The Featured Composer
February 1, 2007
Composer Michael Berkeley keeps company with a very large group of people who choose to express themselves through writing music. Many of these people�s music goes on a shelf somewhere, where it gathers dust until a relative finds it and tosses it into the trash bin. There are stories of manuscripts by great composers being used as scrap paper for wrapping fish by an uninformed servant for want of any other wrapper. The British comedy show Black Adder has an episode in which the servant burns the first and only copy of Johnson�s Dictionary in the fireplace for lack of any other fuel.
We�ve come a long way in our appreciation for original work. But there is a problem, even for people who know the difference between blank paper and a dictionary. Who is to judge the worth of all these people�s efforts? First, people like me, because I design programs for performance. Then, people like you, who listen to them. I make an initial decision based on an exhaustive process and a very thoroughly informed experience. After I have submitted my choices to the public through performance, the process moves to its critical phase. People are not shy -- that is, you are not shy -- about telling me your opinion. In fact, you can�t hide it. I call it �completing the circle.� A work cannot be judged until it has been performed. There is no hiding from the public�s reaction.
What do we make of the fact that Stravinsky had to escape the wrath of the public through a basement window of the auditorium following the first performance of his �Rite of Spring� in Paris in 1912? Or the reaction of the Dadaist movement to events of their time by developing a following for their anti-art views and carrying it to the extreme, announcing a concert at the usual place and leaving the hall locked and dark at the appointed time?
In our time we now depend for audience on Mozart at opera houses and Beethoven in concert halls. Composers of worthy consideration are being introduced, many with a good deal of hyperbole in advance of their newest creations, some of which is harder to swallow than the music. Success is hard to measure in any time. Will our era be defined for later generations by the �minimalists,� by John Adams or Steve Reich? Why not? For one thing, their music reaches for the mesmerizing features of rhythm and sound that have become rather more acceptable recently in an apparent nod to �Eastern Cultures.� Beethoven, in his own era, was well aware of the musical potential deriving from �foreign influence� � many examples of exoticism from Turkey were made popular in Central and Western Europe by lots of composers who wanted to perk up their audiences. But he didn�t even come close to the use which Berlioz, Alban Berg or Stravinsky would make of an orchestra � not for lack of trying or talent but because these matters of taste evolve rather slowly. It is a natural process -- one that can�t be sped up by anyone. That provides opportunity for people who are of creative bent to push expectations around in unpredictable ways. Interpreters of the phenomenon, often promoters of �the new,� will tell us how to frame our response to it. But there really is no way they can get us to believe something that sits badly on our brain is great stuff when we feel our hackles going up at the sound of it.
Many concertgoers don�t appreciate anything beyond Haydn, which is kind of insulting because his genius was certainly evolutionary � not the end or the beginning of musical taste. Or perhaps their approval is the best testimonial a composer could wish to have. Haydn�s success didn�t deter Mozart or anyone else, thank goodness. So where does this leave the subject? Squarely in our lap, if we think our lives are at all informed. So we�ll want to have a listen to the newest efforts, just to monitor the evolution during our lifetimes of this very lively art.
The process has to be made more illuminating if composers, musicians and the public are exposed to each other over a span of time beyond a single hearing, obviously. But that simple statement is not obvious to most programmers. One shot -- that�s all anybody gets, and then back into obscurity. But not with New York Philomusica. I played horn for seven years in the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra played some new music occasionally, and I was struck by how unreceptive both the musicians and the public were to those brief encounters. Business as usual made no provision for lingering over explorations that were not part of an established aural code. I addressed that concern when I founded New York Philomusica by establishing a Featured Composer role in our ranks. That person would get to know us, and we him, and so too, the public � over a span of seasons, not minutes, or a concert or two. That is what informed Haydn�s experience � a continuum with his players and his patrons. Almost nothing of that experience was available to anyone before or since, outside of the environment known by Bach in his duties as church musician for the Lutherans in Leipzig, one notable exception. Mendelssohn took a role in the modern world in that city and brought Berlioz to the attention of the people there by programming the Symphonie Fantastique when the composer was hauling his trunks around the continent, looking for opportunities to be heard. By the way, Berlioz made his living writing about music � as a critic. And he is the best writer of them all on the subject of music. His influence can be felt to this day.
But I�ve taken us quite some distance from the subject � which is the music of Michael Berkeley in his time, which happens to be our time as well. He�ll be the first to affirm the uncertainty of the process of creating new works. He comes from a social milieu that included his father, Sir Lennox Berkeley, and his godfather, Benjamin Britten. While I knew those facts about him, they played no part in my consideration of him as a candidate for Featured Composer. I programmed his music along with that of a number of other people whose music intrigued me, and whom I want to know better over time. It isn�t a reflection on their merit that they can�t all find favor in a moment or a place. The difference between these other composers and Michael in my eyes was the reaction to the music by you, the public. Michael�s music intrigued, even though his style and his sound characteristics might be perceived as strange on a first exposure. One hears that there is something unique at work in that imagination, something that one wants to know better. And so he was chosen.
And now we see what can be done to make it possible to know him better, for your sake mostly, but for his as well, because after all, it is he who is the creative mind in all of this. The rest of us are the creatures of his Inferno. We will want to know where we fit into the overall scheme of things. There is no better way than to be provided with a peek over the rim in hopes of catching a glimpse of eternity with us in it.
By A. Robert Johnson, Founder & Artistic Director
December 8, 2004
December 16, 2002
Quodlibet: "What you will...As you please."
April 16, 2002
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