When composers talk about music, it’s well worth listening
Presentations by composers help to normalise what can often seem like the arcane world of new music
German-born composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Leonard Bernstein was a great talker about music. In these pages, conductor Marin Alsop told of how, at the age of nine and already a seasoned concert-goer, she heard Bernstein speak at a concert and was blown away. That was in the mid-1960s. Although Bernstein is no longer around to work his magic, talking about music in connection with concerts has long been a growth area.
Here in Ireland, the Music Network encourages all its performers to talk to their audiences. The Contemporary Music Centre facilitates Irish composers in introducing their music in person at concerts.
The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra have busy pre-concert schedules of talks and conversations with conductors, composers, soloists and guest speakers. And, although the Irish Chamber Orchestra doesn’t have a formal arrangement of this kind, its principal conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy, usually chats to his listeners about his personal connection with the music on the programme. In fact, in Wexford, Bantry, Galway, Sligo and elsewhere you won’t find yourself short of an opportunity to hear someone introduce the music or performers in advance of a performance.
My experience of these events is that they are all to the good – the occasional encounter with a bore flogging a hobby-horse notwithstanding.
It’s also been my experience that the most successful are those involving composers. That’s partly a matter of rarity: there are far fewer living composers involved in concerts than there are performers, so their presence stands out. And presentations by composers, whether prepared or spontaneous, help to break down barriers in any number of ways. They humanise a name. They normalise what can often seem like the arcane world of new music. At their best they provide insights you won’t easily access elsewhere.
Of course, talking about music without the actual music is a limited experience. Some talks involve recorded examples, but the ideal is to have live performers to provide any necessary examples. This is exactly what the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Alan Buribayev did on Sunday, when Stephen Johnson, the music writer and BBC Radio 3 presenter, spoke before performances of Hindemith’s Violin Concerto (with Alan Smale as soloist), and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
The NSO’s programme planners seem to have something of an issue with the Hindemith Concerto. Sunday’s performance was billed as Inside the Music. It was given as part of Forte! – the orchestra’s “musical discovery programme” – and was also marketed as one of the NSO’s “Beyond the Season” offerings.
The last time the orchestra programmed the work, in 1995, was also a special case. Then it was oddly scheduled with works by Marian Ingoldsby and John Corigliano in a short-lived new music festival called Music Now. The concerto was written in 1939 and, when the recording by David Oistrakh with the composer conducting was issued in 1963, was recognised by Gramophone magazine as being “a lyrical, neo-romantic work”.
Stephen Johnson made the case for the piece by having juicy sections performed to magic away the image of Hindemith as a dour German, obsessed with the idea of Gebrauchsmusik, a largely 1920s phenomenon that’s often derided in English as “utility music”. Hindemith was not the only composer to embrace the idea, but he was the most famous one. In a 1930 letter he explained that he had “almost completely turned away from concert music in recent years and written, almost without exception, music with pedagogical or social tendencies: for amateurs, for children, for radio, mechanical instruments, etc.”
Gebrauchsmusik is a word that still raises hackles. The musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky published a useful explanatory letter he received from the German publishing house Schott in 1936. It began: “The word Gebrauchsmusik seems to have come into use in the postwar period . . . The most obvious examples [of it] were compositions for the radio and musical illustrations for films; in brief, all compositions which called for no independent value in themselves but served only a special use (Gebrauch). When the expression Gebrauchsmusik was first used it is not possible to establish. It is not an official description . . . Its opposite would be art music, concert music, absolute music.”
Sadly, Sunday’s performance by Alan Smale sounded genuinely utilitarian, though Alan Buribayev’s handling of the orchestral part did rather more to buttress the points Johnson set out to make.
If there’s a work in the classical canon that needs no introduction, it’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but Johnson managed to approach it from angles that made sense: its importance in establishing trombones in the symphony orchestra (he didn’t mention that Joachim Eggert actually got there first), the drive of the first movement as an experience new to music, and the extraordinary prevalence of the famous opening motif. Buribayev seemed a lot less comfortable with the symphony than with the concerto. The music sounded not so much too fast as rushed, and the playing was rarely solid enough for the piece to make its full impact.
Another concert during the week mixed talk and music. Italian pianist Emanuele Torquati spoke about the works in his new music programme at TCD on Wednesday, his introductions providing useful background, but the responses to questions rambling on so much that no issue was directly addressed.
His programme, one of a series presented by TCD’s Music Composition Centre, included pieces by Pascal Dusapin, Michel van der Aa, Samy Moussa, Eric Maestri, Francesco Filidei and Jonathan Harvey. The most interesting pieces came at the end, Filidei’s Preludio e Filastrocco showing how the simplest of material can be presented in fresh ways, and Harvey’s Tombeau de Messiaen for piano and tape creating a mesmerising journey of microtonal exploration through tuning discrepancies between pre-recorded and live pianos. The effects on Wednesday were magnified in incalculable ways by the somewhat detuned piano that TCD provided.