New Music with a Cause (and Far from Rebellious)

This weekend heard the premieres of two moving, fluently crafted new works which wear their good intentions on their sleeves. No, not sleeves: as Las Vegas showgirl headdresses. Sorry if it sounds cynical, but one way for contemporary classical composers to spark that elusive audience enthusiasm might be to attach their works, as these two were attached, to unimpeachably worthy causes (q.v. also Matt Messina’s Children’s Hospital benefit, below on Reverb).

The pieces brought to mind the incendiary bomb dance critic Arlene Croce dropped in her 1994 New Yorker piece on Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here, which incorporated videotaped testimony from terminal AIDS patients. Croce dubbed it "victim art," and wondered where that left discussion: "I have not seen Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here and have no plans to review it. . . By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable. . . a director-choreographer who has crossed the line between theatre and reality."

Neither of this weekend’s examples were nearly so blatant--and music being an art so much less concerned with representation, the issue doesn’t come up all that often anyway--but they did raise similar critical questions. Can you judge the effectiveness of a work with an overt social message, like Robert Kyr’s A Time for Life, without also judging the cause it espouses? Do you set back the cause if you criticize the piece? Suppose that rather than addressing an issue with which no one could take exception, he’d written something more divisive--say, an anti-abortion piece (Silent Scream, the opera)? Then how would I talk about it? Would it be possible to find flaws in Gerard Schwarz’s musical tribute to his Holocaust-victim grandparents without dishonoring their memory? Missing the point? Coming off like an asshole?

As it happened, both pieces proved pretty successful. Kyr, a University of Oregon faculty member, wrote his cantata on environmental concerns for Cappella Romana’s eight solo singers and for three string players (Margriet Tindemans, Shira Kammen, and David Morris), who played it at Town Hall Saturday night. Kyr drew the text from Native American, Biblical, and Greek Orthodox liturgies, and divided it into three sections: "Creation," in praise of God and Nature; "Forgetting," the warning (and finger-wagging); and "Remembering," an exhortation to take responsibility for the earth. Much of this is set for one singer at a time, with other voices providing simple drone support--effectively setting up the lush and satisfying chorales in the final section, where all eight singers at last come together and fade out in a long floating meditation on a serene seventh chord. Kyr skillfully includes some beguiling text-painting, almost in Handelian style--for example, near the end of "Creation," when curling string arpeggios accompany the line "The great sea has set me in motion, set me adrift."

With a similar unabashed pictorialism, Schwarz’s Rudolf and Jeanette--an homage to his maternal grandparents, murdered in a Latvian concentration camp--is based on a program almost naive in its directness. Commissioned by Music of Remembrance, he led its premiere Sunday afternoon at Benaroya Recital Hall. Dreamy, rippling "once-upon-a-time" music for harp, celesta, and flute opens the work, scored (gorgeously) for 14-piece chamber orchestra. Love music, not stinting on the surging Tchaikovskian sequences, morphs into a sinister march, which in turn builds and breaks off suddenly at a peak of chaos to reveal a nostalgic waltz played offstage on strings and piano. (Schwarz shows the same knack for sonic stage management as a composer that he has as a conductor: he relishes stunts like having trumpeters march down the Benaroya Hall aisles at the climax of The Pines of Rome.)

His funeral march seems to carry the ghost of the march in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, as if Schwarz designed his music as an accompaniment to this unheard tune (the same tune Richard Strauss quoted in his 1945 Metamorphosen, his postwar Requiem for German romanticism). At the work’s close, the dream ends, with the opening harp/celesta music transformed into something bleak and icy.

I do have reservations, though, about another work on the MoR program: Thomas Pasatieri’s song-cycle Letter to Warsaw, settings of poems by Polish cabaret artist and Holocaust victim Pola Braun. I don’t object to his music’s romanticism (in an idiom which makes Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1905 sound brittle and edgy), but I do wonder if its relentless soaring opulence is truly the most effective way to present the text, to convey the bitterness and wryness of Braun’s poems. Does his music’s ear-cushioning sumptuousness frame, enhance, contribute to what Braun is saying, or distract from it? Was I the only listener whose ear was so seduced by the music’s sweep and color that more than once I had to pull myself up short and remind myself to focus on the words Jane Eaglen was singing?

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