Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge, huge fan of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute and Future Classics concert. Since 2006, I have missed only one of the concerts, in 2009, due to surgery. This past Friday evening was the Future Classics concert for the 2014-15 season and it was absolutely astounding. Which is what’s usually true for this particular concert.
The future of classical music interests me, of course, because of the Perceval series which is set in the near future in the classical music world and because I love classical music. The characters in the series include an orchestra conductor (Evan Quinn), a composer (Owen te Kumara), and the orchestras that Evan conducts in each novel, among other characters. The Minnesota Orchestra and the American Composers Forum are even more interested in the future of classical music, coming together to hold the Composer Institute for nearly a decade now. Attending the Future Classics concert, the culmination of an intense week of workshops for the participating young composers, may give a glimpse of what the future has in store for classical music.
The challenge for me each year has been to see if any of the showcased works have what it takes to earn more performances. This year there were three in the group of seven outstanding scores that struck me as having the depth and breadth to enter the regular orchestral repertoire immediately. What do I look for when I’m listening?
Demonstrated knowledge of the orchestra and what an orchestra can play: This can be the immediate stumbling block for composers. It’s hard to compose for an orchestra. It consists of at least twelve different instruments, often more, plus percussion, and each has a different sound with the potential for different sonic colors that need to be blended and balanced. How a composer writes for each section, how she blends or contrasts the sounds, and how the composer maintains a musical momentum all demonstrates knowledge of the orchestra. This year’s group of composers did an excellent job, and I think it’s been true that each year the composers have handled this challenge better and better.
The musical material: This is where a composer reveals his “voice,” his musical imagination, as well as a knowledge and skill at composition. None of the composers failed to rise to the challenges inherent in this area. What I look for, however, is a composer’s use of tonality, melody, counterpoint, and if there’s a theme or motif that’s developed. Sad to say that contemporary composers tend to shy away from writing melody that is developed. This group actually came close in a couple compositions, but there was really no theme plus development which is just as challenging as dealing with disparate motifs. What astonished me was the continued (from previous years) exploration of tonality and dissonance. I don’t like dissonance used for shock value. What I admire is when dissonance is used in contrast to consonance, or when dissonance is used to create tension that’s resolved. There was a mixture of all three in several pieces. I still left the concert craving melody and its development.
What will classical music sound like in 2048, the year in which Perceval’s Secret is set? I don’t know for certain, of course. I think it’d be interesting to contemplate a musical backlash to the music we have now, as I explore a backlash to futuristic gadgets and developments. One thing I do know: classical music will continue to exist. I am very, very glad, also, that the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska, and the American Composers Forum continue to support young composers and perform their music.
Want to read my earlier posts about the Composer Institute and Future Classics? You can find them here, here, here, and here. And if you’d like to read about how I learned to love modern music, I wrote about my experience at ClassicalMPR.