A New Contemporary Music Series Begins

By Henry C. Mayer

One of our city's more significant events is the Contemporary Music Series. It is a joint project of the Louisville Orchestra and the UofL School of Music; representatives of both institutions select the pieces. Its coordinator is UofL faculty member and composer of note, Steve Rouse. He has won such musical garlands as the Prie de Roma and Dartmouth's first honors for new choral music. His works have drawn audiences all over this country as well as in Ecuador, Italy, and the one-time Soviet Union.

The first program of the 1994 series was highlighted by A Sonata for ThreeBy the most recent Grawemeyer Award winner for excellence in music, Karel (Carl) Husa. Husa has been a musical luminary for more than a generation. One piece has been played in public 7,000 times and others have been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony. Two of the pieces were composed by UofL faculty; another came from the pen of the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

This concert featured chamber music involving trombones, piano, violin, trumpets, horn, tuba, alto saxophone and clarinet.

That being said, it is almost impossible to do justice to a concert of contemporary music. Music history is filled with examples of what was then "new music" which received unfavorable and even hostile reports by apparently reputable critics. Persons of the stature of Beethoven and Wagner, to name only a few, have known such treatment. One is almost tempted to say it is easier to be critical than correct, especially when one does not operate within widely accepted musical criteria.

So, Louisville Music News, which was graciously invited to the concert as a guest, asked composer Steve Rouse about these actions. "Contemporary music is new; it seeks and finds fresh modes of expression. These include, but are not confined to, rhythmic twists, differing uses of instruments, and changes in overall structure."

Moreover, the music is entirely new to almost everyone, including the performers and the critics. Unlike a new literary opus, music defies rational analysis based on widely accepted criteria. I recall years ago mentioning some of this thinking to that indefatigable and courageous pioneer of new music, the Louisville Orchestra's Robert Whitney. "Don't try to figure it out," he says, "just enjoy it!" I still find that hard to do.

Another point; I tend to hear music by a whole orchestra whereas this concert only involved two or three instruments most of the time. The audience seemed to enjoy it and there is little reason to question the competence of the performers. Whether one likes it or not, contemporary American classical music both uses and is influenced by jazz. That is especially true in pieces which make significant or dominant use of the trombones and saxophone. Musical composition is, in large measure, a subjective process, for as Rouse told us, "I want to write about something that keeps my interest." Moreover, one has to write music that one feels inside oneself. I was especially moved by Frederick Speck's Memorial Groove as a memorial to a friend. One has to accept the fact that music written for wind instruments will seem loud, but the question is: Is it sonorous?

I must admit I found the program notes often struck me as written by musicians for musicians. For instance, here is a sentence written for the Speck opus: "Ott's music (the composer honored by this piece) often revealed a fondness for creating layers of ostinati." Or in discussing Husa's piece: "His title sonata refers not to the 'classical' meaning of the sonata, but rather to the earlier baroque meaning of the word." I think program notes should be reasonably clear and, hopefully, helpful to the entire audience. I suggest that such sentences are less than useful in enhancing understanding of and support for classical music. The late Leonard Bernstein showed one can verbally present classical music in readily understandable language. One of my first and longest memories from my concerts as a teen-ager were the brief but lucid and helpful comments by the Cincinnati Symphony's conductor, Eugene Goosens.