Even Ned Rorem, who chronically complains that no one pays attention to him or his colleagues, must be pleased. An imposing array of living composers, each one in some way connected with New York City, is right now the focus of a nine-concert festival that runs through February 9. By then, some 75 works by 52 different composers will have been heard (the exact figures may vary before the final notes fade away), thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Merkin Concert Hall at the Abraham Goodman House. The event’s prime mover is cellist Fred Sherry, who dreamed up the idea and arranged for the now-famous photograph – taken on September 29, 1999, by Bruce Davidson – of all 52 composers gathered on the grand staircase of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. The fact that everyone involved could actually find a free date for this group photo op and show of composer power was a minor miracle in itself, inspiring Sherry to give his brainchild festival the apt title A Great Day in New York.
In addition to offering up a lot of good music, the occasion raised a few issues and questions, some of which were pondered in symposia after the first three concerts in Merkin Hall: What is a New York composer? Where do the notes come from? and, perhaps most intriguing of all, Post-classical music and the changing marketplace. Not surprisingly, nothing was really settled, although longtime observers of the city’s new-music scene had an opportunity to reassess the terrain. When I first arrived here in the sixties, the polarization between uptown academics and downtown experimentalists was at its most extreme, and the warfare got pretty intense. Imagine, if you can, back in the days when the barricades were in the streets, an implacable serialist-maximalist like Charles Wuorinen sitting down amiably with John Zorn, that scruffy master of jazz, rock, punk, and improvisation. Unthinkable. And yet there they were in Merkin Hall, side by side and acting like old pals. Here’s proof positive that stylistic ideologies have collapsed. It has now become uncool to hurl insults or preach aesthetic dogma, and no one seems to care how any composers write their music.
But then, I wonder if that wasn’t always generally true; perhaps the wars of the sixties were just a brief aberration in the larger history of New York’s composer community. That collective will inevitably contains all sorts of divisive factions, given the social, ethnic, and racial diversity of the musicians who are attracted by the city’s cultural life, but unity usually prevails despite internal disagreements over aesthetics (although Philip Glass and Steve Reich, I’m told, are not on speaking terms – more than a tad ironic considering their common minimalist roots). After all, composers traditionally have little political clout with the city’s large, powerful, and ultraconservative musical institutions, and a united front is vital if they want any attention.
That said, the most striking aspect of the first three “Great Day” programs in Merkin Hall was the sheer variety of creative thought, a sure sign that we are living in an era when anything goes. Practical considerations meant that most of the pieces were miniatures for soloists or small performing groups (longer chamber works are scheduled for the Tully Hall concerts), and if one score failed to please, the next might likely strike you as a minor masterpiece. To my taste, returning to the Wuorinen-Zorn axis, Zorn’s screeching saxophone improvisation sounded intolerable. Wuorinen’s intricate An Orbicle of Jasp for cello and piano, on the other hand, soothed heart and mind because of its orderly nature, instrumental precision, and quiet eloquence.
That hardly begins to suggest the extremes of these concerts, music that more or less coexisted peacefully. The wistful wisdom of Ned Rorem’s Three Easy Pieces for piano, Meredith Monk’s astonishing vocal acrobatics, Milton Babbitt’s luminous keyboard fantasies, Aaron Jay Kernis’s opera-in-a-song Mrs. Midas, Michael Hersch’s romantically expansive Mistral, the inventive generosity of Joan Tower’s trio Big Sky, the lyrical jazz effusions of Anthony Davis’s Goddess Variations (III) – composers now write just as they please and obviously thrive in complete freedom of choice. Not coincidentally, most of them are also virtuoso performers able to draw a maximum of expressive capital from their own music. Judging from the “Great Day” celebration, New York’s composers, if they continue to sustain such a warm spirit of solidarity, have many more great days ahead.
Speaking of great days and imposing statistics, Plácido Domingo celebrated a big birthday recently, and the Metropolitan Opera threw yet another party honoring his nearly 600 performances of 41 roles at the Met since his debut in 1968 (a fraction of the 114 roles he has sung to date, according to the official Domingo Website). Whether Domingo is 60, as he claims, or 65, as many skeptics insist, doesn’t really matter – five years, it is said, mysteriously vanished during the young tenor’s apprentice days in Israel. In the right role, he can still deliver the goods, despite the fact that few have heard Domingo ever sing, in the flesh, a true high C. And for some fans, unimpressed by this singer’s stamina, versatility, and staggering industry, a tenor without a ringing, easy top has not earned his place in the pantheon of immortals.
No one seemed to care about that during this love-in. It was gracious of Domingo to sing at his own party by offering a few cautious specialties: a zarzuela song, Otello’s death, and the final scene of Il Trovatore, music that would not tax his current resources. Other senior celebrators, in varying degrees of vocal preservation, included Samuel Ramey, Luciano Pavarotti, and Frederica von Stade, who belied her age with a gorgeous rendition of a haunting Montsalvage song. Mayor Giuliani was on hand to proclaim Plácido Domingo Day (now an annual event, it seems) and present him with yet another key to the city. As his voice fades, this operatic cartel is definitely looking toward the future – Domingo now runs the opera companies of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. With Alberto Vilar as his loyal supporter and best friend, can the Met be far behind?
A Great Day in New York
Concert series presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Merkin Concert Hall.
Birthday celebration at the Metropolitan Opera.