Contemporary Continuities

By Leon Botstein

Tonight’s concert features four works by distinguished American composers with long and sustained careers. Each has been recognized and been the recipient of numerous awards; two of the pieces on the program, by Shulamit Ran and Melinda Wagner, won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in the 1990s. The viola concerto by Richard Wernick was written in the late 1980s, a decade after he won the Pulitzer. Roberto Sierra’s work is a premiere, but his music has been a presence for decades and he has been the recipient of numerous honors. 

Performing arts organizations seem unreasonably focused on finding new talent and bringing new works to the stage. Admirable as this is, it has crowded out the opportunity to revisit new music from the recent past by our finest senior composers, music that was admired at first hearing but never enjoyed repeat performances. We would rather commission new works by veteran composers than make their existing work more familiar. We seem never to tire of yet another performance of a so called “warhorse” from before 1945, but rarely provide the opportunity for new works to obtain a return presence in the future concert repertory. 

This concert offers audiences a chance to reflect on how music and musical thinking has changed in recent decades. Although at least two of the works on this program have what one might call a “program,” the Wernick and the Sierra, all four offer extended essays that rely on the development of musical ideas and depend on the audience’s capacity to follow the logic of compositional practices. 

All four composers reveal a remarkable command of the craft of musical composition as defined during the heyday of modernism—the second half of the twentieth century. At the same time, each of these composers sought to break from a nearly puritan self-righteousness within modernism that reveled in its own complexity and isolation from the audience. There is an urgency to communicate in these works and achieve an immediate and memorable impact honoring the formal practices of how pitch, sonority, rhythm and time are used to weave a musical fabric at once unique and alluring and also inspiring in terms of meanings and emotions. 

The world of concert music ought not imitate the patterns of Hollywood and the fashion industry. What is the “newest” may help define a brief moment but is not always the best in the contemporary scene. Music written at the end of twentieth century may inevitably mirror the period of its origin. But bringing it back permits it to be reinvented for the present. Revisiting the recent past helps show how music has a nearly unique capacity to shed the marks of its historical moment. The pieces on this program merit a re-hearing so that they might make another contribution to the way we shape the present and future of music.