Cameron Carpenter, Sarah Hicks, NSO go contemporary classical

Cameron Carpenter, Sarah Hicks, NSO go contemporary classical

Kennedy Center’s quest for 21st century classical audience takes a hip trip with flashy organist Cameron Carpenter and pops conductor Sarah Hicks at the helm in all-American program.

Sarah Hicks and Cameron Carpenter. (Composite by the author, photos courtesy of the artists' web sites)

WASHINGTON, December 4, 2015 – The Kennedy Center’s classical music programming seems to be in the midst of a slow, gradual, but studied drift in the direction of Gen-X and millennial music fans for whom “the classics” remain largely museum pieces of absolutely no interest to anyone younger than 60.

Evidence? Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates introduced a good sized and age-diverse audience to his new Classical Jukebox series in November, even as the Washington National Opera was unveiling the “second world premiere” performance of Philip Glass’ nearly-new opera, “Appomattox” that same month.

Read also: ‘Appomattox’ revised: Two one-act operas squashed into one

This weekend offers the next act as the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) presents a regular-series, literally All-American concert program populated solely by 20th and 21st century works penned by American composers, and featuring decidedly younger performing artists including guest conductor Sarah Hicks, “controversial” organist Cameron Carpenter and (once again) composer-in-residence Mason Bates performing in one of his own recent compositions, courtesy of his trusty Apple MacBook.

Time to give contemporary American composers a second chance

Thursday’s opening night concert illustrated one of the current hazards inherent in presenting contemporary or relatively contemporary music to the current classical music crowd: plenty of empty seats in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.

True, Thursday’s regular season NSO stanzas tend to be somewhat less full than the orchestra’s Friday or Saturday concerts. But still, you can sense that due to extensive concert experiences over many years, veteran concertgoers still instinctively avoid the unendurable cacophony and pain that inevitably must come with an evening of (invariably atonal) contemporary music. This reviewer has long shared their pain.

However, in music as in many things, one needs to keep one’s mind open to the possibility of new and more positive trends. Although major shifts in the performing arts tend to happen slowly and although music is one of the last performing arts to change in any developing trend, the rigorous enforcement of the twelve-tone row began to erode with the introduction of minimalism circa the 1970s, more or less.

While contemporary classical composers still seem to fear fullblown melodic statements, minimalism marked the sneaky return of tonal compositions to the repertoire, disguised by incessant, repetitive, almost chant-like rhythmic patterns that at least paid obeisance to the mathematical underpinning of serialism.

Drawing on this disguised return to tonal music, younger musicians and composers, particularly those born after 1970 and 1980 apparently have decided to take things further, perhaps in search of an audience for classical music that would prove just as eager as rock and pop fans to turn out in large numbers for classical composers and musicians who could speak to new generations.

Read also: Absinthe and Old Lace: Mason Bates’ ‘KC Jukebox’ premieres

This weekend’s contemporary music program

Which is what gets us back to this weekend’s NSO program. Far from something to be avoided by thrice-burned old timers, the orchestra’s program of contemporary music is:

  • Pretty much tonal;
  • Loaded with melodic excursions if not outright tunes;
  • Expertly scored with far more than a passing reference to the Romantic era; and
  • At times, really loud.

On tap on the program are works by John Adams (the composer, not the President), Samuel Barber, Paul Creston (who’s he?), Mason Bates and Aaron Copland. In other words, a more-or-less minimalist work, a neo-Romantic work, a composition by a once-popular but now forgotten composer, music by the Kennedy Center’s current composer-in-residence, and an older 20th century American chestnut that should be dusted off a bit more frequently than it is.

American composer John Adams. (Via Wikipedia)
American composer John Adams. (Via Wikipedia)

John Adams

Led by guest conductor Sarah Hicks, whose current concurrent conducting gigs include the Minneapolis Pops and a staff conducting post at the Curtis Institute, the NSO opened Thursday’s program with a crisp and energetic performance of John Adams’ 1985 incidental piece “The Chairman Dances,” subtitled “Foxtrot for Orchestra.”

Mr. Adams’ overture-like composition—something of an early sketch for what later became his opera “Nixon in China”—launches with a series of vigorous, hammering, minimalist figures that are slowly but mostly overcome by increasingly lengthy Romantic interludes as Chairman Mao and his significantly younger wife Chiang Ch’ing cautiously take to the dance floor to see what they can do.

“Chairman” is a relentlessly interesting piece marking the intersection of minimalism with traditional classical and dance forms, distancing this music from what I regard as the more severe parameters that seem omnipresent in the works of Philip Glass. The NSO executed this often difficult piece well and with feeling, and it set the mood for the rest of the enjoyable, but yes, noisy evening to come.

