Took my composition students to hear a rather quirky program performed by the North Carolina Symphony last week.  Six pieces, only two of which I had heard performed live before: Ives’s Unanswered Question and Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine.  Here is the program:

Beethoven: Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (chorus and orch)
Britten: Young Apollo (pno, string quartet and orchestra)
Ives: The Unanswered Question (trumpet, flute quartet and strings)
Adams: Eros Piano (pno and orchestra)
Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine (orchestra)
Adams: Harmonium (chorus and orchestra)

Meymandi Hall was full to capacity, and the audience roared its approval at the conclusion.  Clearly this orchestra has found a way to engage its listeners without watering down its programming.  As I remarked to the students after the performance, it’s pretty amazing to hear a subscription orchestra concert in which the closest thing to a warhorse is by a living composer (Short Ride).

Later, I got to thinking about the role of well-publicized premieres in shaping artistic discourse.

Any discussion of the ethos of twentieth-century music takes the legendary premiere of Le Sacre du printemps as one of its starting points.  In 1913, as astonished music students are taught to this day, the premiere of this ballet started a riot in the audience – booing, catcalls, arguments, fistfights – and the work soon after was recognized as a masterpiece, proving, in the logic of this narrative, that music may be despised on first hearing and yet go on to achieve great acclaim.

That model was used as a justification for several generations of works that were intended to annoy or stupefy their listeners.  Some of them turned out to be wonderful works of art, some did not.

In 1981, Edo de Waart conducted the premiere of John Adams’s Harmonium in San Francisco’s Davies Hall.  At the time, it was nearly unheard of for a serious new piece to get the kind of response Harmonium received at its premiere: standing ovations, repeated curtain calls for the composer.

The news of that reception spread quickly in the new music world, and thirty years of new orchestral works that aim to thrill the audience have followed.

Some of those compositions have been wonderful works of art, some have not.

Naturally, this is a gross oversimplification of numerous causes and effects, but still, it’s interesting to compare the impact of Le Sacre on the early twentieth century with the impact of Harmonium on the orchestral music of the last few decades.

In any case, the highlight of the night for me was Eros Piano, Adams’s homage to Feldman.  In some ways, the piece calls to mind a mellow cocktail pianist doodling his way through John Adams’s subconscious, taking time to enjoy every sensuous turn.  Nice to hear a piece for piano and orchestra that isn’t mostly about how many notes a pianist can play per second.

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