MU­SIC: A new fes­ti­val tries to de­fine Amer­ica’s or­ches­tral sound.

A new or­ches­tral fes­ti­val tack­les some fa­mil­iar ques­tions about what de­fines the sound of democ­racy

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE

The brand-new fes­ti­val cel­e­brat­ing Amer­i­can mu­sic at the Kennedy Cen­ter is hardly a new idea. Look through or­ches­tra sched­ules this sea­son, and you’ll find all man­ner of Amer­i­can fes­ti­vals, in­clud­ing some of the ver­nac­u­lars — jazz, folk, even hip-hop — that fit the pop­u­lar per­cep­tion of “Amer­i­can mu­sic” more read­ily than any­thing you’ll find in a con­cert hall. The twist of the week­long SHIFT fes­ti­val, which starts Mon­day, is that it fo­cuses on Amer­i­can or­ches­tras — this year, from North Carolina, Colorado, At­lanta and New York (the cham­ber or­ches­tra The Knights). The fes­ti­val grew out of the Spring for Mu­sic fes­ti­val, held at Carnegie Hall in New York from 2010 to 2014, whose egal­i­tar­ian premise was that a low ticket price ($25 per seat) and var­ied reper­tory would lure new au­di­ences. It didn’t. SHIFT’s co-pre­sen­ters, the Kennedy Cen­ter and Wash­ing­ton Per­form­ing Arts, are hop­ing, with their com­bined mar­ket­ing mus­cle, to change that.

What is Amer­i­can mu­sic? And, per­haps more to the point, why do we care so much?

“I re­mem­ber be­ing asked in Prague not so long ago, ‘What is your ob­ses­sion, you Amer­i­cans, with Amer­i­can mu­sic?’ ” said Robert Spano, the mu­sic di­rec­tor of the At­lanta Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, which will per­form at SHIFT on March 31. “The only an­swer I could give . . . was: It’s be­cause we don’t know who we are, and so we’re end­lessly fas­ci­nated, be­cause there are so many things that make up Amer­ica . . . so much to wres­tle with and bal­ance and try and un­der­stand . . . . I was kind of de­fend­ing our self-ob­ses­sion.”

In­deed, the most telling thing about the ques­tion “What is Amer­i­can mu­sic?” may be sim­ply that we keep ask­ing it and ask­ing it and ask­ing it.

Each fes­ti­val rep­re­sents a slightly dif­fer­ent an­swer. The San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and Michael Til­son Thomas have cel­e­brated the com­poser-as-mav­er­ick: out­siders as var­ied as Lou Har­ri­son and the Grate­ful Dead. The SHIFT fes­ti­val is fo­cus­ing on how or­ches­tras present the mu­sic, fea­tur­ing not only con­certs but also dis­tinc­tive out­reach pro­grams. The Boul­der Phil­har­monic, for ex­am­ple, will lead a na­ture hike in Rock Creek Park on March 27.

An­other “Amer­i­can” ele­ment of SHIFT is the demo­cratic ap­proach rep­re­sented by that $25 ticket. The idea of the or­ches­tra as a demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tion may seem odd to­day, when we as­so­ciate it with elitism, but in the early days of this na­tion, many peo­ple saw a sym­phony, made up of many peo­ple play­ing to­gether and thus a tan­gi­ble form of democ­racy in ac­tion, as the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can art form.

We tend to think of Amer­i­can or­ches­tral mu­sic as a rel­a­tively re­cent phe­nom­e­non. “Charles Ives, Aaron Co­p­land, El­liott Carter and John Cage leap to mind,” Spano says, “as some­how defin­ing a dis­tinct Amer­i­can mu­sic from Euro­pean tra­di­tion.” In fact, though, Amer­i­can com­posers be­gan writ­ing Amer­i­can sym­phonies in the early days of the na­tion’s his­tory.

