In Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented a program called “Music U.” It offered American composers who held jobs in the Ivy League. (One of them—the only living composer represented—still does.) Critics and administrators love a programmatic theme. Everyone else is indifferent, or should be. The ASO served up an interesting and satisfying afternoon of music, theme aside.

What we had was a variety of pieces, written by American composers from 1891 until today. The last piece on the program was a premiere. Yes, the composer teaches at an Ivy League university: Cornell. But so what? What if he taught at Bowdoin or Mills? It was still good to hear the music.

The concert began without the orchestra but with choral forces from Cornell—who sang Randall Thompson’s Alleluia. Composed in 1940, it is one of the most famous choral pieces in the repertoire, or at least the American repertoire. It is sometimes thought of as Christmas music (found on a Robert Shaw Christmas album, for example). I might note that Randall Thompson is not to be confused with Virgil Thomson, a contemporary. Randall may be a one-hit wonder—but, oh, what a hit.

His Alleluia opens every season at Tanglewood, the music camp in Massachusetts. (I use the word “camp” loosely.) Another camp, Interlochen, in Michigan, has its own theme music: an excerpt from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, the “Romantic.”

The ASO’s piece from 1891 was written by Horatio Parker, who lived from 1863 to 1919. This piece is Dream-King and His Love, a cantata. Parker entered it into a competition whose principal judge was Dvo?ák. It won. The cantata takes its text from a German poem by Emanuel von Geibel, in English translation. The music is “lushly Romantic,” to use the cliché. There is also something otherworldly about it.

I sighed a little as I listened. Choral singing used to be an important part of American life, and it has greatly diminished, or so I gather. Can it be revived?

Completing the first half of the program was a symphony from the middle of the twentieth century: the Symphony No. 2 of George Rochberg (1918–2005). He would go on to write four more of them. No. 2 was premiered by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. In other words, it started at the top. The symphony is written according to the twelve-tone method, but it is not academic. It is loaded with feeling. It is rhythmically arresting and shrewdly orchestrated. It is varied, energetic, and brainy. It is also solidly musical.

Is it enjoyable? It is, yes, but one hearing may not be enough. In any case, this Rochberg symphony is a high example of midcentury American modernism.

The second half of the ASO concert began with a work composed in 1992 by Leon Kirchner. He wrote it for Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, a former student of his at Harvard. It is not called a concerto but “Music for Cello and Orchestra.” Is there a difference? If a composer says so, yes, probably. This work is teeming with anxiety, like any number of modern pieces. Yet this piece is special, inspired, compelling. It is both virtuosic—even showy—and pure. It is also “lushly Romantic,” not so distant from Dvo?ák, really. (He wrote a cello concerto that has enjoyed success.) The Kirchner work ends unusually, in an almost questioning vein, I would say.

And it was played brilliantly by a young cellist, Nicholas Canellakis. I believe he is American—specifically, Greek American—but his bio doesn’t say. Today’s bios tend not to give nationality, even when they go on at length. Puzzling, and sometimes annoying.

The new work that concluded the program comes from the pen of Roberto Sierra. It is called Cantares, indicating songs and chants—which is what we get. The work is in four parts, three of them choral, and one of them an orchestral interlude. Sierra’s general aim is to put his own spin on things ancient.

Cantares begins with the text of a hymn published in seventeenth-century Peru. The language is Quecha. Sierra’s music is ritualistic and exotic. It is also kaleidoscopic, even cinematic. I thought of Indiana Jones and the type of composing done by John Williams, the leading movie composer. From me, that is no putdown. Sierra arranges for something like hissing. I thought of a radiator. Snakes?

The second part of the work “traces its ancestry to Afro-Cuban ritual music of West African origins,” says Sierra in a program note. The orchestra produces a wash of sound. There is much percussion, and chanting, and some more hissing, too. It is all rather dizzying, a paganistic religious experience. The orchestral interlude that follows is a good idea. The listener could use some relief. But the interlude is not altogether restful. There are spooky jungle noises, as in many modern pieces. There is also something that sounds like scattering—like frightened animals running away. Also, there are those twinkling noises that dot so many modern pieces.

Sierra ends with a bang, a dreadful movement that evokes the conquest of the Aztec Empire, from the perspectives of both conquered and conquering. The music is loud, cacophonous, pounding. It has something in common with Carmina Burana. It is all-out, unremitting, and tiring. Tiring, yes, but true to its theme or intent.

