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.


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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.

To this point, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)—a groundbreaking work whose construction is as provocative as its content—was a natural concert opener. The RSO strings’ performance delivered on pathos while zealously maintaining the piece’s overall architecture. Even in Threnody’s most keening moments, Meister and the RSO held back, pacing themselves for the piece’s ground-splitting climax. (Unfortunately, said impact was compromised somewhat by one violinist whose bow came crashing on the strings a split second too early.)

Though Wien Modern billed last Thursday’s concert as its opening concert, the festivities had already been underway for three days to spotlight Georg Friedrich Haas’ das kleine ICH BIN ICH, his work for narrator and chamber ensemble based on the Austrian children’s book of the same name. Haas’ music took center stage again at the Eröffnungskonzert for the local premiere of his Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, as played by soloist Mike Svoboda.

Premiered two weeks earlier with the SWR Symphonieorchester at IRCAM, the concerto is a sophisticated narrative sprung from straightforward materials: the opening section of the concerto is based entirely on a C-minor chord. In this section, the solo trombone operates texturally, entering on unison pitches with the orchestra. (The fact that Svoboda’s rich, amber tone never wavered during these insanely-protracted swells was a testament to his masterful breath control.) The first major point of departure is led by the harp, which is tuned to quarter-tone pitches; the orchestra gradually follows suit, tugging the work into an atonal twilight zone before meandering into sumptuous, Debussyian pastures.

A cadenza-like parlando marks the middle of the concerto, giving the soloist the opportunity to show off a busier virtuosity—a flurry of short notes, rarely repeating the same pitch, constantly on the move. The parlando was indeed an effective showcase for the technically-fastidious Svoboda, though there were times when he seemed more occupied with its technical demands than its innate expressiveness.

A high point in both Svoboda’s performance and piece came just after the concerto’s shrieking, cluster-chord climax. In a return to the sparser conventions of the beginning, the orchestra plays single tones, which the soloist takes over. Then, with excruciating slowness, the solo trombone glisses downward to a new pitch, which the orchestra takes up again. The concerto concludes with a lone, inquisitive line from the solo trombone which recalls the skyward-reaching trumpet call of Ives’ The Unanswered Question.

From beginning to end, Haas’s concerto is packed with narrative drama. It helped, too, that charismatic Svoboda was an ideal exponent; given his intense command of the stage and probing interpretation of the work, it was unsurprising to read that he graduated from the University of Illinois with degrees in conducting and composition.

Haas’ concerto shared the program with another long-form orchestral work receiving its world premiere: Jorge E. López’s Symphony No. 4. The Cuban-American composer is better known abroad than at home (he, too, lived in Chicago for a time), which is a shame: though his notes to his Fourth make lengthy references to other influential composers and pieces, the symphony reveals a voice that is strikingly original, with a knack for nuanced, thoughtful orchestration.

Unfortunately, López’s fine stitching didn’t necessarily make for a cohesive tapestry. If a strong structural foundation was the trombone concerto’s strength, the lack thereof was the fatal flaw of López’s Fourth. After an arresting beginning, this martially-edged symphony seemed to march in circles. It may as well have been subtitled “Tantalus”: the listener is teased by an interminable number of thundering builds, though the tension never fully comes to a head—too few highlights, too much travel time. Some of the tricks in the third movement, especially—a brief solo for human voice rising mysteriously from the orchestra, then two metronomes ticking out of time—struck me as neither original nor compelling. 

As was a common theme throughout the night, the energetic Meister and the RSO made a whole-hearted case for López’s work, which calls for a massive orchestra with extended percussion and brass (including a small phalanx of Wagner horns and a couple bass trumpets). Both massive sections provided the requisite growling intensity, while the woodwinds did justice to López’s sensitively-crafted solos for their instruments. Though López’s large-scale scheme may have been lost on this reviewer, the striking beauty of the small stuff was enough to make this reviewer hope for that much-needed second hearing. 

Wien Modern continues through November 30.

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