In this article I discuss a number of wonderful recent concertos. This is not to suggest that the composers of these works haven't written many other meritorious pieces in other genres. I simply want to get their music out to those who are interested in hearing some of the best new classical music around-and new in this context means within the last twenty-five years or so. With some of this music I have been waiting a long time to mention it, with others it is in response to a recent CD release, and with some it is because of the very short time that certain music seems to stay in our present consciousness. All of these works are worthy of your attention.
Stephen Jaffe, whose public profile should be much higher, has written a gorgeous Violin Concerto, and it has somewhat recently appeared in a wonderful reading by Gregory Fulkerson and the Odense Symphony Orchestra, with conductor, Donald Palma. Jaffe's music, finely etched with memorable motivic material, is a delight to the ear. Primarily tonal and modal, it also veers off to the boundaries of that terrain before winding its way back. It is both tender and exuberant, often in quick alternating fashion. While this should be jarring, it isn't; instead there is a sense of sure pacing that feels like it can't go wrong, and it doesn't. There are the usual bravura sections which don't sound usual at all, and Fulkerson handles these and everything else the concerto throws at him with clarity and gentle ease. Palma and the orchestra accompany beautifully.
The Cello Concerto by Joan Tower has withstood the test of time. Written thirty years ago in 1984, it is a vivacious eighteen minutes long, divided into three sections with a cadenza. It exhibits those characteristics of much of her music, including some heavy percussion (a palette like that of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man), driving, brash rhythms, great balance in structure, and an immediacy of material. This work centers on the intervals of the major 2nd and minor 3rd, a trill, and some scale passages. It is a hat made of pretty basic stuff, but wonderful surprises are pulled out of it. Tower uses the orchestra mainly in separate choirs yet isn't loath to use orchestral tuttis on single lines when warranted. The slow section has some wonderful keening lines, and the delicacy of music in the extreme high register, in its icey isolation, is riveting. The cadenza, much of it in double stops, is mostly quiescent and probing. Harrell, Slatkin, and the St. Louis SO give the work a taut performance.
Stephen Albert, a student of George Rochberg in the 60s, was a teacher of mine in the 70's when he was a visiting professor at Smith College and I a student at Hampshire College. Truth be told, he did not much like looking at students' music, so we mostly studied scores together, as I remember, of Bartok and Crumb. After his untimely death in the early nineties both Christopher Rouse and I memorialized him in symphonies we were writing- I in the adagio of my 4th and Rouse in his 2nd. Albert wrote wonderfully communicative music, much of it for the orchestra. You can hear his two symphonies on disc as well as much of his other music. His concerto for violin- In Concordiam, and for clarinet- Wind Canticle, are superb outings for those instruments. But you might wish to start with the cello concerto, written for, and recorded by, Yo-Yo Ma. It was supposed to be in one movement of 15' duration but grew into a four movement work of over half an hour. It is well-wrought and beautifully orchestrated. The movements are linked and by the end all of the threads are dandily brought together. Like most of Albert's work, this is soulful music, and Yo-Yo milks it for all it is worth.
Christopher Rouse has most recently been the composer-in-residence for the past few years with the New York Philharmonic. He has written many works for orchestra including symphonies, concertos, and shorter works like The Infernal Machine which started it all for him. His Violin Concerto combines his sense of lyricism in elegantly written materials for the violin and his penchant for percussive bombast. The movements are each beautifully shaped and together add up to something more. The first movement, in three major sections, opens with the solo violin which is joined by other high strings, in a mournful quiescent music, akin to that of the opening of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, albeit a bit more tonally centered. It is rudely interrupted by loud minor chords of a Wagnerian heft, aided and abetted by loads of percussion, particularly a deep tamtam and bass drum. (Ned Rorem once said that percussion is used in inverse proportion to its effectiveness- none of that for Rouse.) A prominent and profound figure appears in the brass that has the shape and quality of the Dies Irae figure, and it is repeated numerous times. After this section loses steam, a new section comes in, almost a slow, nostalgic waltz, with high figures in the violin. It too is interrupted by the Wagnerian idea; the opening is stated briefly before it fades into the stratosphere, providing less than a conclusion. But that is because it segues neatly into the next section or movement, really fast music with a nice jazz syncopation to it. The rest of the piece contrasts these various materials, introverted, deep and heavy with a Berliozan and Wagnerian overtone to it, and the fast light buzzing music that Rouse does so well. The final cadenzas are a true tour de force, with alternations of bowing and skittering left-hand pizzicato that bring the piece to an abrupt and rousing (ouch!) close.
You won't hear the music of Tower, Albert, or Jaffe much these days. Whether it is conductors who don't know the American repertoire, soloists who don't know what was written when they were born, or artistic administrators' lack of artistic memory, vision, and adventurousness, the current situation is benighted. Being just a decade or two out of the scene can bring a paucity of performances, as can being just a bit reserved or not having had the right break. And then death can bring on an artistic deep freeze, unless you are swept into the updraft of the momentary politically infested zeitgeist. The scene's insistence on being "current" and thus historically amnesic is absurd and artistically bankrupt. Instead it sells mostly trivial, trite, and empty ephemeralities. Go figure.