Past Particles 

Wednesday, Aug 23 2006

Backward, Turn Backward

At 14, the precocious Wolfgang Mozart had already turned out 10 symphonies, four operas, three concertos, masses, sonatas, a string quartet and a basket of serenades. At that age, the slowpoke Jay Greenberg has ground out a mere five symphonies, one chamber work and a clutch of overtures. True, his time has also been taken up in newspaper interviews (The New York Times, August 13), in tossing a ball around for the cameras to assert his American-boyishness, and, one assumes, in listening to and jotting down juicy passages from the grand symphonic repertory out of which to build his own oncoming glory.

That commodity is already well-launched. The Times article strikes a proper tone of awe toward a prodigy who demanded his own cello at 3 and invented his own notation system to compose for it. He soaks up the musical world around him, best of all the “Mars” music from Holst’s The Planets and — sure enough — succeeds in regurgitating large clods of his own in that same musical style. Now the world has been endowed with a big chance to meet young Jay Greenberg and his music. On the Sony Classical label, once valuable for bringing us the best experimental and new music, there is now a full hour of Jay Greenberg’s expertly rewriting the mannerisms and footprints of his musical past: a Fifth Symphony and a String Quintet. “For him it is 1904,” marvels one interviewer, “and anything is possible.”

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Yes, 1904. Let’s see: The young Rachmaninoff pokes around in the trash bins for discarded melodic gambits. His countryman Rimsky-Korsakov collects bits of tinsel for his hootchy-kootch Oriental numbers. Jolly old Sir Edward Elgar and his dour colleague Jean Sibelius busily stir in the musical equivalent of cornstarch to darken and thicken the orchestration of their sonic landscapes; on the Continent, Max Reger’s fugues and canons accomplish the same. Little do any of these believe that, a century later, an earnest young New York schoolboy will still be constructing overtures and symphonies with the same melodic turgidity, building the same tottering musical structures out of counterpoints that ultimately self-strangle on their own complexity and collapse under the weight of their own fragility.

The shadow of Mozart usually falls across reports of latter-day wonder-kids; it doesn’t in Matthew Gurewitsch’s Times piece on Greenberg, but I’m sure it lurks close at hand. The difference, however, is obvious. Mozart composed in the latest manner of his day, not in the manner of 1904, or whatever its equivalent throwback at the time. “I think originality is way overprized,” says Sam Adler, one of Greenberg’s teachers, in the article. There is nothing wrong, in other words, with expending the cost of a Juilliard education in learning how to recompose Brahms counterpoints in a Sibelius orchestration and, thus, assuring the world that modern music doesn’t matter. “The allegros [in the Greenberg Fifth] have the swashbuckling appeal of movie music,” writes Gurewitsch, and he’s wrong there too. The best movie music these days has moved far ahead of the swashbuckling glop that fills out most of this symphony. Even the clever score of a lightweight movie like Wordplay transcends what “movie music” used to portend. And Crash takes it miles further still; so much for movie music as metaphor. If originality be overprized these days, Sam Adler, so is the blatant practice of helping yourself to other people’s music.

Mahler Mania

Sometimes I start to think that everything at the Hollywood Bowl is just as right as right can be: that the sound quality is fine, that the lights and the teevee are splendid, and that the food guys have been pared down to minimum interference. Then something happens like the occurrence last Thursday, when the Goodyear blimp took to the sky over the Bowl directly at the start of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and buzzed the space with its racket and its neon signage for nearly half the length of the overture — not a casual passing but a deliberate and extended interference. Even if Goodyear were the only product on the market, I would drive on rims; we are owed an apology.

Edo de Waart was the guest conductor, and Mahler’s First Symphony the evening’s major offering. The Dutch have Mahler in their bones; always have and always will. It may be because of the early friendship between Mahler and Amsterdam’s Willem Mengelberg: a unique matchup between genuinely erratic personalities. It might be something deeper that I won’t try to explain, but in Amsterdam last year for the first time in my life, I felt Mahler’s closeness. I feel it in the first movement — the quirks, the invasions by clouds of cuckoos — and in the third movement with its frenetic klezmer band that comes and goes. Maybe it was my imagination, but I think de Waart agreed with me on these particular quirks. Something in this symphony, with all its rudeness of language and its tendency to chew its cabbage a few extra times — which de Waart nicely controlled by eliminating a couple of repeats — comes very close to a listener’s ear in a properly measured performance. That’s what happened this time around.?

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