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Tough times call for some tougher music

May 18, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

Modernism HAD a good run, the historian Peter Gay concludes in his new study of the subject. His estimate is about 120 years, beginning with the simultaneous publication in 1857 of Flaubert's novel "Madame Bovary" and Baudelaire's collection of poems "Les Fleurs du Mal." In music, that span extends through the wild avant-garde experiments of the '50s and '60s and on to the flowering of Minimalism and the New Romanticism.

"New music is gorgeous again," writes Scott Speck, co-author of "Classical Music for Dummies," in the current issue of Symphony Magazine. A new wave of composers who make only nice waves is rising, and these composers have history on their side. When times get tough, as in America during the Great Depression and the Second World War, music gets soft. The times, surveys say, are once again tough, and they're likely to stay that way. A sustained period of stylistic regression is thus a possibility.

But there is no law that says history has to repeat itself in an endless loop. And something is up that is once again making music unsafe for dummy consumption.

Take this summer's Salzburg Festival. The music of Mozart will be in plentiful supply, as it always is. But vying for attention as the most-played composer during the monthlong festival of festivals -- with its glorious Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic concerts, its stellar opera productions and princely ticket prices -- will be a 61-year-old Italian Modernist, Salvatore Sciarrino, who explores the edge of audibility and prefers the gritty extraneous sounds that instruments can make to beautiful sonorities.

And if you don't think Salzburg's nine-part "Kontinent Sciarrino" would provide enough space-age sounds for one summer, then consider a Stockhausen trek. It could have begun last week in Vienna, where the far-out Spanish theater group La Fura dels Baus staged portions of "Donnerstag" (Thursday), the first part of the Futuristic German composer's intergalactic seven-day opera cycle, "Licht" (Light). Your next stop would be Amsterdam in June for the premiere of one of the last scores by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died in December just short of his 80th birthday. Then you could spend the summer crisscrossing the continent and the Channel for major Stockhausen events in Hamburg and Cologne, Germany; Lucerne, Switzerland; Warsaw, Paris, London and Berlin (where Simon Rattle will divide the Berlin Philharmonic into three orchestras for "Gruppen," played in a hangar at the airport).

You could also book a London hotel for nine days in November for "Klang," a Stockhausen extravaganza that the Southbank Centre is calling the centerpiece of its extensive 2008-09 season. And you could return in January, when the BBC Symphony will host a Stockhausen "Total Immersion" at the Barbican Centre.

Closer to home, the populist Tanglewood Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires will, for five days in July, be all Elliott Carter nearly all the time, with six Carter concerts chock-full of what general audiences once complained was incomprehensible, hyperactive music. In Manhattan, meanwhile, the Lincoln Center Festival will kick off the Fourth of July weekend with a major production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's 12-tone "Die Soldaten," a poster opera for the ultra-complex, abstract 1960s German avant-garde.

Also at Lincoln Center this summer, Mostly Mozart promises a sampling of Saariaho. But that hardly means the Finnish Modernist Kaija Saariaho, the festival's composer in residence, will be staying put in the Big Apple. Her grim, deeply serious consideration of the effects of war on women, "Adriana Mater," will receive its U.S. premiere at Santa Fe Opera.

Pity one of Speck's poor dummkopfs who stumbles into a Mostly Mozart evening expecting featherweight divertimenti, programmed to make him smarter, only to be confronted by Saariaho's "La Passion de Simone," an investigation of the troubled life of the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, who starved herself to death during World War II out of empathy for the persecuted. Through dark, disturbing music, this staged oratorio, written for Dawn Upshaw, induces listeners to confront some of their most profoundly disturbing insecurities, as Los Angeles Philharmonic patrons will discover next season.

The Atlanta School

WAIT A minute. Haven't we gone past all this? The 12-tone system is to musicologists what the dodo bird is to ornithologists -- an object of curiosity and study. Atonality has been called by some of today's leading critics and composers a gargantuan mistake. Electronic music never quite caught on in the big way many once expected. Irregular rhythms imply heart disease.

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