On the closing and opening of new music festivals

I have a few regrets when it comes to not being in Chicago this autumn. One is missing the Cubs winning the World Series. The other far greater regret is missing last month’s sprawling Ear Taxi Festival, which dominated the city for six jam-packed days. Ear Taxi was unprecedented in its size and scope, and according to co-curator and University of Chicago professor Augusta Read Thomas, it probably won’t be reprised anytime soon.

To me, that gave the press a special responsibility, as well as a challenge: How do we review new music, anyway—thoughtfully, respectfully, but honestly? Deidre Huckabay wrote a thought-provoking piece about the utility of criticism with respect to new music, which ends up challenging the utility of criticism in general. But as she points out, and as I said earlier, talking about never-before-heard music ups the ante.

Someone in my Facebook feed noted that it’s hubristic for even experienced critics to make qualitative assertions about a work based on just one live hearing. That much I completely agree with; Schoenberg certainly knew as much when he established his Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), where premiere works were often repeated and critics were barred from attendance.

As Vienna ramps up its own new music festival—the month-long Wien Modern, now in its 26th year—and I strap on my (extra-small, somewhat dusty) reviewing cap, I’ve been thinking about these questions anew. Expecting to engage with unfamiliar music over the course of this month, myself, I guess this foreword is a lengthy reminder that new works are almost always works in progress—if not literally, Boulez-style, then at least in the public consciousness.


Mike Svoboda takes center stage for Georg Friedrich Haas’ Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (2016) as Cornelius Meister conducts. Photo: Markus Sepperer

An acquaintance of mine eschews most tonal, through-composed music, and recently, while flailing to defend John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean—a perennial favorite of mineI just sighed and told him, “Y’see, I’m a sucker for structure.”

It’s true: During Wien Modern’s entire Eröffnungskonzert last Thursday, structure was on my mind. Obviously, I’m not talking structure in a classical, conventional sense; otherwise, I’d be the Sonata-Form Sucker. Rather, after hearing the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester tackle one modern classic and two premiere works in the same night under conductor Cornelius Meister, I left with a reaffirmed appreciation for form—in other words, not only a piece’s materials, but its assembly.

Continue reading