So, Andrew Norman's "Play" might be the best orchestral work that the 21st century has seen thus far— Will Robin (@seatedovation) December 20, 2014
We have Andrew Norman to thank, and Will Robin, too, for Symphomania, the 24-hour marathon of 21st-century orchestral music that web radio station Q2 Music streamed on March 24 and repeated on the 28th. And, no question about it, mighty thanks and admiration are due.
It's a brilliant piece, a major addition to the repertoire. Hearing it compelled Robin – a diligent scholar, a compelling blogger, a social-media adept, and an invaluable contributor to the Arts & Leisure rotation at The New York Times – to sing the work's praises on Twitter. His endorsement earned a quick outpouring of retweets and favorites, suggesting widespread agreement.
The response caused Robin to muse further.
What are the best large-scale orchestral works of this century? As in, 30+ minutes? (And not opera)— Will Robin (@seatedovation) December 20, 2014
Twitter promptly responded in great gushes, churning up an invaluable tide of recommendations that Robin summarized with a Storify post, "Towards a 21st century orchestral canon."
In January, I was contacted by Alex Ambrose, intrepid managing producer of Q2, who invited me to participate among a gathering of 21st-century music practitioners and observers in Symphomania, a 24-hour webcast based on Robin's Norman invasion of Twitter and Storify. Ambrose asked if I would speak about 21st century orchestral music in general, and hold up a single piece as exemplary.
Given that I'm a huge Q2 fan, and also eager to keep myself engaged in the Cultural Conversation from my new home base, I immediately assented. But I asked for an important clarification – one having to do with an issue that I'd been mulling for quite some time.
The pieces that came to mind instantly: In Vain, by Georg Friedrich Haas. Cryosphere, by Rand Steiger. Penelope, by Sarah Kirkland Snider. Jagden und formen, by Wolfgang Rihm. Akrostichon-Wortspiel, by Unsuk Chin. Schnee, by Hans Abrahamsen. Hrim, by Anna Thorvaldsdottir. For Lou Harrison, by John Luther Adams. torsion: transparent variation, by Olga Neuwirth. La sette chiese, by Bruno Mantovani.
None of which was composed for "Full Blown Symphony Orchestra," which was what Ambrose had stipulated when I inquired. (It's worth noting that Robin had not made this stipulation.)
In thinking about the new pieces I've heard in this young century that really made an impact on me – that struck me as moving the discourse forward in some fundamental way, that broke new ground, that demonstrated something that we hadn't heard before – none of the music that jostled to the head of my personal queue had been composed for the orchestra, per se.
Which is not to suggest that I hadn't heard any worthy orchestral music in the 21st century – that would be a ridiculous claim. On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, for one, still guts me. But I guess that I thought of Adams, perhaps wrongly, as being a composer whose style and substance solidified during the late 20th century, and entered the common discourse at that time.
Likewise, works by some of the composers whose music I love best – Harrison Birtwistle, John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse – didn't cross my mind, for feeling more like an extension of an established career than something of this century. I was less interested in a work's calendar date than in a sense that it was going to some place we hadn't been before. (I recognize that this is a pedantic and perhaps specious argument, since I know that among the pieces I cite as "new" are some that could be deemed nothing of the sort by colleagues and musicians whose views I know and respect.)
In the end, I selected a different piece by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Aeriality, for its keen mix of tradition and innovation, and for the sense of inevitability that I get from all of her strongest pieces. (Become Ocean, the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by John Luther Adams, was spoken for already; still, my vote would not have varied.)
In my rambling Q2 interview – an edited portion of which is archived here, among the humbling likes of David Robertson, Susanna Mälkki, Gil Rose, Robert Spano, Ludovic Morlot, and Alex Ross – I mentioned that most of the 21st-century non-chamber music I'd pondered did not meet the "Full Blown Symphony Orchestra" criterion.
