ned rorem at 85 and other odds and ends

Composer Ned Rorem

Ned Rorem turned 85 last week – and I’ll be 95% of the classical music world didn’t even know.  I have a little bit of a reason to know, since I have several good friends that studied with him at the Curtis Institute, but it’s a shame that he’s not gotten more recognition in the form of performances on such an auspicious birthday (and how many 85 year old composers do you know who have their own MySpace page?).

The South Florida Classical Review, a new blog to me, interviewed Rorem, in advance of a couple of celebratory concerts in New York.  Here’s a section that I found interesting:

“The general public couldn’t care at all about what you and I are interested in, in other words, serious contemporary music.”

“I would think that performers would get sick of all of that. The same thing over and over and over,” Rorem says of the concerto and symphonic barnburners. “But of course 150 years ago the only music that was played was contemporary music.”

Rorem has a novel theory that newspapers and critics shaped the county’s musical conservatism in the early 20th century, entrenching a certain Eurocentric repertory because that’s what newspaper people believed their audience wanted to hear and read about.  ”The general public avoids contemporary music. But of course now most contemporary musc is comparatively listenable.  It’s a twentieth century thing.”

I can take this as a credible theory.  So often, an orchestra will perform a new work, and it will be criticized roundly for not being what the critic likes, rather than applauding the orchestra for taking risks on lesser-known repertoire.  I believe that it’s possible to create programs with new or recent repertory alongside the old chestnuts.

I read a review in the NY Times last week of a NY Phil concert with guest conductor David Robertson, who is known for championing newer repertoire as well as interpreting old standbys in a different light.  Notably, the Philharmonic’s audience seemed not to like his straightforward approach to Brahm’s Third Symphony.  This, I cannot understand.  People, stay home and listen to your Klemperer recording if you want the same stuff over and over again, live music involves taking a risk of variable size and severity on what will happen during the concert.  I prefer surprise over rote repetition – even if an interpretation might not stand the test of the ages (whatever that means), I’m most often pleased if I’m a little bit surprised or even offended by it – that means that whoever is at the helm is actually thinking about what they’re doing, and making some modern, relevant music as a result.

Hagen Quartett | Photo: Regina Recht

A perfect example is the Hagen Quartett.  They are a youngish group from Germany who have such a unique and penetrating voice that I find them compelling in nearly all of their interpretations.  They seem not to take anything for granted, constantly finding a voicing of a chord that everyone else plays a certain way, or a new relationship between tempi, or using vibrato in unexpected ways.

I hope that the classical music audience in America will evolve over the coming century – it seems to become more conservative with each passing year.  This despite the incredible volume of compositional talent in the US alone these days, and with the energy and technical facility of the performers that are largely untapped because of this conservatism.  Art does follow life, and vice versa, and with the country so closely divided between social liberalism and conservatism, and with a populist groundswell threatening to further color our politics (and art?) for years to come, it does follow that we do reap what we’ve sowed.

2 Replies to “ned rorem at 85 and other odds and ends”

  1. Thanks for blogging on Ned. I was at his 85th birthday concert last Friday. It was so great to see him, and to witness his spritely jog onto the stage to take a bow. (He moves with the grace of someone half his age!)

    I wouldn’t be going out on a limb if I said that he deserves more. I think it’s a shame that a bigger organization (Chamber Music Society of LC, perhaps???) hasn’t done something. All I know of are a Bargemusic concert in Sept. and this one put on by Phoenix Concerts (a homegrown affair organized by Daron Hagen and Gilda Lyons).

    As I listened to these pieces (three chamber works, two new to me, one I know like the back of my hand), I couldn’t help thinking that Ned’s work deserves staple-repertoire status, alongside all the thorny stuff that people play these days (i.e. Carter, Babbitt). He’s got so much beautiful music of such high quality that it, too, should be played with the Big Guns.

  2. P.S. I should correct myself, in that the Phoenix Concerts are directed by Gilda Lyons alone. Daron Hagen was there to present a lovely Festschrift to Ned with writings by some of his colleagues and former students. My use of the term “homegrown affair” was meant to imply only that the concert had a wonderful convivial and family-type vibe, thanks to all of Ned’s students and admirers who were on hand to wish him well on his 85th. The concert, by the way, was fabulous. Phoenix Concerts are really thriving; commissioning lots, too!

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