Amateurs and Contemporary Music: The Prevailing Winds

Composer György Kurtág

A case for amateurs and their mentors to include contemporary music in their regular repertoire.

In my last article for the ACMP Newsletter, “The Haydn Neglect,” I pled a case for amateurs to perform more Haydn and to perceive his music in an imaginative way.  On quite a different tack, I now plead with amateurs and their mentors to consider contemporary music as part of their regular repertoire.Even though I pled a case for amateurs to perform more Haydn and to perceive his music in an imaginative way in an article for the ACMP Newsletter, “The Haydn Neglect,” (issue TK) I say this as I am struggling joyfully with Beethoven’s Op. 16 Piano Quartet, but modern music never moves far from my music rack be it music of the 20th or 21st century and even some recently composed work that I have been lucky enough to encounter.

How to make new music more accessible to amateurs remains a question separate from their playing contemporary music. I do not believe the answer lies in asking composers to write music technically easier for amateurs, but rather in begging amateurs to take on the challenges of playing new music much in the way they approach the difficulties of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. I believe there will be some surprises in store for those willing amateurs. The prospect of amateurs commissioning new works would of course be an added benefit to the currently rich world of composition.

In my recent book, Chamber Music: An Extensive Guide for Listeners (Rowman & Littlefield 2015), I have included thirty living composers among the some three hundred covered in the Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods. Also prevalent in the book are many works by 20th and 21st century composers whose music might prove of interest to amateur players looking for contemporary repertoire. While I often refer to virtuosic challenges in the modern works, I do not mean to imply that they are more difficult than those offered by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

My own love of contemporary music can be traced back to my teenage years when my adventuresome piano teacher assigned William Schuman’s Three-Score Set, three brief piano works composed in 1943, for my recital before a high school audience. In the 1950s few high school students had even heard of William Schuman, then president of Juilliard and a highly honored composer. Years later, my admiration of contemporary music—and especially chamber music—continued as founding director of Market Square Concerts where many of the programs we presented included a new piece of music, sometimes even a world premiere of a work we commissioned.

Another fond memory of contemporary music is the Juilliard Quartet playing a fine new work by Richard Wernick which had come a long way from the Quartet’s performance which I had heard some months earlier in its New York premiere on January 22, 1990. Yes, even the Juilliard needed that time to become comfortable with a new piece, reminding us, indeed, that comfort is what we amateurs need in our approach to new music. Unlike traditional repertoire, little of new music is “in our ears” at first playing. This is not to say, however, that it will never enter the arena of familiarity once we have thoroughly worked with it. We may even find ourselves experiencing a remarkable discovery that Haydn is not so far from Schoenberg as we may have thought.

As an amateur pianist, a remarkable advancement in my understanding of new music came years ago when Richard Weinert (now President of Concert Artists Guild) and I undertook a performance of selections from György Kurtág’s Játékok (Games) IV for piano four hands at the Raphael Trio Chamber Music Workshop.  While other amateurs were whisking their way along the difficult but familiar paths of Mozart and Beethoven, Richard and I fought our way through Kurtág’s challenging work. The challenges, however, were as much in the reading as in the playing. We had to figure out Kurtág’s complex directions for bringing down our fists over a collection of notes and, in the final statement of “Köd-kánon” (Fog-canon), to extend both our arms and hands so that every note on the keyboard was played at once. At first we joked, but then, as we played on, the piece became more and more essentially musical and moving.  In a workshop performance, we brought down the house. I was reminded of something that John Cage once said about playing new music: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”  So it was with Kurtág’s challenging Játékok. The works had originally been suggested to us by pianist Ursula Oppens, a champion of new music.

