Old and New
Programming classical music concerts in the 21st century presents its own set of challenges. On the one hand, we have a wider range of repertoire available to us than at any previous time in history; it is also easier than ever before, thanks to the Internet, to research unfamiliar pieces. Yet current programming too often seems to cling to familiar standards; at times I even get the distinct impression that an increasingly small percentage of the available repertoire is deemed “safe” for audiences. And when new music is performed, it often gives the feeling of “checking the boxes” rather than being integrated organically into the program.
Ideally, a modern-day program should blend old and new in a way where the two complement and enhance one another. A significant impetus for Sunday’s program with the Montclair Orchestra was the desire to honor Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and longtime Montclair resident George Walker. His compositional output covers a wide stylistic range, with many of his pieces quite challenging for performer and listener alike. His Lyric for Strings, adapted by the composer for full string orchestra from his String Quartet No. 1 (1946), is in an altogether more accessible vein and has entered the permanent repertory as an American classic.
With Walker’s “Lyric” thus established as a centerpiece for the program, a logical counterpart from the classical era was Mozart’s supremely lyrical Clarinet Concerto (performed on Sunday by MET Orchestra principal clarinetist Innhyuck Cho), a masterpiece from the composer’s final year that seems to rise above all human suffering. Providing contrast is the scintillating Nonetto II (2000) by renowned Finnish piano virtuoso Olli Mustonen; here similarly adapted for string orchestra, it inhabits a sound world reminiscent of his compatriot Sibelius, but the pulsating rhythms evoke Baroque concerti grossi and Vivaldi in particular.
Rounding out the program is one of Mozart’s crowning symphonic glories, his Symphony No. 40 in g minor. Too often thought of today as not “heavy” enough to close a concert, or placed only in the context of all-Mozart evenings, its monumental achievement is hard to dispute when heard as the main symphonic argument of a program. Its supreme beauty, deep emotional anguish, and extreme instrumental virtuosity remain remarkable even today. I would argue that these qualities shine even more brightly when old and new are juxtaposed as in Sunday’s program.
Don’t miss this concert! It’s at Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair this Sunday, March 10 at 5:00 pm, and tickets are available here.