i’ve been saying that classical music needs to be a contemporary art. Gave an example here of how it can be. Here’s another one.
Imagine the Kennedy Center concert hall at 6 PM this Tuesday, packed with people attending a concert of works by a living composer.
The concert, featuring an orchestra and chorus, was scheduled as one of the Center’s daily Millennium Stage productions, which take place in one part of the lobby, with removable chairs, for what’s looked, to me, like a couple of hundred people. But there was more demand for this one, so they moved it into their concert hall, capacity 2400. [Correction: the concert was planned from the start as something that would have a large audience. It was originally scheduled for the Kennedy Center opera house, and moved into the concert hall due to a scheduling conflict.]
And it was packed. When it was announced that the composer was in the audience, people stood up, turned around to see the man in his box, and roared. At the end of the performance, when the composer came on stage to take a bow, again the audience rose to its feet and shouted. People took photos on their cell phones.
Who was the composer? Arvo Pärt. Performing were the beyond superb Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the equally fine (at least in this music) Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Tallinn being the capital of Estonia; Pärt, of course, is Estonian. And while there were some Estonians (to judge from their speech) near Anne and me in the orchestra seats, the whole crowd couldn’t have been Estonina. Pärt has American fans. And really, just being Estonia’s most famous living classical composer wouldn’t be enough to get Estonians to roar. They also have to love his work. Do Americans roar for John Adams? (Or pick whoever else you think is more famous.)
The real thing
So here you had a genuinely contemporary classical event. Genuinely contemporary, because it had a genuine contemporary audience, people of many ages and styles who don’t look like they’re classical music insiders, or even classical music fans. Certainly these weren’t the ingroupers I see at smaller DC new music events (and couldn’t be, because there were so many of them). Least of all were they the academic types (some rumpled, some precise, most older) whom I see at new music shows at the Library of Congress.
And Pärt’s music does have a contemporary echo. It speaks to the longing people have for a spiritual connection, some spiritual depth, some connection with a wider universe, one that’s not tied to any religion or other scheme of spiritual thought. Which is true for Pärt even though he himself is Russian Orthodox. And draws audible inspiration from Gregorian Chant, though of course chant has found itself sometimes on the pop charts, because it seems timeless (rather than medieval and Catholic), and speaks to the same need.
Here’s what the program was:
Adam’s Lament [a comparatively recent Pärt piece, dating from 2009]
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
This is uncompromising music. You can hear that for yourself; as happens for all Millennium stage events, a concert video is archived online. Some people in the thornier undergrowth of new classical music might think Pärt is simplistic, but that may not make him easy to listen to, in large, long doses. He never strives for effect, never does anything flashy, never writes pretty tunes, never indulges in lush or gorgeous harmony. I’d guess that people listening shallowly would quickly be bored. If you like this work, it’s in some way taking you deep. (Note that Adam’s Lament and the Te Deum are both long pieces.)
Not at all simple
And I myself would never find Pärt simplistic. In fact, this concert was a wakeup call for me. I’ve known Pärt’s work for years, and loved hearing it, but I also had the impression — a very facile one — that Pärt’s pieces largely did the same thing, that they just hovered there, more or less the way Fratres does. My wife and I get each new Pärt release, on ECM Records (which records all or most of his work), and each time one arrives, I look at it and think, “Well, I should listen to that sometime.” But then I don’t, because I’ve had the — God, so facile — idea that I already know what it will sound like.
Which is dead wrong. Adam’s Lament and the Te Deum are pieces that change a lot, that show a composer crafting each section, each phrase, and each note, rather than letting a process work itself out (the classic miminalist procedure), or working out music that, pretty much by itself, hangs there in space, repeating what sounds like very simple things. Adam’s Lament reminded me, at some distance (because of its tone, and maybe because of some jagged thrusts in the strings), of Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden.
The Te Deum divides in an apparently simple way into sections, many arising from something close (sometimes very close) to Gregorian chant. The wonder comes in how the sections are worked out, and maybe most notably in how they’re contrasted, how the beginning of each new one arrests your attention. I remember one that began with a jangly high minor triad on a prepared piano, about the last sound I would have expected, based on what went before (well, anyway, the last sound in whatever arsenal of sounds I could imagine Pärt having for this piece; obviously a death metal riff or some Charles Wuorinen dissonance would have been completely unexpected).
Though here I should add that it wasn’t just that the prepared piano chord was the right sound for that moment, but also that it was played with precisely the right force. These musicians know their country’s composer. They know exactly how he should be played, and they play him with 1000% conviction. Which is another reason the concert seemed contemporary. It engaged the people giving it in an endeavor vivid for them right now, with none of its significance rooted in musical history.
The piece that most gripped me was the Britten Cantus. I may have heard it before (I know I’ve heard the Te Deum, which makes it extra silly that I had such a facile idea of what Pärt writes). But I don’t know for sure. It’s a process piece, combining downward scales in varying slow speeds into a texture (a curtain of diatonic dissonance) that feels like it’s falling through vast, maybe infinite space. Until finally it stops (though I can’t say it comes to rest) on a minor triad.
This got to me physically. I bent forward, almost doubling over in my chair. And it got to me morally. At one point I found myself thinking of something bad that I once did, something I regret. And now I regretted it with pangs I don’t remember feeling in the past. The music made me want to be better.
Another facile thought: Change made for clarification: Another facile thought I’d had in the past: I used to put Pärt somewhere off to the side, when I imagined a map of new classical music. Here were all the top composers, and there, off in a corner, was Pärt. He’s one of the greatest living composers, maybe the very greatest, though his music has such moral force that calling it “great” or ranking it against other music seems trivial.
And this — to anticipate points I’ll want to make in the future at greater length — is one reason the concert was so powerful. And felt more contemporary than most other performances of new classical music. The music was so strong. Often, I think (and here I anticipate some controversy), concerts of new classical music are programmed without enough thought about the quality of the work, or its interest for any conceivable audience. That, I think, is because no one really expects to have an audience, and because new work still sits on the margins of the classical world, so we imagine that in itself it has some inherent force, the force of something new struggling to be born.
But those days, for most of the music performed on these concerts (which I’ve been going to for 40 years), that’s not happening. The musical styles, along with their content, were born long ago, and the mere fact that the standard classical audience isn’t into them doesn’t give the music any power. Next week I expect to have a guest post here that shows what happened when a new music performing group came to understand these problems, and figured out what to do about them, how to program concerts that an audience would want to go to. (And no, for the thousandth time, this doesn’t involve anything remotely like dumbing down.)
You’ll see, too, in future posts, that I don’t think classical concerts have to feature contemporary works to feel contemporary. How the old music, too, can sound new is something very important to talk about.