The question needs to be asked: is today’s American composer really better off than his predecessor a generation or two ago? Is there an audience — meaning, in down-to-earth terms, a market — for serious, challenging, original, large-scale, new native compositions, such as would earn high marks worldwide for their respective composers?
Of course there is, shout the managers, and they offer printouts of their recent symphonic seasons to prove their point. Here is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with a new work on almost every program; there is the Pasadena Symphony with a new symphony by Tom McKinley on its March program; down the road there’s the Long Beach Symphony, which offered a brand-new work as curtain-raiser on every one of its programs this past season.
Did someone say “curtain-raiser?” Aha; now were getting someplace. It begins to look as if there’s a new breed of new music, out on the horizon and getting closer by the minute. It consists of a repertory of short, thin-textured pieces  designed to open programs and then recede into the shadows. All you can say about the Philharmonic’s throwaway pieces — by the likes of Primosch, Stokes, Harbison, Stucky, and all the others you and I have already (understandably) forgotten — is that they went down easily with the orchestra and the audience, leaving our minds uncluttered for the Brahms or Prokofiev that was to follow,  and that they allowed management to swell its statistics on performances of new American music with a minimum of effort.
(Part of Andre Previn’s catatonia, when faced with Robert Erickson’s “Corona” scheduled to start off one concert last February, could very well have been his discovery that, at 26 minutes, the piece couldn’t qualify as a curtain raiser. He then proceded, like Procrustes with his bed, to chop it down to proper size.)EP
There is no law, in any of the expressive arts, that stipulates that works of long duration are superior to miniatures. Any one of my favorite Chopin Mazurkas tells me as much about sublimity and infinity, perhaps more, than any concerto of Brahms a dozen times as long. The best new work on the year’s Philharmonic programs was also one of the shortest, Arvo Part’s “Fratres” on the substitute final program conducted by Neeme Jarvi. But that work at least filled its 11-or-so minutes with original, serious beauty, and left us with thoughts far larger than its duration by the time clock.
Somewhere in this world large-scale music is still being written. In London I have heard huge, gut-grabbing pieces by Harry Birtwistle — his “Earth Dances” and “The Triumph of Time.” These were being performed by the government-funded BBC Symphony, which meant that they got the rehearsal time they needed. From Russian tapes I have discovered a sizable repertory of serious, demanding symphonic music, by Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and the Soviet Georgian Giya Kancheli, again in performances that sounded as though time (and, therefore, money) had gone into their preparation.
Could these performances have happened here, within the time-frame of a typical American orchestra’s rehearsal schedule? Probably not, if the sad tales told by most American composers are to be believed. As long as this notion persists, that the way to buy off the American composer is to commission the kind of tidbit that constituted most of our local orchestras’ lip-service to native music this year, American orchestral music will remain mired in triviality.
Why am I writing all this now? Mostly, because I have only now gotten around to a record that arrived several months ago, but which I’d been putting off hearing, a Nonesuch disk of two works by Charles Wuorinen: his Piano Concerto No. 3 and “The Golden Dance,” which is also for piano and orchestra. Here we have a couple of fair-sized, new American works (30 and 23 minutes, respectively) that march fearlessly into the maelstrom: exuberant, original, challenging, rewarding.
Wuorinen has been for some years composer-in-residence at the San Francisco Symphony, which commissioned “The Golden Dance”; the Concerto was a commission from the Albany Symphony and the pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who is soloist in both works. In the 1960s Wuorinen was an active provocative agent in New York musical circles; among other good deeds, he guided the hand of Nonesuch in recording a distinguished repertory of new American music — including his own Pulitzer-winning “Time’s Encomium,” along with works of George Crumb, Jacob Druckman, Milton Babbitt and other prime figures in the East Coast establishment.
As an avatar of that establishment, Wuorinen seemed a curious choice to succeed John Adams in the San Francisco post, and it’s obvious from his new scores that the move hasn’t inspired him to dabble in minimalist patternings or exotic scales. On their own, however, these are powerful, agressive, disturbing works; they do, furthermore, constitute a hopeful answer to my fears about the waning of strength in our new music. The concerto is, by a slight margin, my preferred of the two works; the jagged, edgy rhythms of the outer movements frame, in the elegiac and extended slow movement, a feeling for gorgeous, soaring melody.
You will need to spend some time with these, or with any of Wuorinen’s music; he isn’t one for revealing his secrets on first meeting. There is plenty of his music on records — surprisingly little, however, on CD, for a man whose “Time’s Encomium” revealed so vast an electronic horizon The new record is essential Wuorinen, and essential new American music.
ZINKA MILANOV (MAY 17, 1906-MAY 31, 1989)
Zinka Milanov is gone, another large serving of a bygone grandeur that we will never recapture. She was, among other things, a grandmaster of entrances and exits; it’s sad to think that no composer was on hand to set her own death scene to music.
She retired from opera when the old Metropolitan shut down in 1966; two grand structures lost simultaneously. She was famous for her devastating digs at her colleagues and rivals, none of which I can repeat in a family newspaper, all of which were probably authentic. She flirted outrageously with her fans; she understood, for example, the greater importance of the opera queens’ jabberwock over any press release from the Met’s front office, and she would invite the most ardent standees home to tea to feed their gossip network.
Long after she stopped singing, she could walk down the aisle of either the old or the new Met and draw a standing ovation. New York was the home of her art, if not her politics. I once saw her arrive, unnoticed and uncheered, at an outdoor opera festival in Italy; that struck me as so wrong that I got up the courage, for once in my life, to go over and tell her that someone in that alien crowd, at least, remembered her.
Remembered…that is…that hot lyrical throat of hers, put on earth to embody the particular passion of Verdi’s Leonoras, the heroines in “Il Trovatore”  and  “La Forza del Destino.” Her old recording of “Trovatore,” with Jussi Bjoerling and LeonardWarren, has survived into the CD era. Even with the cuts, the loss of her “Tu vedrai” in the last act that we have to savor only in our fantasies, it is my way of knowing what Verdi and Verdian melody were about in that opera.
She wasn’t much to look at; near the end she forgot lines and had to hover near the prompter’s box. That’s not what we remember. She was the embodiment of the grandest music in the grandest operas. The singers today who occasionally get hailed as the new Zinka can, for now, stand in the shade. There was, and is, only one Zinka.