Claiming culture, marketing emotion

Oregon Mozart Players concert explores new worlds with music by living composers—and raises questions of preparation and appropriated meaning

By DANIEL HEILA

Beall Hall at the University of Oregon School of Music was almost at capacity on October 12th for the Oregon Mozart PlayersNew Worlds concert–the first of three 2019-2020 season concerts featuring contemporary classical compositions. The progressive program and the exciting young guest artists–Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet–promised a compelling listening experience. Two works by American composers under the age of 50 were the program’s highlights: Teen Murti by Reena Esmail and How Wild the Sea by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Both pieces featured non-Eurocentric themes, and Esmail’s piece was crafted using materials of a nonwestern musical tradition: the Hindustani music of Northern India. Esmail is Indian-American and has completed significant studies of Hindustani music in India (Fulbright-Nehru scholarship), and brings that pedigree to her writing. For his part, Puts (whose opera Silent Night won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music) drew inspiration for his string quartet concerto from tragic media images of Japanese victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

The two works were masterfully crafted, rewarding attentive listeners with multi-textured soundscapes, harmonic excursions into unfamiliar territory, and bravura ensemble and solo passages that highlighted the virtuosity of both the ensemble and the guest artists. So it was with a sinking heart–just a few bars into Esmail’s sensitive treatment of Hindustani music–that I realized the Oregon Mozart Players had bitten off more than they could chew with Teen Murti.

The piece opened with layered melismatic lines over a drone: a quintessential Indian music structure. The texture was thick with “blue” notes (microtones achieved by fingering a touch higher or lower on the neck and via glissandi) and meaty low-register trills in the first violins. My ears were primed. But then there was a spate of stuttering pizzicato. The string players were hesitant, not wanting to be the one to plink out of place, thereby rendering their entrance scattershot. A growing sense of ill ease permeated the performance from that point on, the players struggling to get through the piece without a train wreck.

In an effective, coloristic section of ad lib, portamento-laden phrases in the violins held aloft what could have been a languid, sensuous cello obligato from within the orchestral section. Unfortunately, the cellist was so focused on the page that her performance was lackluster. To be fair, rehearsal time is at a premium even for the more regularly programmed works from the classical canon, let alone unfamiliar new works that may present challenges the ensemble has not faced before. 

The ensemble continued their unsteady way through the lovely piece, doing their best to execute the freely metered, elastic rhythms. A final return to the opening liquid microtone textures brought the structure to a satisfying conclusion, capped off with an inspired melismatic solo statement from concertmaster Alice Blankenship. The piece had desperately needed that kind of emotional commitment from the beginning.

This is music that goes against the grain of western music in so many ways, and to ask an ensemble that specializes in the most western of western music to embrace it was perhaps poor judgement. It is hard to see an ensemble struggle, especially one with such high standards. But salt was rubbed into the wound when artistic director/conductor Kelly Kuo made awkward excuses for the subpar performance, mentioning the challenging rhythmical elements. Perhaps it would have been better to sing the praises of the work and move on to the next piece instead of acknowledging the weakness of the performance.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Processing tragedy

On his well-crafted website, Kevin Puts writes about having written music associated with tragedy: “It seems I am always making memorials, or trying to process tragedy through my writing.” Often these works are inspired by images the composer has seen. Falling Dream: a couple leaping together from one of the burning towers during the 9/11 attacks. His Clarinet Concerto: images from a documentary of families mourning at the graves of fallen soldiers of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The impetus for How Wild the Sea was televised imagery of an elderly man, trapped on the roof of his home, being swept along on the violent Tōhoku tsunami tide, having just lost his wife to the tumult.

Delgani Quartet opened the piece, with a gentle to-and-fro motion of arpeggios and running scales that evoked an undulating sea, consonant intervals projecting a deceptive benevolence. After an abrupt shift to dissonance, the to-and-froing morphed into an ominous swelling and contracting as the orchestra washed over the solo ensemble. This morass of portent gradually coalesced into a clearly metered rhythmic section that highlighted declamatory, unison orchestral statements.

