“Now that's music,” whispered the man behind me to his companion, as Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic launched into the merry A-major opening bars of Mendelssohn's “Italian” Symphony. After a stiff dose of forward-marching works from his own century to start off last week's program, my neighbor had finally achieved heartsease in this music from the listener-friendly distant past. Never mind that neither of the two preceding works – Dmitri Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto and Jerry Goldsmith's Music for Orchestra – ranked particularly high as standard-bearers for 20th-century innovation. The lightweight Shostakovich concerto, written as an adult toy for the composer's pianist son Maxim and masterfully toyed with last week by Yefim Bronfman, burbles along in a crystalline F-major, throws in some quirky rhythmic changes to recognize its own time and place, but tells us little we couldn't learn from a scampering, virtuoso exercise from a century before. Goldsmith's eight-minute sequence of agreeable noises, composed in 1972 but only now achieving its West Coast premiere – so much for Southern California and its close-knit arts community – is the same kind of loose compilation of favorite moments from here and there (Stravinsky, Ravel, Rach, you name it) that light up the soundtrack creations by some of Hollywood's more literate music spinners.

The music page of the March 22 New York Times carried a couple of articles that explored the queasy relationship between the music of this century and what should be (but seldom is) a receptive audience, scattering blame over the fallow fields as a farmer might manure. The lively, controversial Paul Griffiths takes to task a pronouncement by Julian Lloyd Webber (brother of Andrew and a cellist on his own) that the blame for the decline of admiration and support for new music rests on the composers of the last 40 or so years, who have failed to provide the public with music they could like. New music terrifies people or makes them angry, says Lloyd Webber; they then seek revenge by boycotting the classical masters as well. Not only Carter and Babbitt but also Beethoven and Haydn wither away, and record producers go belly-up. Balderdash, retorts Griffiths. Fear stalks the land, he agrees, but the blame shouldn't fall only on the composers.

“Exposure to the best new music,” he claims, “remains woefully inadequate,” and the entire musical landscape – from its failure to take root in schools to the timidity of managements to risk brave programming – shares the blame.

Farther down the page is Peter Gelb's message of comfort and joy. Yes, says the president of Sony Classical, composers of new music have egregiously misbehaved in the last four or five decades. “A major record label,” he states, “has an obligation to make records that are relevant . . . It is neither commercially rewarding nor artistically relevant for us to make recordings that sell only a few thousand copies . . . For far too long classical-music audiences have been subjected to – and sometimes suffered through – an almost exclusive diet of new music that was atonal and difficult to enjoy.” Accessible new music, claims Gelb, has until now been “blocked by a cabal of atonal composers, academics and [!] classical-music critics”; now – thanks to the emergence of a new breed of “relevant” composers (all under contract to Sony, as it happens), typified by the slushmastery of John Corigliano and the slick opportunism of Tan Dun – the millennium is at hand, the atonal beast has been slain. (I love the way Gelb employs the epithet “atonal” as a synonym for “bogeyman.”) As for the notion of ascribing blame for music's problems to the musical press – beheading the messenger for the message, in other words – would that we made that much difference in the health of new music or old!

What saddens me the most in Gelb's article is the realization that he is the direct descendant of one of classical music's unchallenged heroes, the late Goddard Lieberson. Long before the Sony takeover, when the label bore the revered name of Columbia, Lieberson built a stupendous catalog of the new and important music of his time: a vast American repertory including songs by Copland and chamber music by Schuman, the first recordings of Boulez and Stockhausen, the first samples of the emerging electronic music, even a big and disturbing piece of minimalism, Steve Reich's Come Out. These records never sold more than Gelb's “only a few thousand copies”; Lieberson liked to fess up that the losses were covered by sales of Columbia's Andre Kostelanetz and original-cast discs. His legacy – which also included extensive surveys of such giants as Stravinsky and Schoenberg – added up to one of the most glowing testimonials to the relevance of new-music recording. There was word a couple of years ago that Sony was planning a major reissue of the Lieberson repertory; then there was word that the people hired to pursue that project had all been sacked. Sony's one current new-music project of great value, but of uncertain future, is its Gyorgy Ligeti series under Esa-Pekka Salonen – financed not by Sony but by a private individual who happens to worship Ligeti's music, but who also happens at the moment to be in an English prison awaiting trial on a manslaughter rap.

For about 150 years (1720-1870, say) of its millennium-long history, serious music derived most of its motive power from harmony, the interaction of consonance and dissonance to develop a sequence of urgencies and resolutions. Drama was heightened when a resolution took an unexpected turn: the shattering key change at the end of the “Crucifixus” in Bach's Mass, the howling of Beethoven's trumpets in the Funeral March of the “Eroica”; the torrents of audible ecstasy as Siegmund draws the sword in Wagner's Die Walkure. Before those 150 years, and since that time, music has drawn upon other devices as well.

In the second of two concerts last week, at Irvine's Barclay Theater, the Arditti Quartet, masters of contemporary chamber music in any of the most daunting styles you can name, began their program with the “Grosse Fugue” that Beethoven had originally planned as the finale of his Opus 130 Quartet but which he later – on the urging of friends, ancestors perhaps of Peter Gelb – replaced with a kinder, gentler piece. It's an amazing work, that 15-minute exercise in contrapuntal perversity, with Beethoven hurling great handfuls of craggy, twisted melodic lines at one another and commanding them to cohere, and with the players themselves – yes, even the phenomenal Ardittis – driven to violate their instruments' gentler nature with heaven-storming squalls and outcries.

The remainder of the program that night included three more-recent works of killer status – Elliott Carter's new Quartet No. 5, the Second Quartet of Akira Nishimura and the Second of Ligeti; the Carter and Nishimura had also been on the previous night's concert at the County Museum, with lesser pieces by Jonathan Harvey and Roger Reynolds. At the Irvine concert the Beethoven of 1826 seemed to belong in this late-20th-century company, joining heart and mind to share the element that above all sustains the art of great composers of any time: the passion to be brave, and to assume bravery in the audience as well. The crowd at the County Museum was full of Arditti groupies (I am one); the Irvine turnout was older, subscribers to a chamber-music series that had previously included more comforting fare. Yet the exit doors were seldom used during this extraordinary concert; bravery was in the air.

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