Friday, June 14, 2013

Robert Suderburg, 1936-2013

Somehow I missed the news that the composer Robert Suderburg died April 3. (Even Wikipedia still doesn't know.)

I remember Dr. Suderburg as the occasional guest of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which played his Orchestra Music I back in the 1970s when I was a kid and just discovering modern music. Michael Bookspan, the orchestra’s longtime percussionist, also commissioned Suderburg's Percussion Concerto, an attractive and memorable piece that, miraculously, the orchestra revived several years after its premiere. I heard the work both times and was impressed, on the second occasion, by just how much of it had stuck with me. The composer seemed pleased when I told him afterward. He was an approachable, soft-spoken gentleman, and one to the few one of the few tall composers I have ever met.

Mr. Suderburg is an unjustly under-recorded composer, but some outstanding performances of his music did once find their way onto vinyl, particularly the wonderful Piano Concerto In the Mirror of Time, with Bela Siki and the Seattle Symphony conducted by Milton Katims; and Voyage de nuit (Concerto d'après Baudelaire), with his wife, the soprano Elizabeth Suderburg, as soloist; and the Piedmont Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Harsanyi. Both are out of print, but they are worth tracking down. There are also some fine recordings of his chamber music on CD..

Mr. Suderburg was a member of the diverse but accomplished generation of composers born in the late 1930s, a class that includes Steve Reich and Charles Wuorinien. He had no truck with either serialism or minimalism, but neither was he a neoromantic pastiche-artist desperate for audience approval. His music can be angular (as in the Piano Concerto), or it can be smooth (as in Voyage), but it is always inventive, well-constructed, stylistically unified and recognizably a product of its time. I have long wished that it were better known.

The time has come to revisit my recordings.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Composition in the 21st Century

On June 8 I attended an informal presentation, organized by th Philadelphia Fans of Classical Music, on the wide range of concert music that is being written today. Neil Sussman played snippets of 28 compositions by 27 composers (the American Arlene Sierra was the one repeat), whom he organized into eight categories: neoromanticism, neoclassicism, minimalism, modalism, drone music, atonality, serialism, electronic music, world music, and high energy pop elements. I have long feared younger, contemporary composers are essentially out of ideas, doomed to repeat the formulas and the techniques of the past. While I heard nothing to challenge that opinion significantly, I was impressed by the occasional display of freshness and energy — by the personality of this or that composer — and I came away more optimistic about the state of contemporary composition than I was when I went in.

If Neil had a thesis, it was that today, "anything goes." Words like "dissonant," "atonal," and "serial" were thrown around a little too freely, without much regard for precision, and "high energy pop" is not a wave I care to ride (the music of Hartke and Kernis, entertaining as it was, seemed content to be shallow), but I was struck at how much overlap there was among the categories. Many of the compositions resisted easy pigeon-holing. I heard traces of minimalism and romanticism in the so-called atonal music, and polytonalities in the neoclassicism. Perhaps someday soon, a unique voice will emerge from a synthesis of styles, even if, indeed, “anything goes” and rhythmic and harmonic innovations might no longer be possible.

All of the music was new to me, if some of the names were not. My favorite piece of the afternoon was Sierra's sextet Surrounding Ground, which reminded me, in spirit, of Carter's Triple Duo. I would never have mistaken it for Carter — there were too many repeated figures and a more regular beat — but I found the lively interplay of the instruments and polyrhythms decidedly Carterian.

The little seminar was held at the Wyncote at the home of Dr. Sydney Kahn, who assured me his was one of only two private houses in Montgomery County to achieve Leed Platinum certification.

Kennett Symphony to present program for brass and percussion

In a piece in this week's Ticket magazine, I interview Tim Soberick, the principal trombonist of the Kennett Symphony. Tim put together a program for brass and percussion that will be performed next week at Longwood Gardens. Like most interviews, however, this one includes some additional information and insights that go beyond the matter at hand.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Grim Statistics

We interrupt our regularly scheduled music discussion to present a few statisics on gun violence in the United States, nicely summarized by David Cole in The New York Review of Books:

Gun violence in the United States continues to far outpace that in other developed nations. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died from firearms, either in suicides, homicides, or accidents. By this grim metric, we are unquestionably a world leader. The US firearms homicide rate is twenty times higher than the combined rate of the next twenty-two high-income developed nations. Between 2000 and 2008, there were more than 30,000 gun deaths a year in the US, for an average of more than eighty every single day. And in 2010 alone, emergency rooms treated more than 73,000 people for nonfatal gunshot injuries.

We read with horror of terrorist attacks around the world, mostly in far-flung places that regularly endure suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, and the like. We breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to live with such violence, while we spend billions of dollars annually to prevent such attacks occurring here. But every year, about twice as many people are killed in the United States by guns than die of terrorist attacks worldwide. Americans face a one in 3.5 million chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, but a one in 22,000 chance of being murdered.

A friend once asked if I liked America, and if so, why. When I read things like this, I genuinely hate this country.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Found the Quote

In taking the hacksaw to Elliott Carter, Daniel Asia says of the rehearsals for the Concerto for Orchestra, under Leonard Bernstein:

It should be noted that Bernstein wasn't impressed by the fact that Carter wasn't aware that the clarinetist was playing in the wrong transposition for much of the piece ... why, when certain pitch relations were important to Carter, and he apparently couldn't detect errant pitches, shouldn't this suggest serious reservations about the composer and his music?