Cameron Parker, the Mighty Rubenstein Family Organ, Samuel Barber and improv

Next up was the centerpiece of the concert, as organist Cameron Carpenter joined the NSO to present the orchestra’s first-ever performance of Samuel Barber’s “Toccata festiva” for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 36 (1960). The “Toccata” is actually a muscular 12-13 minute mini-concerto for organ and orchestra, but it’s built more like the “call and response” style of singing you’ll often find in a large church or cathedral where the choir and organ will sing the verse of a hymn and the congregation will answer with the response or refrain.

American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) in 1944 photo. (Via Wikipedia)
American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) in 1944 photo. (Via Wikipedia)

That said, this is a raucous, stormy piece that in no way resembles church music. Rather, it operates like a series of fanfares and responsorial variations, with both orchestra and organ occasionally coming together to make a dramatic statement. It’s exciting stuff, particularly if you appreciate the Concert Hall’s awesome and still-new Rubenstein Family Organ as it combines with the full complement of NSO musicians, including plenty of percussive flash.

Mr. Carpenter is not infrequently sneered at by traditional concertgoers offended by his tonsorial extravagance (he’s currently sporting what looks like a Macro-Mohawk), among other things. But eccentricities such as these are perhaps an additional way that many contemporary artists and musicians (think: Lang Lang) are deploying to attract habitual rock fans to classical concerts, given that such music lovers regard a certain level of artistic outrageousness as part of the musical ambience.

In the end, however, you have to view an artist by the quality of his or her skill and professionalism. Judged in this arena, Mr. Carpenter’s approach to the Barber proved innovative, crystal clear, and breathtakingly modern in a way that even the meticulous composer would have appreciated. Mr. Carter’s hyper-frequent stop adjustments and unusual staccato attacks lifted his performance above the ordinary, and his hyper dance attack to Barber’s especially difficult pedal-only cadenza had to be seen and heard to be believed.

As the orchestra took a break, Mr. Cameron returned to the organ to perform a solo improvisation that, as he explained it, was a riff on the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

As he explained before performing the improve, Mr. Cameron was particularly fascinated by a crucial incident that occurred as the expedition neared the Pacific coast. At that point, all members of the exploration team, including Clark’s black slave and their female Indian guide, Sacajawea (which is how I learned to spell it), had an equal vote with regard to how they would all deal with the fast-incoming winter storms.

Mr. Cameron’s explanation was a bit precious in a grad-school thesis kind of way. But again, the proof was in the performance, as he uncorked an interesting, complicated, occasionally quite percussive, but very persuasive series of musical arguments that, after a great many impressive virtuoso excursions, ended quietly as, we presume, agreement and harmony ultimately prevailed.

Mr. Cameron’s strenuous and creative effort was a rollicking good improv, proving that, at least on Thursday, should try to give more attention to what’s actually happening on stage rather than on what they see or what critics tell them to think.

Who is Paul Creston?

The program’s second half proved just as interesting as the first. Next up was the NSO’s performance of Paul Creston’s “Dance Overture” for Orchestra, Op. 62 (1954). Born Giuseppe Guttoveggio to Italian-American parents who’d emigrated to New York, it’s perhaps obvious why Creston adopted a more approachably American professional name.

American composer Paul Creston (1906-1905) in late photo. (Via YouTube video still)
American composer Paul Creston (1906-1905) in late photo. (Via YouTube video still)

A little research reveals that Creston was quite a popular mid-20th century classical composer here whose music was once highly regarded but is rarely heard today, except for his band compositions which do still appear on concert band programs. It’s pretty clear why his more ambitious orchestral works have been neglected, however.

Creston, like another amazingly neglected American composer (and excellent critic), Deems Taylor, insisted on writing approachable, tonal, almost Hollywood-style music. He was popular and made money at his trade, which in most academic circles likely made him anathema because if you make money in the arts, you can’t really be an artist.

Creston’s “Dance Overture,” composed in a single movement but moving slickly through four different dance forms, is a musical, contemporary-sounding piece that breaks no new ground but does what it does quite well, which, in this case, is graciously uniting the dance forms of four different nationalities into a recognizably American patchwork quilt.

Far from “multicultural,” Creston’s overture illustrates America at its old, melting-pot best, recognizing different nationalities and cultures while at the same time, incorporating them into the American fabric. Under Ms. Hicks, the NSO gave a spirited reading to Creston’s spirited score, making us open to hear more of what Creston might have to offer to us in future concerts.

