the past, or

    weighed down by history; maybe a lot of

    them are; i don’t know. but the same could

    be said for anyone in category three, if

    not by history, by other things. i really

    think in the end it boils down to


    whatever the case i really hate the idea

    of people not being given proper respect to

    express their point of view. look if some

    people want to be more in step with popular

    culture, let them be. if some people want

    their stuff to have no relation to

    anything, let them be. that’s fine too.

    sure no one will listen to it, but then

    some will actually. but let’s not call them

    irrelevant and not of our time. if you’re

    alive and kicking; you’re of our time. not

    if you somehow fit into contemporary pop

    culture. that makes me sick.

    the last thing i have a problem with is

    isn’t nico muhly more a category 2 kind of

    person, not category 3? and pekka kuusisto (did he teach you how to say his name by the way?),

    even though you’d think of him as a

    category 3 kind of guy he’s actually very

    category 2 or three or 1? i mean his main

    deal for a long time was playing the

    sibelius violin concerto. and then he’s

    also been a performer for ades’ violin

    concerto, which is kind of category 2 slash

    1, or right? look if nico muhly’s category

    2 then he’s atleast half three and half

    two, maybe a bit of one. anyway it’s just

    a bit ridiculous this whole category thing.

    i’m really not surprised at all that an

    older classical audience liked them. they’re such nice people.

  3. says

    Classical music has the power to transcend over generations. In my opinion, the big compositions will always keep their special place on the wall of musical fame. Classical music will probably go through changes, as anything else in the world, that’s without a doubt. I think although the expression will change, the essence still remains.