Contemporary Music is Alive and Well

They sat in the front row with their arms crossed. They did not clap. They did not cheer. The Albany Symphony Orchestra had just completed Sleeping Giant’s reimagining of Mozart’s Requiem, and they clearly did not like it.

It appeared as though they were in the minority.

When I tell associates that I’m proud to be a member of the Albany Symphony, people assume that it’s because of the grammy award from two years ago, or the fact that the orchestra has been recognized with many awards for programming, or the two trips to Carnegie Hall that the orchestra undertook recently. Those are all good things, but what really makes my proud to play with the Albany Symphony is the fact that the orchestra has the confidence to take the kinds of risks that were undertaken last weekend.

For this past weekend’s concert, the ASO engaged a composer think-tank known as Sleeping Giant to create a sort of reflection of Mozart’s unfinished requiem. The process itself was fairly demanding of the musicians; the composers who make up Sleeping Giant are real dreamers. There were instances of nonconventional notation, text boxes informing us how to play certain things, and some movements even had entire introductory pages of instructions. This is pretty strange stuff for musicians who are accustomed to reading the notes on the page, and maybe a little Italian. Throughout the rehearsal process, the composers were constantly moving throughout the hall, offering their takes on particular sounds, and consulting with us on how to best achieve the effects they were imagining. Some instrumentalists (and I’m told some in the chorus as well) had a difficult time understanding what the composers were trying to do.

The risks inherent in this project were great. Despite the fact that Mozart’s ink accounts for perhaps 46% of the Requiem currently in existence (in David Alan Miller’s estimation), the Requiem itself remains a bit of a golden calf for many audiences and patrons. Like most works by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and a few other true masters, the thought of changing anything about the music seems like nothing short of heresy. Moreover, one would think that with such a task ahead of them, the composers would want for everything to be “perfect” (that is to say, inflexible, carefully calculated, and monumental). The actions of the composers seemed to speak to the opposite mindset. Indeed, the next time the Requiem Reimagined is performed, I have to imagine that the composers would continue tweaking and editing their work (in this way they recall to mind Mahler more than Mozart).

The forces onstage last weekend recognized those challenges, took them on, and came out on top. The ovation on Saturday night was long and loud, and garnered a positive turn in the paper the next day. Following the concert was a question and answer session between the musicians (instrumentalists, singers, composers and directors alike) which attracted about 100 people to stay and talk, and their obvious enthusiasm brought a curious thought to my mind: they expect this. The patrons of the Albany Symphony expect this kind of vision from the organization.

One of the more frequent questions I am asked as a classical musician is about the future: what’s next? What will the classical landscape look like in 50 years? I’m proud to say that the future was on display last weekend. The path to the future is built with the asphalt of innovation. It has always been this way, it will always be this way. Monteverdi’s Orfeo is often credited as being the “first” opera, but of course there were dozens of works which laid the bedrock upon which it was created. Orfeo may be the first opera, but it is the last in a line of innovations that led to where it stands. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, today considered by some (myself included) as the greatest symphony ever written was so innovative as to be virtually incomprehensible at the time. Critics said that it “loses itself in lawlessness,” or found “much that is glaring and bizarre, which hinders greatly one’s grasp of the whole, and a sense of unity is almost completely lost.” Brahms’ late work was so forward looking that no less an authority on modernity than Schoenberg would eventually write an essay entitled Brahms the Progressive, yet Brahms’ crowning achievement – the 4th Symphony – took years to be accepted.

I’m not suggesting that we presented any such masterpiece last weekend. As the above works prove, time will prove a truer critic than anything I can write about it. That won’t stop me from wondering what might have been started last night. If music is to avoid becoming stuck in a rut, as it nearly always has, the only way forward is to innovate, which requires everyone – composers, performers, directors, and audiences alike – to buy in, and take a chance. While it shouldn’t be the goal of music to offend, it does need to accept that sometimes, those innovations will result in some people choosing to sit in their seats and glower. So be it. Like anything else in existence, music cannot be all things to all people. It should always innovate. By that definition, I’m happy to say that in one city in Upstate New York, on one weekend, the future of music looks very exciting indeed.


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