Another experience as an amateur exploring new music came when I asked James Bonn, then pianist of the Los Angeles Piano Quartet, to suggest a contemporary chamber music piece that might be attractive to amateur players.  Without hesitation, Jim presented me with November 19, 1838, a challenging but ultimately playable new work by John Harbison commissioned in 1988 by the National Endowment for the Arts Consortium and composed for the Atlanta Chamber Players, the Da Capo Chamber Players, and Voices of Change. I approached the piano part hesitantly because of its singular qualities but soon found myself engrossed in Harbison’s music. As the title implies, the work refers to the date of Schubert’s death and his miraculous life in music. The various sections were interestingly entitled:

I. Introduction: Schubert crosses into the next world
II. Suite: Schubert finds himself in a hall of mirrors

1. Theme
2. Écossaise
3. Moment Musicale
4. Impromptu
5. Valse

                        III. Rondo: Schubert recalls a rondo fragment from 1816
                        IV. Fugue: Schubert continues the fugue subject (S-C-H-U-B-E-R-T) that Sechter assigned him

*  *  *

Now let’s address the current state of affairs concerning amateurs and new music. For this I am turning again to some distinguished experts in the field whose workshops for amateurs I have attended. Daniel Epstein and Susan Salm are founders and directors the Raphael Trio Chamber Music Workshop held each August in High Mowing, New Hampshire. Speaking to them confirmed my hope that modern music has a strong presence in the repertoire of amateur players.  Yes, their participants play Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, but they have also undertaken such 20th century composers as Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky and later voices, namely, Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem, Norman Dello Joio, and Quincy Porter.

Susan and Dan freely admit they do not force contemporary music on their participants but also insist that they welcome it. They note that the choice of new music often comes from some specific associations such as hearing it in performance or encountering it in some personal way.  A list of recent contemporary works performed by participants in the Raphael Trio Chamber Music Workshop at High Mowing includes:

                  Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano, Sz. 111         

                  Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Phantasy Quintet for Oboe and Strings, Op. 2

                  Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano

                  Jean Francaix (1912-1997), Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet;

                                    Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano

                  Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941), Trois Aquarelles for Flute, Cello, and Piano

                  Charles Ives (1874-1954), String Quartet No. 1

                  Gordon Jacobs (1894-1985), Quintet for Clarinet and String Quintet

                  Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), Divertimento for Three Flutes, Op. 91

                  Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)

                                    Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Piano, H. 254

                                    Promenades for Flute, Violin, and Harpsichord, H. 274

                                    Madrigal-Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Piano, H. 291

                                    Trio for Flute, Violin, and Bassoon, H. 265

                                    Four Madrigals, for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon, H. 266

                                    Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano, H. 300

                  Andrea Molino (b. 1964), Trio for Flute, Viola, and Guitar

                  Quincy Porter (1897-1966), String Quartet No. 3               

                  Ned Rorem (b.1923), Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano

                  Dmitri Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 67

                  Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), L’ Histoire du soldat for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano

While this telling list contains few works by living composers, it does reveal much music of the first half of the 20th century when Modernism was in full flourish. It also suggests that contemporary music for amateur performance is more readily sought by wind players. The obvious reason for this is the lack of chamber music repertoire for winds in comparison to that for string quartets, string trios, piano trios, piano quartets, and piano quintets. Interestingly, new music is currently helping to diminish that difference. The Raphael Trio list also reflects a specific flutist, Stephanie Bazirjian, a long-time participant in the Raphael Trio workshop and champion of contemporary music.  Cheers for her!

The distinguished professional flutist Mimi Stillman also encourages contemporary music at the Curtis Institute’s Summerfest program for amateurs where she serves on the faculty.  She confirms my thoughts on amateurs and contemporary music and its appeal for wind players in her comments. String players and pianists, she notes, have a full repertoire from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods and even a wealth of well-known 20th century music available to them, but wind players, says Mimi, “by necessity play lesser-known composers and many 20th-century works that are staples in our repertoire. Eugene Bozza and Pierre Max Dubois are just two examples of 20th-century composers encountered by woodwind players more often than by their string and piano-playing peers. As for new music by living composers, many amateur flutists who play in flute ensembles—from duets to full flute choirs—are regularly exposed to music for these groups written for all levels of proficiency. Amateur flutists tend to be quite open-minded about new music.”  String players and pianists, let’s join them!

In conclusion I might say that I am not asking amateurs to abandon their dedication to traditional repertoire. I am simply asking them to open their minds and hearts to contemporary music if they have not already done so. The results may bring some wonderful surprises.

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