Saturday, July 10, 2010

Not New and Not a Substitute for New

I don't understand the degree of praise that has accumulated around Newmusiconlineistan over the New York Phil's recent concert performances of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (30-some years after its premier) and now in advance of a Varese fest in NYC (almost 45 years after the composer's death).  Yes, there should be congratulations for good programming, but none whatsoever is due in these cases for programming new music.  

Yes, it might be embarassing that the [East Coast  of the] US has not yet seem a fully-staged performance of the Ligeti opera, let alone have it enter a house's repertoire.  [Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for correcting me here: there was a full production in San Francisco!]  The piece is entertaining (if stripped, by the composer, of almost all the authentic mystery, cruelty and guignol/grotesque of Michel de Ghelderode's extraordinary play, La Balade du grand macabre, replaced with a silly text and all too many adolescent musician in-jokes*) and has had a significant stage life in European houses, and the performance in New York seems to have been very well-received, but it is reception due a tested work of the last century, not the reception of an unknown — and thus, risky — new work.

And then Varese.  I am deeply attached to the works of Varese, but there are no more brownie points given for novelty when performing his works.  The bulk of the tiny Varese catalog was written before the Great Depression (and Varese's own personal great depression)  and the catalog, as wonderful as most of it is, has been discovered and (supposedly) forgotten ever since with a wave motion, the regularity of which would have provided Kondratiev with a textbook example.  The most recent waves have come with the Frank Zappa seal of approval, probably increasing the audience size by an order of magnitude or more with the addition of a healthy number of lonely young weird-music-obsessed men to the crowd.  But the cycle has been more of spiral, with performances of Varese's music increasingly familiar program points, as established repertoire but not as new music.   (The recorded works have been steadily in print;  Ameriques has become a regular showpiece for conductors and orchestras, Density 22.5 is standard rep for flautists, Ionization for college or conservatory percussion ensembles; I've even heard Equatorial four times live, and that's a piece with a particularly hard-to-cover instrumentation, including a pair of Ondes Martenots)  For, fresh — indeed, renewable, as one says around here — as Varese's music can be, it is not modern music, it is not contemporary music, it is no longer new or experimental but it is — as Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn put it more than a generation ago —  a "look back at the future", at the ultra-modern (cum ultra-primitive) future imagined a very long time ago.  

There have now been several intervening generations of composers whose work shares Varesian concerns but turned into very different directions (including those who knew Varese, like Dlugoszewski or Tenney) .  And there are plenty of young composers today with interesting and alternative looks at a very different future.  The Philharmonic's new music advisor, Magnus Lindberg, certainly has an exuberant orchestration style that owes a lot to Varese, but just as certainly has an urgency that is of our moment.    


* Ligeti's fundamental lack of understanding for the Ghelderode makes me somewhat relieved that he abandoned his two later operatic projects, a version of The Tempest and an Alice in Wonderland. 



Lisa Hirsch said...


There was a fully-staged production of "Le Grand Macabre" a few years ago in San Francisco.

Given the legendary conservatism of the NYPO's programming (especially since Boulez) and their audience, it is a big deal for them to play as much recent music as there has been in the last year. In absolute terms, well - they have multiple audiences to satisfy. This at least increases the satisfaction of people who want to hear 20th and 21st century music.

Lisa Hirsch said...

(Whoops, forgot to check the subsequent comments box! And I really do take your points about what this means.)