Anne Midgette on Neglected Composers

Anne Midgette, the Washington Post’s classical music critic, writes about the increasing interest in recording the works of little-known composers:

These days, getting little-known music recorded is a lot easier than it once was — and a lot more appealing to musicians. Now that it’s easier to make a recording than to play Carnegie Hall and the standard repertory has been recorded to death, more artists are staking out their own niches by championing and recording forgotten composers of past eras: the orchestral music of Alfredo Casella; the complete woodwind quintets of Antonin Reicha.

Making a CD has become tantamount to creating a business card: a self-generated form of self-validation. But for many of the musicians who have plunged into these unfamiliar scores and believe they’ve found treasure, the larger point is to make a mark on posterity.

Midgette goes on to discuss the efforts to recover neglected repertory by music director of the Los Angeles Opera (and PMH adviser), James Conlon:

His particular focus is the music of the so-called “degenerate composers” — artists who, like Gal, were proscribed by the Nazis. Conlon repeatedly performs operas and symphonic works by Alexander Zemlinsky, Viktor Ullmann, Franz Schreker and others; from artists like Gal who were in the midst of flourishing careers to young talents who were just getting started, like Gideon Klein, who was 26 when he died at Auschwitz. He’s established a foundation devoted to disseminating information about these artists; he makes a point of bringing the repertoire to young musicians; and he’s started initiatives like the concert series at Ravinia called “Breaking the Silence.” But even he — speaking by phone the morning after playing Schreker and Kurt Weill on a program at Ravinia — sometimes has trouble getting organizations to put it on.

“The challenge and the crisis of economic downturn is that all orchestras, opera companies, recital series get more conservative,” he said. “They’re afraid, they’re afraid, they’re afraid. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made proposals, to artistic administrators who absolutely want what I want. They come back, ‘Our marketing department is uncomfortable.’ ‘[Audiences] see a name they don’t know, they don’t come.’ Is that true? It probably is true. It’s a very delicate balance, in a time of economic stress, just how far to push it or not.”

“I don’t believe that every piece has to be a masterpiece,” says Conlon. “It’s not about that; it’s about feeling the spirit of the time . . . We have assumed through a reductionist view of history there was a single line that went through the Viennese school and ended.” He calls it “a misuse of Darwinism” to assume that the works that have survived are automatically better than the ones that haven’t.

Too, a more varied musical diet is simply more enriching. “I can hear Mozart over and over, conduct it over and over,” Conlon says; “I never get tired of him. Still, people need to hear new things. . . . There’s always more out there. The act of listening to something you don’t know is very different.”

You can read the whole article here.