As I noted earlier, one of my correspondents wondered where Asia got this story, since he did not attend the rehearsals, and another suggested it was an urban legend, since he had heard the same thing about Schoenberg. I, too, thought I recalled something of the sort, and, rereading Charles Rosen's indispensable monograph Arnold Schoenberg (1975), I found this (pp. 49-50):

From time to time there appear malicious stories of eminent conductors who have not realized that, in a piece of Webern or Schoenberg, the clarinetist, for example, picked up an A instead of a B-flat clarinet and played his part a semitone off. These recurrent tales, often true, do not have the significance given them by the critics who believe that music should have stopped at Debussy, as each individual line in Schoenberg's music and even in Webern's later pointillist style defines a harmonic sense that, even when transposed, can fit into the general harmony of the work as a whole. (Here we must remember that harmony is conveyed as powerfully along a musical line as it is by a simultaneous chord.) The attenuation of the traditional concept of dissonance gives a considerable freedom to the movement of the individual instrumental voices, and for this to take place the central position in the hierarchy of musical elements can no longer be given to pitch. What is clear, indeed, is that the simple linear hierarchy must give way to a new and more complex set of relationships in which pitch is only one element among others, and not by any means always the most important.

So there you are — Mr. Asia’s little gotcha moment has been addressed, and 35 years in advance.

And how stupid are clarinetists anyway?

Mr. Carter once said that while he could not, like Boulez, pick apart every detail of a performance, his music, when played correctly, sounded just as he imagined it. I will add only that for me, the reason Asia's story, true or not, doesn't suggest "serious reservations" about Mr. Carter's music is that the Concerto for Orchestra kicks neoromantic ass.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Actually, it won't

To follow up on my previous post: My column will not appear in the Sunday edition after all. I had to bump it to make room for another story. Sometime in the near future, perhaps - but that appears doubtful.

My column on the Rite of Spring

The following column will appear in the Norristown Times Herald on Sunday, June 2:

The day music changed: The 100th anniversary of ‘The Rite of Spring’
By Joe Barron

One hundred years ago this week, on May 29, 1913, a riot took place in Paris. The trigger was not the price of bread, or the arms race in Europe, or the constitutional right of citizens to carry concealed weapons.

It was the premiere of a ballet.

The hissing began at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées during the first few notes of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” as the bassoon softly wailed a Russian folk melody in an unnaturally high register.
“Then, when the curtain opened, a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke,” the composer recalled almost 50 years later. “Cries of ‘ta geule’ (shut up) came from behind me. I left the hall in a rage.”

Stravinsky’s driving score and Vaslav Nijinsky’s spastic choreography (which even Stravinsky didn’t like) turned everything patrons thought they knew about ballet on its head. Fistfights broke out, and, as Stephen Walsh says in his biography of the composer, “if the music was heard at all, it can only have been as a component of the general uproar.”

Controversy has continued for a century about just what the audience was reacting to, and what that reaction says about the relationship of the artist to his or her public. Certainly, Stravinsky meant no offense. If he had, he would have been delighted by the scandal, but, he continued in his memoir, “I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me, I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance.”

What is equally certain is that the music, if not the dancing, became the touchstone for everything that followed. It appears at the top of everyone’s list of most important works of the 20th century, at least everyone who still cares about that sort of thing. Nothing like it had ever been heard before — and this at a time when a lot of other people were writing the sort of stuff that had never been heard before — and nothing exactly like it has been heard since. Even Stravinsky himself couldn’t top it.
Within 10 years, he moved on to cooler, more elegant forms of expression, and none of the music he wrote afterward, great as much of it is, is performed nearly as frequently today.

In a point of local pride, the U.S. premiere took place in 1922, when Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert performance. Ever since, American musicians have spoken of their first experience with the piece as a revelation: Men as different in age and outlook as Elliott Carter and Frank Zappa have said that hearing it made them want to become composers. Kids in conservatories are still imitating it, if only unconsciously.

For me, appreciation came only gradually. I first heard the “Rite” in high school, and I did not like it for a long time. In retrospect, I understand my aversion had less to do with the music than with my recording of it. It was Stravinsky’s own, a performance he conducted in his late 70s. It’s not bad, but it lacks fire, and it lags badly toward the end.

Then, one glorious evening listening to the radio, I heard the recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony, and I said, “OK, I get it now.” It remains my favorite version, and it is the one I listened to on the anniversary of the premiere.

This music has become a part of me, as it has for so many others, and friends have heard bits of it escape from me at odd moments, either as humming or as whistling. It’s an embarrassment, but embarrassment is the price I’m willing to pay for having my life enriched in such a profound way.

A lot has happened in the past hundred years to make a riot over a piece of music seem quaint. Yet the undiminished vitality of “The Rite of Spring” keeps a piece of that remote world alive like nothing else, and reminds us of the power of art to throw the world off its axis. The experience of that first night must have been overwhelming. Had I been there, I would have been frightened, too.