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The following blog entry was originally posted in March 2010.  It is being posted again as a companion piece for this weekend’s “Ask the Dean” segment on Arts Alive.

By Gail Eichenthal

This week’s edition of Ask the Dean on our Saturday morning program Arts Alive treads into tricky territory. A listener who identified himself as “Modern Music Hater” asked Dean Rob Cutietta of the USC Thornton School of Music why there are no melodies in 20th century music. Dean Rob was quick to assure MMH that there are indeed melodies in the works of such composers as Bartok, Stravinsky, Berg, and Shostakovich, to name just a handful, but they are melodies that reflect the time of their composition. It would have been disingenuous for, say, Benjamin Britten in his great War Requiem to write hummable tunes in the style of Fritz Kreisler. Music, like art and architecture, progresses, inescapably mirroring the world it comes from.

My first visceral experience of contemporary music occurred in my late teens, when my dad and I attended Peter Serkin’s recital at UCLA’s Royce Hall. On the program, a single work: the complete cycle of Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus by Olivier Messiaen. It is something like two-and-a-half hours. Naturally, Serkin, intriguingly garbed all in white, complete with Nehru jacket, played it straight through without intermission. Oh yes, you guessed it: by memory. It was hypnotizing. I kept looking over at my father to see if he was either fuming, or sound asleep. Like me, he was transfixed. I had no idea he was that musically open-minded. Actually, I’m not sure he was until that mind-boggling, spiritually profound Sunday afternoon.

In a pre-concert chat with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Deborah Borda a few seasons ago, I kicked off the event by asking them this question: what was the first piece of 20th century music you were truly thrilled by, the piece that took you over the threshold? I was amazed to learn that for Salonen, too, it was a piece by Messiaen: only in his case, a much louder piece: the Turangalila Symphony. He was eleven.

When I asked Deborah Borda to share her response, she e-mailed me the following note:

“Funny—I always really enjoyed contemporary music and liked the exploration of listening. But “true love”, well, that is another matter. And I am not going to count Stravinsky. Somehow—that doesn’t seem fair. For me it was that special “click” when I heard John Adams SHAKER LOOPS. Oh yes—and I fondly recall the world premier of Adam’s HARMONIUM where I almost passed out. I still listen to that work all the time. WILD NIGHTS!!!!”

So what can you do to approach what many find alienating or even unattractive music, music that doesn’t sound like Fritz Kreisler?

As Esa-Pekka and Deborah counseled the Disney Hall audience that night, just open your ears. Listen to things more than once. Give the music a chance to work its magic. Listen for textures, colors, moods. Above all, listen!

And tune in Saturday nights at 10pm to Alan Chapman’s Modern Times! (This weekend it’s a Bartok Birthday Bash…..should be bracingly beautiful!)

As promised on Ask the Dean, here is a starter kit for the contemporary music-challenged: My thanks to Jim Svejda for the great performance suggestions, and to Steve Coghill for his help in linking the recordings below to ArkivMusic.com, in case you want to dip your toe…. well…. ear in. These are somewhat randomly chosen…pieces I fell in love with not long after my immersion in Messiaen that golden afternoon.

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer, conductor

OR

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Tashi (Peter Serkin, piano; Ida Kavafian, violin; Fred Sherry, cello;
Richard Stoltzman, clarinet)

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn, conductor

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet
Borodin Quartet and Elisabeth Leonskaya, piano

And one from Jim Svejda himself:

Douglas Lilburn: A Song of Islands, tone poem for orchestra
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra , James Judd conductor


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