I don’t know whether Cantares will be heard much in the future—these things are hard to judge—but it is a fine way to spend twenty-five minutes now. Asking more from a composer would be greedy. Asking for twenty-five worthwhile minutes is already fairly greedy.

This concert was conducted by the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, who is also the president of Bard College. He might gag to hear the term, but he is perhaps our musical culture’s foremost conservative. He conserves music, retrieving it, tending to it, perpetuating it, honoring it. If we did not hear that Parker cantata, say, from him, from whom would we hear it? No one. And that would be a shame.

I also want to applaud Botstein for a dog not barking: there was no talking from the stage whatsoever. There were excellent notes in our program, and no talking was necessary, or desirable. There were some unwelcome noises in the audience, however.

Just as the second half was beginning, a lady reached into her purse to withdraw some jelly beans. The beans were in a cellophane bag, tied with a ribbon. The ribbon was in a knot. The lady struggled with that knot for several minutes, making a cacophonous noise with that bag. The Sierra work would have competed with her, but the Kirchner work, at this juncture, could not. Intermission had lasted more than half an hour. But the lady waited until the music began to wrestle with her bag. Eventually, she got it open, offered some beans to her husband, took a few for herself, and returned the bag to her purse.

I have heard almost everything in concert halls and opera houses, on stages and in the seats. I was almost impressed by the lady’s sheer obliviousness to the atmosphere. She wanted them beans, and she got ’em.

A week later, the Australian Chamber Orchestra played in Zankel Hall. Their program featured a new work, composed by a rocker—who is also a classical composer, to be sure. The ACO is a riderless horse, meaning that it doesn’t have a conductor. But it has an artistic director and “lead violin,” namely Richard Tognetti. He is a fine player and leader. The orchestra stands, rather than sits, except for the cellos and maybe a few others. I think this is generally a conceit, but if the ensemble plays well, what can you say against it? And the ACO typically plays very well—even extremely well—as it did on this afternoon.

By the way, one of the violinists (I believe) was a quite short lady, who stood on a little platform, so as to be up near her colleagues.

The concert began with Visions fugitives, those twenty or so little piano pieces written by Prokofiev, early in his career. What were they doing on a chamber-orchestra program? They were arranged for strings by Rudolf Barshai, the late Russian, and Tognetti himself. When you hear the pieces in this arrangement, or these arrangements, they sound all stringy, all of a sudden. I mean, naturally stringy. The pieces are more legato, more seamless. The sound doesn’t die. They lose something in brittleness or bite, but they gain in other areas. They actually sound like a multi-movement symphony.

The ACO was sharp in this work, and I’m not referring to pitch. They were alert, sensitive, and keen. The Prokofiev alone was practically worth the price of admission.

But there was more to come, including a performance of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, in which the soloist was Sharon Kam. I had long heard this Israeli player on recordings, and had always been impressed. But you never know until you hear someone in the flesh—and Kam was out of this world.

I have some disagreements with her, naturally, such as over the tempo of Mozart’s first movement: I believe it was a little fast, a little peppy. “Allegro” indicates a mood as much as a speed. But her subsequent tempos were inarguable. Throughout the concerto, Kam’s playing was smart, soulful, and spirited. Her technique was nearly unfaltering, with a unity of sound up and down (from lowest notes to highest).

Paul Johnson, the historian and a Mozart biographer, has called the Clarinet Concerto Mozart’s most perfect work. Can you hear it again? I mean, after a thousand hearings? When it is played this freshly and musically, yes. Let me point out that Kam didn’t toy with the concerto. I often thought that Rostropovich toyed with the Dvo?ák Cello Concerto, because he had played it a thousand times. He might have been a little bored. He got “creative.” Kam seems to know that Mozart has done the creating already.

The audience asked for an encore, and I mean genuinely asked: sometimes—often—a musician plays an encore without really being asked. It was many curtain calls before Kam presented her encore—an unaccompanied piece, the Hommage à Manuel de Falla, by Béla Kovács, the Hungarian clarinetist. This is a very difficult piece, and Kam dispatched it niftily. And she was ever musical.

Then we had the new work, by the rocker: Jonny Greenwood, an Englishman who belongs to Radiohead. He has had a classical career as well, obviously. He has been the composer-in-residence of the BBC Concert Orchestra and other outfits. He has also composed several film scores. The ACO played Water, which was inspired by a poem from The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin. The poem—called “Water,” like the musical composition it inspired—begins, “If I were called in/ To construct a religion/ I should make use of water.”