Taking a ride on Mason Bates’ “Mothership”

The Creston was followed by Mason Bates’ 2011 composition “Mothership,” which takes the audience firmly but delightfully into the 21st century. Richly neo-Romantic in feel, “Mothership” nonetheless takes us on a brief but punchy ride into the still-controversial territory where acoustic (orchestral) and electronic music and sounds intersect.

Mason Bates, aka DJ Masonic. (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Mason Bates, aka DJ Masonic. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Mr. Mason joined the orchestra and seated himself at an electronic keyboard as well as at his pre-programmed MacBook. With these computer-age tools, he contributed the viscerally punchy electronic and percussive effects that bounced and popped beneath and above the purely orchestral sounds.

The metaphor of “Mothership” is quite literal. The orchestra, plus Mr. Bates and his electronics, was that mothership, a vessel geared toward musical discovery that occasionally stopped to let a musical passenger on or off. The four “passengers” the ship encounters during the piece are the solo clarinet, xylophone, cello and trumpet, each of whom delivers a jazzy melody line, moves into a quick improv, and then gets off at the next stop.

“Mothership” is driven, in the way John Adams’ earlier piece was driven, employing a modified minimalist approach to drive the vessel, while delivering reasonably developed melodic packets along the way. Driven through the Concert Hall’s excellent speaker system, the computerized and keyboard percussion effects occasionally hit a bit too hard, at least in terms of the sonic blend. But, on the other hand, this is a piece that easily destroys the argument that contemporary classical music by contemporary composers is simply not worth listening to.

“Billy the Kid”: Aaron Copland’s winning hand

The concert concluded with a piece that at least used to be familiar to many Americans, Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” Suite. Extracted from the composer’s 1938 ballet of the same name, the “Billy the Kid” Suite used to be a concert hall staple.

American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) in 1970 photo. (Via Wikipedia)
American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) in 1970 photo. (Via Wikipedia)

Both the ballet and the suite are perhaps the best examples of Copland’s lengthy “Popular Front” period, the time when, as a low-key adherent to the CPUSA he largely abandoned his earlier fascination with serialism to create a more traditional, folksy kind of music that would achieve greater popular appeal. It was all part of the CPUSA’s gradualist plan to turn the USA in the direction of Marxism by infiltrating and influencing American artistic, academic and legal institutions.

In an odd twist of fate, however, following the CPUSA line is arguably what transformed Copland—in his younger days a rather severe modernist—into one of the most popular of contemporary American classical composers. His evolving American Folkways style had an instant appeal, and even Americans not accustomed to classical music heard and loved what Copland was offering.

This suite of incidental music from “Billy the Kid” was part of it, supplying the kind of open cadences and simple, folk-song oriented tunes, forms and phrases that somehow were instantly recognizable as “authentic” even thought they were the composer’s own.

To this day, you can still hear echoes of the Copland sound in many a movie score, particularly in films that deal with the wild west or American farm life in the 19th or 20th centuries.

This is what makes the dance elements in the “Billy the Kid” Suite sound so familiar. From the broad expanses sketched out in “The Open Prairie” segment, to the folksy and sometimes quarrelsome snippets we hear during “Street in a Frontier Town” and “Card Game at Night,” to the jarring, rattling, purely percussive attack of a “Running Gun Battle” to the mock triumphalism of “Celebration on Billy’s Capture,” the entire suite is richly stamped with a sound we still identify as genuine Americana.

Under Ms. Hicks’ enthusiastic baton, the NSO caught the spirit, bringing us back to those thrilling days of yesteryear with an interesting blend of brashness and nostalgia for an American spirit that sometimes seems to have gone missing in this century.

Final thoughts

In short, Copland’s suite, along with the NSO’s fine performance of it was the perfect way to conclude a close-to-perfect evening of contemporary American music—the kind of American music that audiences should start opening up to more often. As particularly evidenced by the work of living American composers like Mr. Adams and Mr. Mason, American composers today are reaching out to the audience and saying, “We have something to say, and we want you back.” We should accept this invitation more often.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Remaining Regular Program Performance dates: This NSO regular season concert program repeats Saturday evening, November 14 at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Additional “DECLASSIFIED” performance: On Friday at 9 p.m., this program will also repeat but in a different format as part of the NSO’s new “DECLASSIFIED” series of concerts. In this concert, the pair of organ works will be replaced by contemporary American composer Ben Folds’ 2014 “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, the atmosphere will be more like a party, drinks can be brought in house, and “nocturnal revelry” will continue after the concert is over. Younger listeners and the curious are clearly welcome to attend this differently formatted concert performance. (Mr. Cameron, the Barber “Toccata” and the improv performance will return for the Saturday evening concert.)

Tickets: Tickets are priced from $15-89. For tickets and information, visit the NSO’s page on the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324 (Toll-free).

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17