A classical music blog by music critic Tim Mangan
Also on the program: the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s Symphony.
Click here to read my review
classical music, reviews
Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Steven Stucky, Stravinsky
September 30, 2012
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Why is there so much angst and gloom in compositions nowadays? If Stucky’s Symphony were used as a score for a movie, so many sections of it would apply to a scene where a character is contemplating suicide, or walking unhappily down the street after a big fight with a spouse or significant other, or is being trailed ominously late at night by a guy wearing a trench coat.
I think this is the main reason why such pieces of music will never gain much of a following in the future, why they’re more likely to end up unloved and overlooked, lost in the shuffle, collecting dust on the top shelf of the closet.
Sorry if I sound like a “Debbie Downer” about Stucky’s new work, but he and others (eg, John Adams) seem to believe that if their music contains a lot of bits and pieces of glumness — call it an aural version of “Debbie Downer” — it therefore becomes more sophisticated, serious and au courant.
Fortunately, most of the listeners who attended last weekend concerts, including Tim and several other reviewers, had much more positive impression of and opinion about this new piece.
The notion that “angst and gloom” in classical music make it “unloved and overlooked” is rather silly. The entire classical music history shows that just about the opposite is true: many if not most of the all-time great compositions that are justifiably admired by knowledgeable listeners contain more sadness and tragedy than relentlessly cheerful and upbeat moods.
“La boheme” and “Madama Butterfly” are chock full of angst and gloom. One has a tragic death, the other a suicide.
But there are passages of memorability in such pieces. By contrast, it seems that just about all of Steven Stuckey’s or John Adams’ compositions are not just gloomy or dour, they contain almost not one second of any melody that pleases and lingers. Again, if they were used for a movie score, they’d be ideal for a scene where a mother is dying of cancer, or her grown son or daughter is going through a bitter divorce, or where a murderer is stalking someone on the street.
In all of this, I do keep in mind one thing: Just as beauty is altogether in the eye of the beholder, the same thing applies to orchestral music and a person’s sense of hearing. After all, look at all the people who love the coarsest of rap music or the twangiest of country-western tunes.
In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny from the great “What’s Opera, Doc?” (his exit line, if i am not mistaken): “What did you expect in an opera – a HAPPY ending???”
The list is, of course, long and distinguished. I’ll point out that my favorite Mozart Symphony, the 40th, is brilliantly brooding. On the other hand, my favorite John Adams work, “Naive and Sentimental Music,” is unapolagetically optimistic and, well, sentimental. It’s all good.
My definition of music that is sentimental is more along the lines of something from a Sergei Rachmaninoff or Antonin Dvorak. So even the way that John Adams interprets “sentimental” doesn’t make me want to sit up and take notice.
His “Naive and Sentimental Music” has plenty of forgettable lethargy interspersed with moments of that good ol’ angst. Or music that, on one hand, is reminiscent of a scene in a movie where a bed-ridden patient in a hospital room is shown slowly dying — and the film maker wants to depict every minute, every second, of that — or, on the other hand, where someone is about to meet a deranged person wielding an axe.
If I had to guess one way or the other, I don’t think composers like John Adams will ever see their pieces move much beyond the halls of academia or the living rooms of the intelligentsia.
Debbie Downer is correct. Most of today’s compositions will be lost and forgotten in the future, just like most of the compositions of the past.
As for opera, you know what they say: “It ain’t over til the soprano dies.”
–Most of today’s compositions will be lost and forgotten in the future, just like most of the compositions of the past.
True but that does not take away from performers presenting these pieces to decide WHICH of those pieces and composers will remain with us for a long time.
Personally, I would be very happy to hear Stucky’s Symphony many more times and I don’t think it was a downer at all, the ending was quite peaceful and the tensions were resolved.
In music, as in all other arts including literature, over 90% of the works being produced do not last very long – it has always been like this and nobody argues with that fact. When someone does not personally like or care about a certain piece, that is natural too and nobody has an issue with that either. However, while “memorability” of a work of art may be directly proportionate to its cheerfulness for one human being, that does not make it so for the rest of the humanity. And having an easily singable tune is certainly not a universal requirement either: my comment from June 15 under Tim’s posting of June 2 includes a relevant example and i don’t want to repeat myself.
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