Certainly in the early going, Greenwood’s piece sounds like a lot of other pieces. It is pretty and New Agey. It is psychedelic and trippy—“Lie back and see the colors.” It is repetitive, Glassian. It has an Eastern twang (an Oriental twang, as we would have said in the bad old days). Like the Roberto Sierra work discussed above, it could be a film score, maybe accompanying Indiana Jones. The orchestra produces a wash. We hear sound design, which is a little different from music that actually moves. There are also those twinkling noises, or fairy sounds, as I sometimes call them.

You know how when you enter a shop—say in Del Mar, California—you hear some chimes or twinklies? Like that.

But Greenwood’s piece does indeed move. It builds excitingly. There is some violinistic Romanticism. The piece is basically metronomic (as I recall), including in a savage section, which is arresting. There is a tremendous climax—then the piece vanishes to nothing. It just sparks, or glimmers, or twinkles out.

Greenwood knows how to do a lot with simple musical materials. Water is intelligently composed. There is sound design in it, but the piece is not wholly sound design. And even if it were, it’s intelligent sound design—intelligent design!

I must say, I was a little cynical when I saw Jonny Greenwood’s name on the program (and learned who he is). The ACO has a reputation for being cool, hip. And they had programmed a rocker. In his score, Greenwood employs a tanpura, an Indian instrument that functions as a drone. A natively dressed player sat splendidly to the side of the orchestra. The whole exercise had a whiff of political correctness about it (as well as cool). But this is a good piece, better, probably, than most of the fare that comes along, from the full-time classical composers. Does Radiohead happen to have any other members who compose?

The New York Philharmonic presented a new opera—in a concert performance, of course. This opera lends itself to that kind of performance. It is a one-acter called Senza sangue. Its composer is Peter Eötvös, from Hungary, who is also a well-known conductor. Eötvös has a clear intention in this opera, an intention about which he is admirably candid.

In my chronicle last month, I wrote of a new work by John Adams: Scheherazade.2, a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra,” as the composer calls it. Adams has said bluntly that he wanted to write a work that would “take over the larger spot on the program”—i.e., the entire second half. Eötvös has said that he wanted to write an opera that would precede Bluebeard’s Castle, the Bartók work, in a double bill.

He is an heir to his countryman, Bartók, compositionally. Like Bluebeard’s Castle, Senza sangue has two singers, a man and a woman. Like Bluebeard, it is in seven scenes. The two works have essentially the same instrumentation. And they are both spooky, tense, dark.

Senza sangue, or Without Blood, is based on the novella of the same title by Alessandro Baricco, an Italian. (As it happens, Baricco is also a musician and music critic.) The libretto was fashioned by Mari Mezei—wife of the composer—and it remains in the original tongue. The story is about a woman whose family was murdered by a gang. She meets one of this gang later in life. The story invites philosophical reflection.

As for the music, it begins as you might expect: portentously. It often has a shimmer, a sheen, a glow. I thought not only of Bartók but also of Luciano Berio, the late Italian composer. One reason, perhaps, is that the libretto is in Italian. The score is interesting and clever. It is also dramatic, as an opera had better be. This is an extremely orchestral work, a kind of tone poem for large orchestra and two voices. It has a fine shape, or storytelling arc, and it is the right length. I frequently quote Earl Wild, who said, “Music ought to say what it has to say, and get off the stage.” Eötvös has mastered the idiom in which he writes, or that he certainly applies to this opera.

Will Senza sangue suit as a companion to, or predecessor of, Bluebeard’s Castle? Maybe they are too similar: dark on dark. Then again, Cav ’n’ PagCavalleria rusticana, by Mascagni, and Pagliacci, by Leoncavallo—is a case of dark on dark, and those two shorties constitute the most famous and beloved double bill in opera.

Singing the two parts of Senza sangue were the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter—a renowned Judith in Bluebeard—and the Canadian baritone Russell Braun. On the podium was Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s music director. It so happens that Eötvös himself conducted one of the best Bluebeards I have ever heard. That was at the Salzburg Festival in 2008.

In the future, I imagine, Adams’s Scheherazade.2 will be paired with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (point one). Senza sangue, by the way, was paired with—preceded by—Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. Someday soon, probably, Eötvös will conduct a double bill of his opera and Bluebeard. I would like to be present.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 10, on page 58
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