In an il­lu­mi­nat­ing book called “Or­ches­trat­ing the Na­tion,” about Amer­i­can or­ches­tral com­posers in the 19th cen­tury, Dou­glas Sha­dle demon­strates that many of the fea­tures of Amer­i­can or­ches­tral con­cert life to­day — the in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex with re­gard to Europe; ques­tion­ing what Amer­i­can mu­sic is or should be — date back 200 years and more. Amer­i­can com­posers, although of­ten suc­cesses with the pub­lic, had to fight so hard with the prej­u­dices of the Euro­cen­tric gate­keep­ers — the con­duc­tors, the pre­sen­ters and, es­pe­cially, the crit­ics — that their mu­sic was not able to take root. For gen­er­a­tions, Amer­i­can au­di­ences have been taught that Beethoven is greater than Amer­i­can works. When it comes to or­ches­tral mu­sic, re­sis­tance to the new is part of our na­tional mu­si­cal DNA.

Sha­dle can’t fully make a case for th­ese for­got­ten works as lost mas­ter­pieces. Some of the pieces he de­scribes, cre­ated in the name of find­ing an Amer­i­can voice, sound like cu­riosi­ties now: a “Santa Claus Sym­phony” by Wil­liam Henry Fry (1853), or a sprawl­ing 14-move­ment “Hi­awatha: An In­dian Sym­phony,” by Robert Stoe­pel (1859). In an ef­fort to be dis­tinc­tively Amer­i­can and to cre­ate mu­sic that ev­ery lis­tener could un­der­stand, com­posers took up Amer­i­can sub­jects and in­stru­men­tal sound ef­fects (drums stand­ing in for gun­fire in mu­si­cal de­pic­tions of the Bat­tle of Bunker Hill, for in­stance), only to come un­der fire from crit­ics who felt that pro­gram mu­sic was a lower form than ab­stract mu­sic. But when a com­poser did write ab­stract mu­sic, it was of­ten seen as too de­riv­a­tive of Euro­pean mod­els. That dy­namic hasn’t en­tirely dis­ap­peared.

Many of the 19th-cen­tury com­posers have been for­got­ten (although some of their mu­sic is now be­ing re­vived on, to name one ex­am­ple, Naxos’s “Amer­i­can Clas­sics” se­ries). And many 19th-cen­tury as­sump­tions about Amer­i­can mu­sic have sur­vived into the 20th and even 21st cen­turies: Amer­i­can mu­sic is still of­ten viewed as lighter than Euro­pean mu­sic, more il­lus­tra­tive and more pop­ulist. The ten­sion be­tween pop­ulist Amer­i­can mu­sic and “ab­so­lute” Amer­i­can mu­sic was as alive in 1876,

when John Knowles Paine was praised for writ­ing an “ab­stract” rather than pro­gram­matic sym­phony, as in 1971, when Leonard Bern­stein was crit­i­cized for fold­ing Broad­way and rock el­e­ments into his hy­brid “Mass.” Only in re­cent decades has it started to soften.

“Th­ese days, there’s a dis­cernible gen­er­a­tional Amer­i­can thing go­ing on,” Spano says. “I think of the com­posers I’m most closely as­so­ci­ated with,” and he names a few: Jen­nifer Hig­don, Os­valdo Goli­jov, Adam Schoen­berg and Christo­pher The­o­fani­dis, who wrote “Cre­ation/Cre­ator,” a mul­ti­me­dia work in­volv­ing pro­jec­tions, vo­cal soloists and sev­eral cho­ruses that the At­lanta Sym­phony is per­form­ing at the SHIFT Fes­ti­val. “I al­ways thought of them as very dif­fer­ent from each other. [But] they share some things. Writ­ing tunes, for one thing. There is a re­newed in­ter­est in melodic con­tour. They all use tonal­ity in some way, even if not in a tra­di­tional sense. And they’re all in­flu­enced by pop­u­lar or world mu­sic, or both.”

