Monday, June 2, 2014

Contemporary Music to the Fore at Spoleto 2014

Spoleto music selections alive and kicking

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Mon, Jun 2, 2014 at 10:28 AM

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Let me pass on to you a comment that contemporary music guru John Kennedy made to the crowd attending his opening Music in Time (MIT) concert last week. In effect, he told us that the 2014 edition of Spoleto USA is presenting more music by modern and contemporary composers than ever before, and not just in the MIT series that is devoted almost entirely to the serious music of today. Many other major series, single concerts, and operas are riding the contemporary bandwagon, too. Not only are audience members refraining from walking out at intermission nowadays, but I can report that they’re actually responding enthusiastically in most cases. I speak from experience when I say that this was not always the case at the festival around a decade ago.

Let me cite a few cases in point. MIT doesn’t count, since all four programs have always been strictly new music events. But two of this year’s three operatic productions (El Niño and Facing Goya) are by modern masters. Since Geoff Nuttall took over the Chamber series some years back, more new music than before has gradually been creeping into its programs, though they are still dominated by more historic classics. Out of the four Intermezzi outings, programs two and four, are devoted entirely to music of recent vintage, with all but a few selections by living composers.

Then there are the larger-scale Spoleto Festival Orchestra (SFO) concerts. The first featured two 20th century classics, plus the Doctor Atomic Symphony by contemporary icon John Adams (also the creator of El Niño). The second, while it features Beethoven’s evergreen seventh symphony, begins with two modern takeoffs on it by living composers. Finally, there’s Te Deum, the big choral-orchestral extravaganza with the Westminster Choir and the SFO. The program begins with a Baroque masterpiece, but finishes with a setting by Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer who has gained something of a cult following in recent decades.

Could it be that today’s classical fans are gradually shedding their old-school prejudices and becoming more adventurous and tolerant listeners? Does a piece of modern music now stand a better chance of gaining widespread public acceptance, even if it doesn’t have a tune you can whistle? From my perspective, it looks like that’s what’s happening, glory hallelujah! And we have festivals like Spoleto USA to thank for that — cultural cornucopias that aren’t afraid to experiment with what’s new and different. And we must also tip our hats to folks like John Kennedy, whose tireless advocacy nationwide is gradually luring ever more listeners into the new music camp.

So, go ahead, take a chance, and join me in Spoleto’s journey of musical discovery. If you haven’t already, you’re likely to find that contemporary can indeed be cool.   

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