When the Monday Evening Concerts began in 1939 — they were called “Evenings on the Roof” back then — the first composers bore names strange and unfamiliar to local audiences: Béla Bartók, Charles Ives, Ferruccio Busoni. Audiences came, anyway. The composers on next week’s Monday Evening Concert also bear unfamiliar names: Andrew Norman, Brian Current, Ana Lara, and there’s a good chance you’ll be there, anyway. (February 19, 8 p.m., Zipper Hall)
I sat with Donald Crockett a few days ago, leafing through manuscripts of the six new works on that enterprising program. Professor of composition at USC, Crockett has been in charge of handing out encouraging words (and their opposite) to several generations of young composers; he will lead XTET, the excellent freelance ensemble, through the whichy thickets of that program’s new works. “One thing about new music these days,” says Crockett, “it looks good. Anyone with the right software can put out a professional-looking hot-off-the-press page of music and send it anywhere in the world. There’s a danger, of course: Just because it looks good (compared to the pen-and-ink scratches that used to pass for musical manuscripts in pre-computer days), that doesn’t mean that it is good.”
Why bother to compose serious music these days? Everybody has a hard-luck story about composers (conductors, violinists, critics, etc.) going broke, and yet they keep on. “Right now,” says Andrew Norman, “there are no ‘must writes’ on my horizon. I am just following my creative interest and trying to hone my voice and my technique one piece at a time.” Norman’s Gran Turismo places him as the one local composer on the Monday Evening program, although he is currently living his own gran turismo on a Prix de Rome in Italy. Three years ago, in these pages, I put down a piece from his student days as “juvenile fluff.” At USC, he obviously underwent a quick metamorphosis. “Early on,” says Crockett, “he came to my classes writing a soaring, Barberesque kind of romantic melody. Now his music is more complex than mine.”
What can you tell a 17-year-old who comes to your classroom with hopes of becoming a “serious classical” composer? “First,” says Steve Stucky, “I have to say that there isn’t very much I can add that that 17-year-old doesn’t already know, and that is a source of continual amazement.” Consulting composer for new music at the L.A. Philharmonic — where he has been a guiding light in the exemplary “Green Umbrella” concerts since 1988 — and professor of composition at Cornell, Stucky chose the music for the upcoming Monday Evening Concert “partly out of things I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time and keep putting off.
“Sure, I have to tell a hopeful composer that it’s a low-percentage game these days. Even so, the ways of thinking about music are so much richer, so much more exciting; the ways of distributing music are vastly greater than before.”
I ask him about stylistic boundaries. In 1939, Californians knew nothing about making it in the New York music scene unless they moved there. There was a stylistic barrier between East and West Coast. Is there, still?
“No; it’s just too easy to move around. There’s nothing inherently ‘Californian’ about Andrew’s piece except that he composed it here and that I happen to love it. On this program, we have Ana Lara from Mexico; the Long Beach Symphony has played her music. And you’ll also love Brian Current’s piece from Canada. It’s as if Elliott Carter wrote only arpeggios.”
Surf and Turf
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There isn’t any music by Matt McBane on this upcoming program, but he’s out of the same USC academic swirl that spun forth Andrew Norman, and his life since graduation is a pretty good paradigm for making it as a serious musician these days.
“Getting out of school at age 22, I decided if I wanted something to happen, I had to make it happen. In 2003, I began talking with the Calder Quartet and with the city of Carlsbad — my and Calder member Ben Jacobson’s hometown — and came up with the idea for a Carlsbad Music Festival. Starting a festival with no prior arts-administration experience has been an incredibly steep learning curve, but I am very happy with where the festival is now. Last year, the Calders performed the winner of our first Young Composers Competition; the New York–based NOW Ensemble performed an entire program of music by young composers, and a large ensemble concert featured many of the best young musicians in L.A.: all these musicians together in the same place, sharing ideas and hearing each other’s work. Our next Carlsbad Festival will be in September 2007, with So Percussion, Real Quiet and the Calder Quartet.”
Paradoxically, in the midst of this California impact, Matt decided to move to New York. “My choice was based on a number of reasons, the biggest of which was simply the desire to live somewhere other than SoCal while I’m still young. I wanted to start an ensemble/band, and so I did. Tentatively, it’s called Abstraction; we had our first show in December, and we play only original music — by me, that is.
“Beyond that is the feeling, which many of my musician friends unfortunately share, that the Los Angeles musical establishment is still reluctant to endorse local composers, most of all the composers who haven’t yet established themselves elsewhere, and that there are more opportunities in New York for emerging composers — through commissions, competitions, grants, performance opportunities, etc. All that being said, I love L.A., am keeping my musical life there as active as I can, and plan on moving back in a couple of years. Also, I could never stay in New York for too long; it is just too damn cold here to surf most of the year.”