At last, a modern composer worth listerning to

Gwinn Owens

September 21, 1990|By Gwinn Owens

TAKE HEART, music lovers who never heard a contemporary piece you didn't dislike. Help is on the way.

It comes in the form of a young man named Michael Torke, who almost overnight has become the most popular living classical composer in America. His success ought to put the fear of God in the touted (by their colleagues) modern composers who are constantly enraged by the failure of orchestras to play contemporary music.

I'll tell them why orchestras won't touch their beloved compositions: because the concert-going public doesn't like their stuff. In years of attending Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts, I haven't -- until last week -- heard one post-1950 composition that I would cross Preston Street to endure again. How many of the celebrated "world premieres" or "first performances in Baltimore" have been followed by a second or third performance? I don't remember one.

There's a good reason for this, and here is an example. Last May with the BSO, the extraordinary cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, played the world premiere of a cello concerto by Stephen Albert. The composer was there to take his bows along with the artist and conductor David Zinman. Certainly, this was an auspicious occasion. After the Albert piece, Ma and violinist Pamela Frank played the Brahms concerto for violin and cello.

And what happened? After the modern concerto, dramatized by the composer's presence, the audience applauded, even at length, but one sensed that it was perfunctory. After all, Baltimoreans are polite. But after the final notes of the Brahms, the multitude rose in a thunderous roar of approval. Thank heaven, music at last!

Much the same has occurred after the BSO's token "modern" offerings over the years. I have a custom at intermission of asking fellow concert-goers what they thought of the work. With few exceptions, the answer is a sneer.

This raises two questions: First, why does the audience detest most modern concert-hall music? Second, why do composers choose the forms that are resoundingly rejected by audiences over and over again?

To answer the first question I turn to the heresy of the aforementioned Torke in an interview with Scott Cantrell, classical music editor of the Kansas City Star. Said Torke, in a remark for the ages: "I think the main reason that contemporary music isn't played by orchestras is that the music isn't good enough."

Horrors! Torke risks getting drummed out of the modern composers' brigade, his buttons stripped off like a dishonored Marine who has consorted with the enemy. The man is not only a traitor; his music is being played, and audiences actually seem to like it. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, Torke is the rare artist who knows he must please his customers.

As to the second question, why do most contemporary composers grind out these formless, phantasmagoric, futile exercises? Is it because they are brilliant and the audience is made up of ignorant dolts? My own hunch is that, like the cognoscenti of every profession, they write not for the audience, but for their colleagues.

What worries me is that most of these esteemed composers are listed in the program notes as -- God help music's future -- teachers of composition! They are passing their poison onto the next generation. Will there be no one left to write music that someone wants to hear?

Not that I denigrate the skill or the industry -- or the sincerity -- of modern composers. Composing is a tough racket, a grueling task that requires years of preparation and more years of dedication. I revere a good composer more than a good novelist or a good graphic artist. Nor do I believe that their compositions should necessarily emulate Mozart. In the age of electronics, certainly there is promise in electronic sounds and in other forms of innovation. Beethoven was an innovator.

It is much simpler than that, even though the audiences' love of 18th and 19th century music has been interpreted by some pro-modern critics as some kind of deep Freudian disorder. It comes down to the fact that most contemporary composers seem incapable of sublimity, nobility, majesty, profundity, melody, structural unity and, most of all, beauty. In short, they cannot or will not reach out for heaven in the manner of Bach, Handel, Beethoven or Brahms.

This brings us back to Michael Torke. I do not want to exaggerate his achievements thus far. Mozart he ain't -- yet. But he's capable of marvelous orchestration, of wondrous harmonies and even lovely melody. He's only 29, and if he can ignore the scorn of his envious peers and resist the minimalists' cult of boredom, he has years of spiritual and professional growth ahead of him.

V Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page. He plays the cello.

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