A twentysomething horn player in the Cincinnati Symphony somehow became a key chronicler of the history of jazz. Gunther Schuller wrote two wonderful volumes on jazz history (a third was underway when he died in 2015) using his classical chops to transcribe solos and analyze them the way someone else might analyze Schoenberg, elevating esteem for jazz by showing it could withstand and reward such analysis, in addition to simply being dug. I don’t only mean the more complicated jazz of the 1950s: his analysis of the solos of Louis Armstrong reveal similarities to Mozart in terms of taste and nuance. Then, when jazz and classical music began to influence each other and produce hybrid music in the middle, it was Schuller who christened the term “Third Stream” for that.
Schuller himself composed classical works, but I do not discern much influence of jazz in them, or much else to like, either. He was such a good historian and analyst of jazz, and such a fine writer as well, that I would love to be able to say I enjoy his compositions, but I don’t. In my own parsing of the American classical music of the latter 20th century, he falls into the category I call “difficult music,” dissonant and clangorous. Difficult music includes actual serial composers but also people like Joan Tower and Christopher Rouse, whose music can be very interesting to listen to.
On the other end of the spectrum we find Minimalism. This year I did entire shows on Philip Glass and Steve Reich, both born in the middle 1930s and both still composing today. We can put John Adams and Michael Torke in a more or less straight line after them, highly tonal and accessible with a strong rhythmic pulse that owes much to jazz but can also be traced back to the Baroque, or the neo-Baroque of Respighi and Stravinsky in the early 1900s.
Between Minimalist music and difficult music we find the continuation of the central classical tradition throughout the 12-tone and later serial eras, music of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber and Roy Harris and Dave Brubeck that co-exists amicably on the same concert programs as Jean Sibelius and Francis Poulenc and Benjamin Britten.
This week’s “Howard’s Day Off” program skips the recently featured Steve Reich and uses a single Philip Glass piece, the first of his recent etudes, chiefly as a lead-in to a piece I have played on the air many times, “Points of Departure” by Robert Moran, born like Glass in 1937. The two collaborated on an opera. Moran was drawn to big event compositions in his earlier years, like a piece that employed the church bells, factory whistles and car horns of Bethlehem, Pa., coordinated by local radio stations. This was not without precedence: the original performance of the “1812” Overture required the sounding of church bells across an entire city, and it’s been done with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter” Overture as well. But “Points of Departure” is a more subtle work, like John Adams using a strong pulse and gentle syncopation in a work that is tonal and easy on the ears.
John Corigliano, a year younger than Glass and Moran and also still extant, may be classified as a difficult composer except that of all the difficult American composers he is maybe the most rewarding to hear. He alone is represented on this show by two selections, the main theme from the movie “The Red Violin” and the scherzo from his Piano Concerto.
Paul Moravec (1957- ) strains my categories somewhat. I would call him a difficult composer because his music is busy and complicated, but it is rarely very dissonant. Somewhere between him and the difficult mainstream lies Jennifer Higdon and Ellen Taaffee Zwilich, who will both be heard on this show.
Mainstream Americans still with us range from Adolphus Hailstork, a college professor in Virginia the last time I checked, and Mark O’Connor, a violinist who also plays bluegrass fiddle and writes music that spotlights what is going on the mountains between those two musics.
You are encouraged to do your own classification of Peter Boyer, William Bolcom and Michael Daugherty, also represented.
I’ll also play some composed music in a jazz vein by Wynton Marsalis, who comes from a jazz family but has classical training and is equally at home playing Papa Haydn and Jelly Roll Morton.
And we’ll wind up with Kevin Kaska (1972- ), who aspired to become a Hollywood soundtrack composer but found himself in demand in the concert hall instead, reversing the usual model of guys like Erich Korngold and Miklos Rosza who were hailed in Hollywood but yearned for Carnegie Hall.
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