Monday, February 6, 2012

concert review: new music at Stanford

I was sitting in the coffee house at the Stanford student union, having a chicken salad for dinner, at the moment the Super Bowl ended. I know this coincidence of events because the coffee house is full of big-screen TVs. Although I was trying to read a book, I didn't mind the game being on; what annoyed was the post-game events: the fatuous interviews and back-patting ("Eli, you forgot to take the keys to the new car we just gave you") and the veritably fascist music in the form of a repeated trumpet call as the game trophy was marched up to the podium. (And by "fascist music," I mean, "sounds as if it had been written by a cheap Respighi imitator in the 1930s.")

I was eating at Stanford because I was there to attend a concert. You need a fair amount of money (or, if you're me, a reviewing gig) to hear the St. Lawrence String Quartet's regular programs, so who could resist a free concert by this superb ensemble? A lot of people, apparently, because almost everybody else in the Music Department's small recital hall looked like classmates of the composers. The composers, five of them, were all Stanford sophomores and juniors. As their professor explained to begin the program, this concert was the outcome of a fall-term composing seminar class in which the Quartet was involved. What a treat, to compose in class and have a first-rate professional string quartet try out the result. But that's part of what the St. Lawrence are university resident artists for.

The compositions, the prof said, varied markedly in style, and they did, but within the entire range of possibilities, they occupied a remarkably narrow range. They were all tonal, fairly consonant with the dissonances embedded in the harmony rather than sticking out, and though often disjointed never devolved into pointillism. The moods tended to the somber, with some embedded wit, but never cold. Scoring in the slow movements was flowing but notably sparse; there was much ostinato under long melodies in medium tempo; and the fast movements were built on repeated motifs. (But they were developed in modernist style; the minimalist toolbox was left unused.) There were canons but no fugatos. Lots of pizzicato, some notes at the highest range, but an almost total absence of any other special effects.

This was 21st century music quite different from the academic composition of the last century. Forty years ago, when I was first listening to new music, all the young academic composers sounded like Webern: wispy, atonal, totally fragmented, and without their special effects they would have felt crippled. (Earlier in the last century, Stravinsky was the most influential composer because everybody absorbed his rhythm and scoring as the base of their work; before that, Wagner was the one other composers felt breathing down their necks, and before him, it was Beethoven.)

How things have changed, and for the better. For it seems to me that the composer at the root of all these students' styles is Shostakovich. Only in a few places, mostly slow movements, did any of them actually sound much like him, but their built-in assumptions of how you write for a string quartet, and what the music is for, all come from his work whether they're conscious of it or not.

And as an admirer of that sort of music, I enjoyed the result. At long last, the words "new music" have ceased generating thoughts of "run away, screaming." Credit, then, to Nathan Cheung (String Quartet No. 1 "Autumn", which had the most diatonic melodies, over soundscape chords and rippling ostinatos), Patrick Kennedy ("Drift", another scenery-inspired work, glassy and similar to Cheung's in melodies over ostinato), Byron Walker (String Quartet in D Minor, an expressionist work with long intense solos and a jagged air), Eric Tran (String Quartet Op. 10, the most Shostakovich-like with fragmentary wandering lines in the slow movement and a four-note motif dominating the fast one), and Theo Lim ("Polyglot", an appropriate title for the most eclectic work, the only one to use glissando or ponticello, a thinly-scored slow movement and a doggedly canonic fast one - more Shostakovich techniques - and, for a conclusion, an off-kilter waltz that provided a strong flavor of Paul Schoenfield, the only other specific resemblance that really jumped out at me.

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