Don't expect the fat lady to sing for classical music soon

Record-breaking online downloads. Freefalling season subscriber numbers. Unprecedented availability of archival material. Legions of new composers and forms. Increasingly scarce music education curricula.

Classical music, it's clear, is in an era of dizzying change.

The debate rages on over whether the end result will be for good or ill. But from my perspective, there are countless positive omens out there — signs that, in spite of real problems, the world may indeed be on the brink of a new "golden age" of serious music. Bitching about loss of the comfortably familiar is for chumps. Here's some of the ways the modern music scene is evolving, and even thriving.

For one, music schools are cranking out more accomplished musicians than ever before. We've never had more choirs, orchestras, opera houses, or chamber ensembles. Our own College of Charleston's School of the Arts has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade, and has lately produced several musicians with real star potential.

Then there are those who create new music in the first place. Incredibly, there are more composers alive today than have existed during the entire course of human history. You can't keep up with them all. Happily, the best of them have rebounded from all the atonality and theoretical complexity that cost us so many listeners a few decades back. Their music is distinctly modern and sophisticated — but it's also easy on the ear, while speaking deeply to both heart and mind. Sheer aural beauty is back in vogue, and it's sweet indeed.

Every generation produces its own crop of geniuses. So then: who are the Bachs or the Mozarts of our time, and how can we tell who they are? Posterity's test of time still applies, but it's not as important in an era when the premiere of a new work can be heard and purchased online the next day. As a busy CD reviewer for American Record Guide, I'm lucky to be one of today's front-line critical "sifters" who get first crack at separating the wheat from the chaff. Among my main discoveries are two emerging American masters that most everybody seems to agree are headed for serious greatness. And as choral specialists, they feed the world's most common form of musical ensemble.

The sensual, luminous music of Californian Morten Lauridsen (b. 1941) is quickly gaining audiences worldwide. His sacred Christmas motet, O Magnum Mysterium, has become a universal favorite, having held the American record for sheet music sales for more than a decade. It's cropped up on dozens of choral recordings, too. I think his Lux Aeterna — written during his mother's terminal illness — is the loveliest, most comforting American requiem yet written. His Madrigali explore the agonies of the lovelorn with gut-wrenching intensity.

Eric Whitacre (b. 1971), also from California, has burst upon the scene more recently. Choirs everywhere have taken up his choral masterpieces — like Cloudburst, the most spine-tingling musical evocation of a thunderstorm you'll ever hear. Water Night sends the listener on a languorous underwater voyage. He's written terrific music for concert band (plus choir), too — like his headlong Equus, or the hilarious Godzilla Eats Las Vegas — a piece that lampoons both the Hollywood and Vegas scenes.

Some of the world's finest choirs have devoted entire albums to each of these Yankee standouts. They're critical smash hits, and are selling like rock chart-toppers. Charleston choirs have performed plenty of their music in recent years, even including a world premiere from Whitacre. With tunesmiths like these among us, we can easily keep the fat lady at bay for a while yet.


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