The pieces I held in highest esteem tended to be championed by groups called Alarm Will Sound, Signal, Contemporaneous, and wild Up, or whose names included terms like "sinfonietta" and "ensemble" and "project" – as in Boston Modern Orchestra Project, responsible for Norman's Play, and, as it happened, a number of other important and worthy pieces that would be included in Symphomania.
Here, courtesy of Schott Music, is the instrumentation for Play:
2(2.pic).2.2.2(2.cbsn)-4.3.2ttbn.1btbn.1-3perc(I. vib, 4bng, 5tempbl, 3splash cym, 5tin cans, kick d, brake d, washboard, slapstick; II. crot, 5log d, 4opera gongs, 4tom-t [sm], kick d, spring coil, tri, guiro, tam-t [lg], slapstick; III. xyl, 4wdbl, 5cow bell, h.h, kick d, ratchet, slapstick, b.d)-pno-str(126.96.36.199.4)
Does an ensemble with a 40-member string section qualify as a "Full Blown Symphony Orchestra," in the modern post-MahlerBerg sense? Actually, it's slightly smaller than the 44 players that Our Friend Wikipedia cites as the standard for the Classical era. Big, blown implements and percussion phalanx aside, Norman's orchestra is closer to Beethoven's than to Mahler's.
I'm splitting hairs about a sensational composition that provided an exciting premise for a wholly remarkable, repeatedly illuminating webcast, and I absolutely do not mean to throw shade on the proceedings.
But what I tried to express in my Q2 interview – and ended up sort of raising by glancing implication in the edit that aired – is my deeply held skepticism about the orchestra being a fundamental aim, a realistic aspiration, or even a desirable goal among many of today's most compelling composers.
How many of your favorite living composers – how many living composers, period – will be invited to write a major orchestral work, let alone one that stands a chance of being widely heard, circulated via recording, and repeated?
Not many. And far fewer in the United States, I'd reckon, than in Europe, where municipal and national funding for the arts has created a more viable playing field than exists here, where most orchestras have neither the money nor the time to invest in music of the present day to any meaningful extent – nor, in some cases at least, an audience amenable to support the effort.
Among the important compositions that Europe produces, too few reach these shores, and those that do, usually years late. Beyond those points are well-documented disparities residing in issues like gender and race, as well as, presumably, a subtle politics of taste among the performing rank and file.
As I said before, chewing tenaciously on this particular sock isn't new for me. Presently residing in a cardboard moving box somewhere is a cassette tape that contains an interview I once conducted with Brad Lubman, a founder of Signal and a noted new-music conductor, whose then-new debut CD as a composer (Insomniac, Tzadik Records, 2005) included no orchestral music.
I forget the actual topic of our discussion now, but in passing, and in light of his new CD, I asked Brad whether the orchestra was still useful or meaningful to the contemporary composer. Alas, his answer ended up on the cutting-room floor. (I really should try to find that tape.)
Very much on my mind at that time was a downsizing of the American Composers Orchestra from "Full Blown Symphony Orchestra" to chamber band, a reduction that now seems permanent. The diminution of this proud and important ensemble infuriated me: a slight to composers past, present, and future, prompted by vulgar economics, or so it appeared. But was it also a sign of the times, a tacit admission that music itself had moved on?
The Symphomania webcast proved resoundingly that excellent pieces are still being written for the orchestra – a claim that remains accurate even if you remove BMOP's contribution entirely. But as much as I enjoyed the hours that I was able to take in, and as much as I regret not being able to hear the whole thing (as if!), I can't say that my view of a significant decline in the orchestra's primacy as a viable vehicle for new music was changed.
You could even argue that BMOP's name cedes the point: a "project" intended to address a dearth of opportunity for the creation of new large-ensemble repertoire, and undertaken as well to document shadowy corners and creches of the existing canon.
Those are noble, necessary goals. But there is something terribly sad about the idea that, for most major American orchestras, certainly, generating new music can seem to be no more than a byproduct, a diversion from cash-beholden business as usual.
