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We play dead people

By Milton Moore

Publication: The Day

Published October 25. 2013 4:00AM

Is a 150-year-old music score a sacred relic, to be silently received like the Sacrament? Or is it, as author Christopher Small once characterized it, "the congealed remains of what was once white-hot inspiration?"

Well, it's probably a little of both, but surely congealed Beethoven has more power than white-hot Yanni. And it's hard to fault Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshi Shimada for being caught in our cultural cross-currents of craving for both the comfort of the well-known and the discovery of the new.

But if you read through the programs for this season's six ECSO concerts, you can't help but wonder what happened to the Toshi Shimada who has repeatedly said, "We are an American orchestra." Only three pieces out of the 19 scheduled are American, and this is a double-edged slice through the fabric of music, since so much of the American repertoire is relatively new music.

The result: This very fine orchestra will perform just 14 minutes of music from this millennium- music by someone who is among us at the present time - in the entire season.

This is not the music director we have come to know.

"If only I had 30 programs a year like (New York Philharmonic's Alan) Gilbert has," the conductor says wistfully, and you have to sympathize with his plight. Shimada has remarkably broad musical horizons and tastes, but he is, after all, an employee, and financial times are tough. The orchestra is focusing its season on time-tested audience favorites, such as the Tchaikovsky piano concerto to be performed tomorrow night.

It is seemingly newness itself that repels some subscribers, even though when they probably don't even notice, let alone run for the exit, when they hear the music of Ligeti or Silvestrov or Glass on a movie soundtrack. Today's music is all around us, so why not on our orchestra's schedule? There is plenty of music from the old playbook that some people don't like (I received a bunch of emails from audience members who couldn't stand the endless Mahler Symphony No. 2 performed here), but age seems to put a patina on scores, and to many, there is a reverence in approaching a symphony concert that is unlike any other entertainment experience.

But once you elevate the semi-religious meaning of secular music, you are on a slippery slope. Is this entertainment or spiritual enlightenment? That answer is surely found in mind of the listener alone. After all, there are people who are uplifted by "Finding Nemo."

Perhaps we're always lagging back a few generations, largely because of forces on the boards of directors who still psychically cling to the hand of the past. It's easy to imagine the dowager empress and major donor intoning gravely: "My mother always took me to hear the BSO rehearsals every Friday, and Munch never played anything like THAT!"

European orchestras play a lot of new American music, but, of course, their great-grandparents heard new Brahms. To play contemporary American music to an American audience is to reach out and say, "we are you." Clearly, a six-concert season without some of the great 19th- and 20th-century European works would be foolish, since the old and new inform each other, and we all crave certain concert favorites. But to play five sixths of your concerts without a note of contemporary music is to fearfully whisper: "We play dead people."

By sticking with the music that Toscanini performed 60 years ago, we cast this team of fine musicians as a cipher, the musical equivalent of Civil War re-enacters, keeping the past alive through their dedication.

Don't get me wrong: I love so much music from the past. But I also want to be woken from my reverie by the buzz of the new. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The composers of the past drew from the music in the air. Schubert wrote so many marches because he lived in a Vienna at war, and the streets were full of moving regiments. The Tchiakovsky symphony to be played this season is a-boil with Russian folk tunes. There may be something structurally different between hearing a song on the radio and, as Handel supposedly did, hearing a harmonious blacksmith whistling a tune, but the concept is the same: taking musical material that got stuck in your ear and transforming it into something long form, something with a technical flair, something bigger and better.

Today, the cross-pollination goes both ways. British rocker Brian Eno (he of Roxy Music) was influenced by American composers like Steve Reich and developed a whole new style of music Eno called "ambient" music. Symphony orchestras now play Eno's scores, just as classic rock stations play his Roxy fare. Ravel drew from jazz, yet his music is certainly not jazz.

To hear a new work for the first time is a totally different experience from hearing an old favorite. You sit on the edge of your seat: Is that the theme? Did it just move to the winds? No, that's a counter- theme. Is a crescendo brewing? What's next? What's happening in the low strings? Is that an earthquake that is going to sweep the stage, or is it just a temblor?

When I reflect on Shimada's first four seasons here, my fondest memories come from scores from different eras: an 18th-century Haydn symphony, a 19th-century Schumann concerto and the world premiere of a symphony by a young Ukrainian woman who was in the hall. This is not an either/or proposition.

By definition, most music written in Brahms or Beethoven's day was second-rate. It was the presence Brahms and Beethoven that made it such. The same will be true of new music today, but how will we know what is first-rate if we don't perform it, if we don't care enough about the musicians who keep the tradition alive to hear it? I refuse to accept that orchestral music is a thing of the past.

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