The New Criterion
Jay Nordlinger / June 2015
In Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented a program called “Music U.” It offered American composers who held jobs in the Ivy League. (One of them—the only living composer represented—still does.) Critics and administrators love a programmatic theme. Everyone else is indifferent, or should be. The aso served up an interesting and satisfying afternoon of music, theme aside.
What we had was a variety of pieces, written by American composers from 1891 until today. The last piece on the program was a premiere. Yes, the composer teaches at an Ivy League university: Cornell. But so what? What if he taught at Bowdoin or Mills? It was still good to hear the music.
The concert began without the orchestra but with choral forces from Cornell—who sang Randall Thompson’s Alleluia. Composed in 1940, it is one of the most famous choral pieces in the repertoire, or at least the American repertoire. It is sometimes thought of as Christmas music (found on a Robert Shaw Christmas album, for example). I might note that Randall Thompson is not to be confused with Virgil Thomson, a contemporary. Randall may be a one-hit wonder—but, oh, what a hit.
His Alleluia opens every season at Tanglewood, the music camp in Massachusetts. (I use the word “camp” loosely.) Another camp, Interlochen, in Michigan, has its own theme music: an excerpt from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, the “Romantic.”
The ASO’s piece from 1891 was written by Horatio Parker, who lived from 1863 to 1919.
This piece is Dream-King and His Love, a cantata. Parker entered it into a competition whose principal judge was Dvořák. It won. The cantata takes its text from a German poem by Emanuel von Geibel, in English translation. The music is “lushly Romantic,” to use the cliché. There is also something otherworldly about it.
I sighed a little as I listened. Choral singing used to be an important part of American life, and it has greatly diminished, or so I gather. Can it be revived?
Completing the first half of the program was a symphony from the middle of the twentieth century: the Symphony No. 2 of George Rochberg (1918–2005). He would go on to write four more of them. No. 2 was premiered by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. In other words, it started at the top. The symphony is written according to the twelve-tone method, but it is not academic. It is loaded with feeling. It is rhythmically arresting and shrewdly orchestrated. It is varied, energetic, and brainy. It is also solidly musical.
Is it enjoyable? It is, yes, but one hearing may not be enough. In any case, this Rochberg symphony is a high example of midcentury American modernism.
The second half of the aso concert began with a work composed in 1992 by Leon Kirchner. He wrote it for Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, a former student of his at Harvard. It is not called a concerto but “Music for Cello and Orchestra.” Is there a difference? If a composer says so, yes, probably. This work is teeming with anxiety, like any number of modern pieces. Yet this piece is special, inspired, compelling. It is both virtuosic—even showy—and pure. It is also “lushly Romantic,” not so distant from Dvořák, really. (He wrote a cello concerto that has enjoyed success.) The Kirchner work ends unusually, in an almost questioning vein, I would say.
And it was played brilliantly by a young cellist, Nicholas Canellakis. I believe he is American—specifically, Greek American— but his bio doesn’t say. Today’s bios tend not to give nationality, even when they go on at length. Puzzling, and sometimes annoying.
The new work that concluded the program comes from the pen of Roberto Sierra. It is called Cantares, indicating songs and chants— which is what we get. The work is in four parts, three of them choral, and one of them an orchestral interlude. Sierra’s general aim is to put his own spin on things ancient.
Cantares begins with the text of a hymn published in seventeenth-century Peru. The language is Quecha. Sierra’s music is ritualistic and exotic. It is also kaleidoscopic, even cinematic. I thought of Indiana Jones and the type of composing done by John Williams, the leading movie composer. From me, that is no putdown. Sierra arranges for something like hissing. I thought of a radiator. Snakes?
The second part of the work “traces its ancestry to Afro-Cuban ritual music of West African origins,” says Sierra in a program note. The orchestra produces a wash of sound. There is much percussion, and chanting, and some more hissing, too. It is all rather dizzying, a paganistic religious experience. The orchestral interlude that follows is a good idea. The listener could use some relief. But the interlude is not altogether restful. There are spooky jungle noises, as in many modern pieces. There is also something that sounds like scattering—like frightened animals running away. Also, there are those twinkling noises that dot so many modern pieces.
Sierra ends with a bang, a dreadful movement that evokes the conquest of the Aztec Empire, from the perspectives of both conquered and conquering. The music is loud,
cacophonous, pounding. It has something in common with Carmina Burana. It is all-out, unremitting, and tiring. Tiring, yes, but true to its theme or intent.
I don’t know whether Cantares will be heard much in the future—these things are hard to judge—but it is a fine way to spend twenty-five minutes now. Asking more from a composer would be greedy. Asking for twenty-five worthwhile minutes is already fairly greedy.
This concert was conducted by the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, who is also the president of Bard College. He might gag to hear the term, but he is perhaps our musical culture’s foremost conservative. He conserves music, retrieving it, tending to it, perpetuating it, honoring it. If we did not hear that Parker cantata, say, from him, from whom would we hear it? No one. And that would be a shame.
I also want to applaud Botstein for a dog not barking: there was no talking from the stage whatsoever. There were excellent notes in our program, and no talking was necessary, or desirable. There were some unwelcome noises in the audience, however.
Just as the second half was beginning, a lady reached into her purse to withdraw some jelly beans. The beans were in a cellophane bag, tied with a ribbon. The ribbon was in a knot. The lady struggled with that knot for several minutes, making a cacophonous noise with that bag. The Sierra work would have competed with her, but the Kirchner work, at this juncture, could not. Intermission had lasted more than half an hour. But the lady waited until the music began to wrestle with her bag. Eventually, she got it open, offered some beans to her husband, took a few for herself, and returned the bag to her purse.
I have heard almost everything in concert halls and opera houses, on stages and in the seats. I was almost impressed by the lady’s sheer obliviousness to the atmosphere. She wanted them beans, and she got ’em.