How do you write up-lifting, start-of-an-era music? With difficulty it seems, as Kurt Masur has discoveredby Ivan Hewett / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Ending on an up-beat
Given that everything has to have a millennial theme right now (my local DIY shop boasts a “millennium screwdriver”), it is hardly surprising that concert halls and record shops have been awash with end-of-an-era pieces. What’s been lacking, surprisingly, are start-of-an-era pieces. None of the five “Millennium Messages” premiered late last year by the New York Philharmonic fulfilled conductor Kurt Masur’s hope that they would “reflect the hopes and dreams we all have as we enter the next century… unified by the basic idea that we all want to live together in peace.” The five composers (from Russia, Germany, England, the US and Japan), knowing that soothing bromides make bad music, fashioned more complex and ambiguous responses to the moment-much to the dismay of the Disney Corporation, which sponsored the event.
If Kurt Masur wanted wide-eyed optimism, he should have talked to the Chinese composer Tan Dun, who lives on his doorstep in New York. In fact Dun did write a World Symphony for the Millennium, although not for the New York Phil. And he had already proved his talent for affirmative music with a symphony to celebrate the handover of Hong Kong. He pressed all the right buttons then-children’s voices to signify hope, ancient Chinese gongs the east, the orchestra the west, and so on. Despite its longueurs, the piece had a certain guileless charm about it. The new symphony lacks even that, and although it presses the same buttons (ancient meets modern, bright new dawn, joyous knees-up, cold north meets warm south) the only note struck is one of bathos. The movement called The East sounds like The Road to Morocco without the laughs, while At Sunrise sounds like Rolf Harris’s didgeridoo.
Flattery and fluency
Good taste was at one time what musical modernism was trying to escape, although in the recent works of the elder statesmen of modernism-Berio, Boulez, Ligeti-you’d hardly know it. The music of the gifted 28-year-old Thomas Ad?s may share the “licked surface” of those masters, but it comprehends a rude, nose-thumbing energy as well, as his Grawemeyer prize-winning piece Asyla proves. The Grawemeyer is normally awarded to greying composers such as Birtwistle and Ligeti, and it shows how fast Ad?s has moved from wunderkind to big-league player. His rise mirrors that of George Benjamin, another Cambridge composer. But they have very different roots. Benjamin was the favourite student…