1938 was the beginning of a very rough patch for Europe but–as it turns out–it was a great year for the future of American music. Several of America’s most influential living composers were born in the early dawn of World War II, including John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Frederic Rzewski, Charles Wuorinen, William Bolcom, and John Harbison. The serendipity of that bountiful year has not gone unnoticed as a couple of new recordings and numerous 70th birthday bashes will attest.

The most satisfying of these celebrations of the Class of ’38 to cross our path is pianist Blair McMillen’s revelatory Centaur release multiplicities: ’38: Music by Composers born in 1938. Multiplicities is exactly the right word in this case, because the composers represented here may have been born in the same year but, stylistically, they come from different planets. The cool and polite elegance of Corigliano and the cosmopolitan eclecticism of Bolson are as far removed from the populist Americana of Tower and Rzewski as they are from the gnarly serialism of Wuorinen.

And, of course, there is John Harbison, the pick of the 1938 litter IMHO (as the kids like to say), who has spectacularly succeeded at his own stated aesthetic intent: “…to make each piece different from the others, to find clear, fresh large designs, to reinvent tradition.”

Blair McMillen is one of three or four great young pianists who specialize in new music and if you throw in the caveat “has an uncanny feeling for the composer’s intent,” he may well stand alone. The quality of his playing on multiplicities: ’38 is consistently extraordinary but just as remarkable is the way he perfectly captures the individual “voice” of each of these highly diverse composers. We are accustomed to hearing most of them in larger settings but here, stripped down to a single piano (or in the case Corigliano’s Chiraoscuro two pianos tuned ¼ tone apart), the dazzling range of the Class of ‘38’s compositional talents becomes manifest. For his uncanny ability to contrast and compare music of enormous diversity, we owe McMillen a debt.

And don’t forget Monday night at Merkin Hall when the Da Capo Chamber Players, for whom McMillen is pianist, presents a 70th birthday portrait of Joan Tower. Tower was an original founder of Da Capo and its pianist for 15 years. 

7 Responses to “Blair McMillen and the Class of ’38”
  1. Robert Baksa says:

    Its great to see the 1938 babies so well feted. But one name is conspicuously absent. I wonder how much is due to his conservative bent and commitment to clarity and tonality. A lot is due to his lack of a Conservatory teaching gig which enhances contact with the powers that be in the music world. But that has not stopped him…that is me, from writing very close to 600 pieces in a variety of genres. There are close to 100 pieces for piano and I’m waiting for some brave soul to start championing these pieces finger busters that they are. The website has sound clips BTW.

  2. zeno says:

    bravi pianisti!

    Blair McMillen champions the Class of ’38 composers, above; Ursula Oppens champions Carter, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Nancarrow, Picker, as well as Harbison, Rzewski, and Wuorinen; and Sarah is championing Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen — as well as world peace.

    Any chance of hearing any of these fascinating American contemporary classical piano works on public radio here in the United States? I’d say about the same chance as a snowball’s chance in Hell, or the ants in Steve’s home (especially on Sharon Percy Rockefeller’s public radio station here in the Nation’s Capital.)


    Coraggio, Steve. Glad you are basically safe.

  3. Sarah Cahill says:

    Jerry, I wasn’t thinking of myself, since by using the word “young” I assumed you meant pianists under age forty or so. But even if you limit yourself to Manhattan, there are many talented young new music pianists who deserve credit. Not to take anything from Blair, who is extraordinary.
    Steve, glad to hear you’re okay, and good luck with those ants.

  4. Jerry Bowles says:

    I’d say the same about you, Sarah, but Blair has the advantage of living in town. We’re very provincial here in the Center of the Universe.

  5. Steve Layton says:

    Hi Garth — and all you other reprobates — Back from the powerless beyond, and all is OK. One big hairy night, really scary. But in my part of town, the water’s back, power’s just returned, and the world looks way brighter (if bereft of a whole lot of trees and branches that were thriving just a few days ago!). The only lingering remnant I’m dealing with is that all the water saturating the ground has forced the ants up into our home. It’s an exhausting battle (millions of them against one of me, but I’m going to win no matter what it takes (& sorry to all the Jains out there…)

    I’ll be posting again soon.

    (Oh, and I’ll certainly second Sarah’s comment; especially since I have heard her own talent at this with my own ears! Come on now; I like all you guys, but as writers leave the hyperbole to the Republicans, OK?)

  6. Sarah Cahill says:

    Wow! I’m a great admirer of Blair’s playing, but I had no idea he was the only new music pianist in the country who could follow the composer’s intentions!

    Looking forward to hearing the CD. It sounds wonderful.

  7. zeno says:

    Well, according to today’s On An Overgrown Path blog, Odaline de la Martinez and the Lontano Ensemble will be featuring John Harbison in their Second London Festival of American Music.

    And the Library of Congress will have an evening length tribute this fautumn to Charles Wuorinen, as well as to Carter and Messiaen.


    Steve Layton, are you and your wife OK?