A few more observations gleaned from the process of learning about Symphomania, exploring its topical terrain, preparing to talk about it on Q2, and listening to the results:
1. Forget the clickbait lists about which orchestras is the best in the world; it's time we all acknowledge that the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg might well be the most important orchestra in the entire world, both for the overwhelming amount of new music it plays, and also for the diligence, rigor, and excellence with which it handles its job.
2. Jerusalem (after Blake), by the 49-year-old Luxembourg-born Australian composer George Lentz, was the marathon's jaw-dropping discovery; no surprise that it came via the intrepid David Robertson, ever among the top-rank American conductors who doggedly insist on flying a new-music flag. No question that 58 strings meet the "Full Blown Symphony Orchestra" requirement. The back story also proved compelling: Lentz's stirring piece was prompted by a tragic loss of lives.
3. Will Robin did an excellent job of curating 24 hours of contemporary orchestral music, not only covering an admirable span of ages, styles, and personal demographics, but also inventing some fascinating juxtapositions. Take a look at the complete playlist – I know that I was not the only one to note the sequence that meaningfully conjoined Martin Smolka, Nico Muhly, Bernhard Gander, and David Lang.
Finally, here is a short and admittedly personal list of remarkable 21st-century orchestral pieces that I discovered (or rediscovered) as a result of scouring the Web for the sake of Symphomania, or via links posted by friends and colleagues on social media as a result of the #21cOrch hashtag initiative that Q2 coordinated – many of which did not make the final tally, and, sadly, few of which I anticipate having a chance to hear performed live. In that, I would love to be proved wrong.
Peter Ablinger - Drei Minuten für Orchester (from Altar) - SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling (YouTube)
Hans Abrahamsen - Let me tell you - Barbara Hannigan, Berlin Philharmonic/Andris Nelsons (Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall < YouTube sample)
Julian Anderson - Eden - City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins; Imagin'd Corners - City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (NMC)
Georg Friedrich Haas - Limited Approximations - Pi-hsien Chen, Christoph Grund, Florian Hoelscher, Akiko Okabe, Sven Thomas Kiebler, Julia Vogelsänger, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling (NEOS Music < YouTube)
Georg Friedrich Haas - 7 Klangräume (with Mozart, Requiem) - Genia Kuhmeier, Anton Holzapfel, Salzburger Bachchor, Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg/Ivor Bolton (YouTube)
Anders Hillborg - Clarinet Concerto ("Peacock Tales") - Martin Fröst, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen (Bis)
Helmut Lachenmann - Schreiben - London Sinfonietta/Brad Lubman (YouTube)
Bernhard Lang - DW 8 - Dieter Kovacic, Marina Rosenfeld, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Peter Rundel (col legno < YouTube)
Isabel Mundry - Ich und Du - Thomas Larcher, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Pierre Boulez (NEOS Music < YouTube)
Isabel Mundry - Penelopes Atem - Salome Kammer, Teodoro Anzellotti, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling (NEOS Music < YouTube)
Tristan Murail - Le Désenchantement du monde - Pierre-Laurent Aimard, New York Philharmonic/David Robertson (New York Philharmonic broadcast)
Tristan Murail - Les sept paroles - Netherlands Radio Orchestra and Chorus/Marin Alsop (YouTube)
Brice Pauset - Symphonie IV "Der Geograph" - Nicolas Hodges, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Susanna Mälkki (YouTube)
Brice Pauset - Symphonie V "Die Tänzerin" - SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling (NEOS Music < YouTube)
Rebecca Saunders - Miniata - Teodoro Anzellotti, Nicolas Hodges, SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Hans Zender (Kairos < YouTube)
Rebecca Saunders - still - Carolin Widmann, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Lionel Bringuier (YouTube)
Michel van der Aa - Violin Concerto - Janine Jansen, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (YouTube)
Akiko Yamane - Dots Collection No. 6 - New Japan Philharmonic/Kazumasa Watanabe (YouTube)