Contemporary Art (Music)

CD Review


Contemporary Art: Works by Dusek, Cooney, Furgeri, Schlenck, Van Appledorn.

CRS CD 0988


In 1912 classical music was at its cultural peak.  One year before the Rite of  Spring common-practice harmony had reached its limits in scales like the octotonic, which were chromatically dense yet contained implied tonal resolutions.  As such, the musical language of tonal classical music was at its richest, yet was still comprehensible–and thus culturally relevant–for a great many people.  As experiment became the emphasis in successive decades, musical culture shifted more and more to popular music, which had not sacrificed expression to experiment to the same extent, and classical music settled firmly into a minority position.  It is difficult to talk about the cultural relevance of contemporary  music, as it is largely irrelevant for so many people.

The CD Contemporary Art  makes a stab at presenting a variety of styles prevalent in serious music since the turn of the twentieth century, and becomes as such a short compendium of where contemporary music might be today.   Does it succeed?


Robert Dusek’s Clarinet Concerto occupies the starting position on this CD perhaps because  it comes the closest to being culturally relevant.  Largely diatonic, it directly evokes the language of composers like Piston and Copland–and a  time (1925-1945) when American classical music enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity due to the deliberate neo-tonality employed in many works of the period.  It is competently crafted throughout, the first movement being the richest musically.  That said,  the second and to some extent the final movements suffer from a problem of that time: “fast” music was often more mechanical than expressive in nature.  Certainly this fast music shows off John Russo’s superb technical and coloristic chops; as always, John thoroughly understands the tessitura of the instrument, but the music itself suffers from the same self-consciousness that dates the fast movements of Piston and Copland.


The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Cheryl Cooney plumbs a different realm from the Dusek: the rhetorical music of composers like Stravinsky and Arthur Berger.  This rhetorical approach  is an inheritance of the Baroque, where linear motive–and permutations of motive–were the emphasis.  This piece is much more “music for music’s sake,” and an enjoyable contrast to the musical drama of the Dusek.  Anitra Bhadresa’s and the composer’s playing most effectively echo the thoughtful musical permutations of the composition, truly making this performance a dialogue between pianos and orchestra.  I wonder on occasion whether certain of the motives have the musical substance to support the level of rhetoric that the music is attempting.  The linear material often feels a little lightweight for the dialogue, relying a bit heavily on scale patterns, and motives which–as in the opening of the final movement–possess a certain sentimental chromaticism that tends to resist development.  However, this also lends a certain ironic charm to the music.  Stravinsky after all worked wonders with Tchaikovsky.


Saving the most difficult music–culturally speaking–for the middle, Vittorio Furgeri’s Scream is a combination of savage drama and musical rhetoric, and perhaps the most effective work on the CD, albeit not the most approachable for the casual listener.  Evocative of the Second Viennese School, Darmstadt, etc.–all things experimental–it is also the most surely crafted work.  All musical elements almost without exception are particularly well used.  In a sense this piece shows where the true emphasis of twentieth-century composition lies, for many of the most skilled composers still make the journey to the overtly experimental.  Yet Furgeri has not sacrificed genuine expression here–as do many who invest substantial weight in  experiment–and this piece comes closest to realizing what classical music has the potential to become post-1912.  Joel Suben’s conducting  is thoroughly in line with the emotional content of the music.  That said, most of the emotions explored here are–given the subject matter of the Munch painting which is the basis for the piece–in the extreme.  Alas, I have not located music of Furgeri’s applied to gentler emotions, though it doubtless exists.  This illustrates another problem with the cultural relevance of contemporary music: the experimental often favors emotional extremes.


Minimalism traditionally uses one or more ideas in repetition, whereas Reductionism uses an absolute minimum of musical ideas.  One thinks of the second movement of Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, which includes only three tones.  Coincidentally, this is a piece that has gained a certain cultural relevance thanks to its effective inclusion in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.  In John Schlenck’s Scale Countdown a similar notion exists.  The first piece uses only seven tones, and each successive piece uses one less tone to the last piece, which uses only one.  The word notion as opposed to idea is key here, as one problem with the foreground placement of experiment in the arts is that idea may become divorced from expression, and, with less substance, can decay into mere notion.  However, this is a terrific set for competitions as it shows off a multitude of pianistic devices and rhetorical gestures; it is a well-composed suite, performed to its limits by Ang Li.


Exoticism was one of the most compelling aspects in music of the first decade of the last century. Not only was musical language affected, but all aspects of music enriched by what was arguably the first “world music.”  Couple these innovations with the sophistication of the age and you have the great masterpieces of Symbolist music.  Mary Jean van Appledorn evokes this time in The Memory of Splendid Music–an apt title!–songs reminiscent of the work of Alan Hovhaness, her teacher.  In mood  if not technique these are perhaps my personal favorites on the CD, performed with exceptional sensitivity by Kathryn Barnes-Burroughs (apart from her overt reliance on vocal vibrato).  Yet the power of the aesthetic has diminished since Ravel and Scriabin’s time, as was already apparent in the mid-century works of Hovhaness.   Without truly constructive feedback and support from audiences–or from other composers, all of whom are doing such radically different things from one another–the culture of composition as a whole suffers.


Stanley Kubrick did as much as anyone in the latter half of the last century to give contemporary  music cultural relevance, making Gyorgy Ligeti a household name.   Yet how many people use Ligeti’s music in the way they do the music of the great masters, to reflect the rich variety of life that serious music was capable of doing in the past?  Although the works on this CD do show off a wide variety of techniques and moods of the last century, they are in large part just that–evocations of the past–with little seeming relevance today.  But are the pop evocations of Minimalism any more relevant?  Often neither “classical” nor “pop” they are lukewarm, and becoming mired in their own devices.   So what is relevant?  That question cannot truly be answered until classical music becomes a widespread phenomenon again, and that cannot happen until it can find some way to tap into the culture at large.

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

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