It’s not only 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can work that’s ne­glected. Last sum­mer, the Aspen Mu­sic Fes­ti­val and School (where Spano is also mu­sic di­rec­tor) fo­cused its sum­mer sea­son on mid­cen­tury Amer­i­cans in the hope that turn­ing the spot­light on Roger Ses­sions, Roy Harris, Peter Men­nin and oth­ers might help bring them back into the reper­tory. Sim­i­larly, Leonard Slatkin worked hard for years to turn the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra into a dis­tinc­tively Amer­i­can, na­tional or­ches­tra; but those ef­forts seem to have left rel­a­tively lit­tle last­ing mark on the in­sti­tu­tion.

Of course, fo­cus­ing on or­ches­tras glosses over the pow­er­ful emer­gence of non-or­ches­tral Amer­i­can mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion. Steve Re­ich, Mered­ith Monk and Philip Glass — who did evolve into a pro­lific sym­phon­ist later in his ca­reer — were lead­ers in mak­ing im­por­tant new work per­formed by their own, non-or­ches­tral en­sem­bles, and many young com­posers have fol­lowed in their foot­steps.

Take Caro­line Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013: her piece “Lo,” which the North Carolina Sym­phony will play at SHIFT on March 29, and which she wrote at a res­i­dency at Dum­bar­ton Oaks in Wash­ing­ton in 2015, is her first-ever work for or­ches­tra. Shaw, 35, born in North Carolina, trained as a vi­o­lin­ist and also sings pro­fes­sion­ally. She doesn’t have a ca­reer in Europe yet; but she has col­lab­o­rated with Kanye West.

“Lo,” she says, is “a kind of con­ver­sa­tion with Amer­i­can op­ti­mism and how it ex­presses it­self in mu­sic.” But it’s not a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to be Amer­i­can. “The or­ches­tra,” she says, “is a very par­tic­u­lar kind of wood to carve from, and has a whole tra­di­tion with it. If I write some­thing that sounds like [Aaron] Co­p­land, that’s in­ten­tional. It’s a con­ver­sa­tion with Co­p­land.” But it’s not about a na­tional iden­tity. “When I’m writ­ing mu­sic,” Shaw says, “I try to block those con­ver­sa­tions out as much as I can.”

In the 19th cen­tury, there was much de­bate about what au­then­tic “Amer­i­can” mu­sic might sound like. In the 21st cen­tury, we have a whole cat­a­logue of ex­am­ples. Yet stereo­types tend to per­sist. Co­p­land has been ef­fec­tively em­braced as our na­tional com­poser, mainly on the strength of “Ap­palachian Spring,” and his work is of­ten said to evoke Amer­i­can land­scapes. Bern­stein of­fers syn­co­pated ath­leti­cism and a stylis­tic melt­ing pot. Ives is a mav­er­ick; Cage, an icon­o­clast. “Amer­i­can” mu­sic is new and brac­ing, yet also lithe and melodic.

Some are more pre­cise. In 1948 Vir­gil Thomson, the com­poser and critic, iden­ti­fied a cou­ple of spe­cific com­po­si­tional tics he felt were dis­tinc­tive to Amer­i­can com­posers (“the non-ac­cel­er­at­ing crescendo and a steady ground-rhythm of equal­ized eighth notes,” for the record). Yet Thomson was the least pre­scrip­tive of ob­servers. “The way to write Amer­i­can mu­sic is sim­ple,” he wrote. “All you have to do is be an Amer­i­can and then write any kind of mu­sic you wish.”

The SHIFT fes­ti­val fea­tures the Boul­der Phil­har­monic on March 28, the North Carolina Sym­phony on March 29, the At­lanta Sym­phony on March 31, and the Knights on April 1, with free out­reach events on other days. Tick­ets are $25; res­i­dency events, like the Boul­der Phil­har­monic’s na­ture walk on March 27, are free.


Fre­quent Fly­ers, a dance troupe, will per­form with the Boul­der Phil­har­monic in “Ap­palachian Spring.”

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