The expression “new music” is a confusing one: It does not mean all recent music, but instead something quite narrow and specific. When critics talk about “new music,” they’re speaking to this subset of the art music tradition that’s contemporary. We can not call it classical any more, since there’s nothing either classical or classic about it. It might use the conventional instruments of the orchestra or it might not (it may use electronic equipment or scissors and fishing line). It tends to be, as with all art following the early 20th century, abstract and cerebral, concerned with breaking formal definitions and boundaries. Its composers are more often than not associated with college music departments. It tends to be resistant to plebeian diversions like melody or normal rhythm, and because of this it’s a rarefied pleasure that brings a very small audience.

This audience is also obsolete. A sea of white heads stuffed a concert hall in Toronto on Sunday evening, for a performance of four major works of the 21st century.

This concert was one of a long-running series named New Music Concerts, whose musical director is the venerable Robert Aitken, a composer and flutist. Four pieces were played, all on traditional instruments: a string trio from the American avant-gardist composer Elliott Carter, who died in 2012; a world premiere clarinet concerto, with a large chamber orchestra, by Canadian Paul Frehner; a similarly multi-instrument piece with a piano, from 2000, by Canadian Linda Caitlin Smith; and a big and noisy percussion concerto by Dutch composer Robin de Raaff.

A preconcert talk with the composers and Mr. Aitken exemplified the issue of audience. Preconcert talks are usually supposed to provide a primer to those that are not knowledgeable about the sort of art going to be performed. If you visit a preconcert talk in a huge opera, you’re likely to hear some basic introductory information about the time and the preoccupations of this job. At new-music events, but the talk will be for those in the know. It’ll use the words chromaticism, counterpoint and harmonics — all conditions that will need to be clarified to non-musicians. From the audience I realized one famous filmmaker, 1 avant-gardist composer, one renowned sound poet. They all know one another.

Needless to say, there has to be a location where aficionados of rarefied tastes can collect, but one wonders if this strategy alone will be eternally productive. After all, this audience (me included) will be dead very soon.

And the work itself isn’t nearly so off-putting because its ambience threatens. The first part of the evening, Mr. Carter’s Accordes — a bit first performed in 2011, before that composer died at age 103 — is a glowing, nervous, trembling piece, a part of agitation and busyness and multilayered complexity, essentially modernist. It’s played by a violin, a viola and a cello, but, unusually, the viola is the dominant voice. This was subtly and invisibly accomplished by violist Doug Perry.

Mr. Frehner’s mysterious and thrilling clarinet concerto, titled Cloak (in a reference to cloak-and-dagger spy books), came next. Mr. Frehner had instructed the clarinet soloist, Max Christie, to play in a distinctive manner in order to obtain two tones simultaneously, which can be more unsettling than beautiful, but the bit achieved a shimmering brassiness which was at once entertaining, lively and somewhat threatening. Mr. Frehner conducted this himself.

The highlight of the day was the piano-chamber orchestra piece Course of Uneven Stones (2000) by American/Canadian composer Ms. Smith.

The Canadian pianist Eve Egoyan, with whom Ms. Smith has collaborated many times, played with this melancholic, reflective, tranquil piece with her typical sensitivity. This bit, unlike the others, is based on a pretty melody. Ms. Smith has stated that she had been attempting to compose a “non-heroic” function for the piano, which could make it a sort of “anti-concerto.” Her goal, she said, was to compose a music which turns inward as opposed to outward.

Really, the quietude of the piece was compared to the bold clanginess of this previous one, Mr. de Raaff’s thundering Percussion Concerto (2013), which involved the agile percussionist Ryan Scott leaping about a huge arsenal of bongos, marimba, temple blocks, vibraslaps and other spooky sound-makers. This piece was so competitive and fuming it was hard to care too much about the subtle colors and hums that Mr. Scott is so adept at evoking out of his skins and tubes. The piece was conducted by Mr. Aitken, who did not seem to have a perfect accord with his performers.

The age of the audience with this frequently radical work has always puzzled me. Why would older people be more receptive to the radical and challenging than young individuals are? Perhaps because they are not as conservative. At any rate, something has to change.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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