The concerto continued in this manner, exploiting the protagonist role of the quartet against the “forces of nature” portrayed in the orchestra. Puts’s brilliant orchestration had the quartet sending phrases off into the brass and percussion sections, creating motivic currents which gave the work tremendous sonic depth. Despite the predictable tolling chimes and woodwind intonation issues, OMP delivered a much more energetic performance than with Esmail’s work, including an outstanding contribution by the french horn section.

Puts’s treatment of the quartet as a single voice–shared rhythmic and melodic material activated, agitated, and modulated from within by the separate instruments–created a powerful counter to the orchestra’s aural dominance. Delgani was in their element, their tight ensemble rapport executing dense contrapuntal and rapid scalar sections with enthusiastic synergy.

A return to the oceanic textures of the opening–this time the underlying anxiety retreating in dark brass reverberations–signaled the conclusion of the work. A few errant currents of phrases and motifs passed between sections, and a tic-toc brass-and-percussion figure guided the orchestra to a textural cadence and a unison solo statement by the quartet: a spine tingling conclusion that was unfortunately marred by two full orchestra hits that seemed counterintuitive and awkwardly self-conscious.

Creative impetus, or mere marketing?

I feel compelled, in today’s atmosphere of transparency of intent and growing respect for difference (cultural, sexual, religious or otherwise), to mention a criticism I have for Puts’s work. With regard to the two previously mentioned tragedy-inspired works (Falling Dream, Clarinet Concerto), I understand the impetus. These are issues close to home, events that affected and continue to affect Americans viscerally. But I have observed a tendency (especially in more conservative contemporary classical communities) for composers to jump at monumental events as impetus for composition. I feel that this practice can be a minefield of unintended effrontery to victims of these tragedies or members of the cultures that have been afflicted, especially if the events happened at a significant distance to the composer’s life, lifestyle, and culture. 

So, I wonder about the respectfulness of writing pieces inspired by a kind of media-driven voyeurism. I can understand using the Japanese tragedy as impetus if the composer had a direct connection to the Japanese disaster; Puts did have a piece performed in a Japanese town damaged by an earthquake in the 90s, but that seems a distant relationship to the Tōhoku earthquake. Simply appropriating the meaning in a Japanese man’s suffering without any deliberate, respectful reference to his culture seems a particularly good example of cultural hubris. How Wild the Sea used no elements of Japan’s rich musical culture, historical or contemporary. I can imagine there were many touch points for creativity in the aftermath of the disaster: favorite community songs and folksongs of the region, to name just two. Why were these not explored?

Remove the program note’s mention of the impetus and the composer’s explanation on his website, and the piece bears no connection to Japanese culture. So why just a textual reference to a tragedy that captured the world’s attention? Could this be marketing? Is this a composer seeding his work with imagery to engage the morbid fascination and pity the observer feels for the suffering? I certainly hope not. But, I feel that there just wasn’t enough relevant content in How Wild the Sea to comfortably support the composer’s decision to apply the tragic imagery of a doomed man’s suffering to his music.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.

The Oregon Mozart Players are to be commended for their programming of living American composers. They are participating in a rising tide of performing organizations discovering the amazing variety, accessibility, and artistry of American contemporary classical music. Perhaps they might find a more copacetic rapport with the more pulse-oriented pieces of the minimalists (Philip Glass’ symphonies, for instance) and post-minimalists (John Adams’s lighter orchestral works) or the abstracted tonality of the current roster of young Brooklynites (Andrew Norman, Missy Mazzoli).

However the orchestra’s programming develops, Oregon Mozart Players have established themselves as committed champions of contemporary classical music, willing to take risks and create memorable music of our time.

Oregon Mozart Players will feature music of Frederik Magle on December 6 and 7 and of Michael Torke on March 28, 2020.

Daniel Heila writes music, loves words, and plays flute in Eugene, OR.

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