A sampling of modern composition

A concert by the American Composers Orchestra in Zankel Hall included the premiere of a piece by Kate Soper. She is a doctoral student at Columbia. We heard the first movement of a three-movement work, now is forever. (Today’s composers are big on small letters.) The first movement is a kind of scena for soprano and orchestra, and it sets a poem by Jorie Graham about Orpheus and Eurydice.

Soper premiered the work herself, as soprano. Not many classical composers have sung the premieres of their works. They tend to play the piano, or conduct. Who was the last to sing, Samuel Barber? Soper is a tall, beautiful, self-confident woman, and she was charming and modest in her program notes, as well as in the short film the presenters showed about her.

Soper is not a classically-trained singer, as she freely admits. But she is a competent and fearless singer. She has a smallish voice, and she sometimes could not be heard through the orchestra. But she clearly knows how the piece should go. I was surprised, incidentally, that she used a score.

Her piece is like many other contemporary pieces: busy-busy. It is also markedly American. It is extreme in various ways: extreme in feeling, dynamics, rhythm and vocal range. Her notes match her conception of how the words should be spoken, I gather. The ending is nicely and appropriately abrupt: “and what is possible swiftly took hold.”

I can’t say that I was taken with the work, but I would like to hear it again, which is higher praise than it may sound. The piece is certainly not boring—not boring for a moment. And Soper is a young composer who is working things out. True, she’s a year older than Schubert was when he died. By the same token, she’s 71 years younger than Elliott Carter was when he died.

Also in Zankel Hall, Nicolas Hodges played a recital. He is a British pianist who plays a good deal of modern music. His program included a new piece by his countryman, Sir Harrison Birtwistle. This was Gigue Machine, a contemporary look at an old form, as the title tells you.

This piece is mainly a festival of rhythm, I think. The composer noodles around: sometimes playfully, sometimes fiercely, now and then tenderly. The pianist slaps at the keyboard. Frankly, the notes seemed wrong to me, though surely they seem right to the composer. How about to the pianist? I confess that the notes seemed to me virtually random. If the pianist had been playing wrong notes, who would have known?

Obviously, Sir Harrison speaks a language that I don’t speak, and that I can’t make heads or tails of. I trust there is a method to what strikes me as madness. But “trust” is the word: I cannot see it, or hear it, for myself. Andy Warhol said, “Art is what you can get away with.” There is an element of that in music, too.

Marc-André Hamelin, (c) Fran KaufmanAnother piano recital took place at the 92nd Street Y—this one by Marc-André Hamelin, the Canadian virtuoso. He is a pianist who rolls his own: that is, he also composes. And he often gives his audience something from his pen, usually something brief, often an encore.

In this program, he played his Variations on a Theme by Paganini: and you know the theme—the Caprice No. 24, in A minor. This caprice is a gift that keeps on giving. It has inspired almost as much music as Orpheus and Eurydice. Many composers have written variations on the piece, including Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Actually, Paganini himself was the first.

The piece is a fine one to write variations on, sure. But that’s not the only reason composers keep doing it. They do it because others have—because it’s a tradition—and they want to have their say.

Hamelin’s say is a rompy, riffy joy. In the course of his variations, he quotes from a variety of music: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the famous D-flat variation from Rachmaninoff’s Paganini rhapsody; Liszt’s Campanella. The piece is nutty, but nuttily wonderful, and the audience whooped at the end.