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O.C. MUSIC / BENJAMIN EPSTEIN : Expecting More of Composers, Public

April 14, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Charles Wuorinen will be on hand when the Southwest Chamber Music Society presents the world premiere of his chamber version of "A Winter's Tale" on Friday at Chapman University in Orange.

Based on a poem by Dylan Thomas, "A Winter's Tale" was commissioned for a consortium of seven chamber organizations including Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Wuorinen intended two versions of the work from its inception, and the Southwest group will introduce a score for violin, viola, cello, horn, clarinet and piano.

Soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, for whom the work was written, and who performed the premiere of the "duo concertante" version for piano and soprano recently in Baltimore, will again serve as soloist. The program also includes songs of John Dowland, with countertenor Dana Marsh and lutenist James Tyler, and Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne," and will be repeated Saturday at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. Both concerts begin at 8 p.m.

When Wuorinen won the Pulitzer in 1970 at age 32--for "Time's Encomium" the first all-electronic work to win the that award--he was the youngest composer ever to win. He is currently at work on three ballets for the New York City Ballet. During a recent phone interview, he seemed at 55 to espouse a youthful altruism rare among artists of any age.

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Question: Following the premiere of "A Winter's Tale" for piano and soprano, the Baltimore Sun critic cited "an extraordinary climax in coloratura patter that musically embodies the figurative language with which the poet depicts the pleasures of orgasm." Umm, at exactly what point in the poem does that occur?

Answer: I was delighted with such a positive response, but I thought the poem was about religion, not sex! I suppose they're close--religious ecstasy and sex.

Certainly the poem is filled with the emblems and symbols of Christianity--the bride is the church, the bird is a symbol of the Holy Ghost--and Dylan Thomas constantly engaged in such. You can read it either way, but it's definitely not just the story of somebody unhappy in love, wanting some action!

Q. How do you feel about being described frequently as a "maximalist" composer?

A. Let's put it this way: I've used the term in a half joking way during the rise and fall of minimalists in order to disassociate myself as completely as possible from that kind of approach.

If you interpret (maximalist) as someone who wants to get the most out of music, who thinks the listener should be actively participating in an experience that is simultaneously emotional, spiritual and intellectual, rather than as a passive kind of lump that just allows music to wash over him or her. . . . Well, my job is to write the music, so I have no objection to someone sitting like a lump and letting my music wash over.

Let's just say that a lot of listeners have been demanding that they be given very little to listen to, and a lot of composers have been all too happy to give them an awful lot of very little.

Q. Given your previous output, is it safe to assume that "A Winter's Tale" is grounded in 12-tone and serial techniques?

A. I've always resisted the casual use of these terms. I make very special use of these systems, but I think questions of technique should be left for professional discourse. It's shop talk, and it's not necessary for the intelligent reception of the work. It just confuses the public.

The musical system does not cause the music. It doesn't matter if they're writing in C major or in 12-tone--bad composers cause bad music.

Q. You have a special interest in history. What perspective can you bring to music of the 20th Century?

A. We've all been brought up thinking there's a fundamental chasm between music written before World War I and after. That was understandable a few decades after Schoenberg. When I was young, the progressive (musical) environment was dominated by people who said "permanent revolution," that every new work reinvents music forever. That's nonsense.

But I also can't abide the escapist Neo-Romantic types who want music to go back to something that can never be again, and in fact never was. The composer who wants to go back to Wagner forgets that Wagner was a radical modernist, and that the entire 19th Century was marked by a spirit of expansion. From Beethoven onward, composers wanted to expand limits, to bring experiences into music that had never before been experienced. There was nothing at all backward looking about what they were doing.

There are always (historic) moments of rapid changes and crisis, then consolidation. I see my artistic task as the integration of values and procedures from more distant tonal music into a fabric using my own methods, but without nostalgia, without sentimentality, without escaping to the past, only to restore a sense of continuity.

Q. How did we lose that sense? Is something missing in the education of young composers?

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