By Greg Rollins
As my wife, Sarah Shellman, gets ready to play a violin concerto in April with The Florida Orchestra, every time I hear her practice, I realize how much I like contemporary classical music.
While I enjoy traditional classical music – Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky – I don’t get too excited by it. Like classic rock from the ‘60s through the ‘90s, I’ve heard it all before. I don’t mind hearing it again once in a while, but I want to be impressed and moved by something new. I also like that contemporary music isn’t safe. You never know what you’re going to get. Even in bizarre pieces that make no sense, the music can still blossom into something gorgeous or stun me with a distinct arrangement. That ingredient of surprise makes it interesting.
The piece Sarah is performing, The Seamstress by Anna Clyne, has a haunting sound you don’t hear often in traditional music. Something about it reminds me of the stop-motion movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. There are five tales that the seamstress imagines while working. What those tales are, Clyne leaves up to the listener to decide or imagine. At times the tales rush, while others plod along. Some soar high, others jump up and down. She is also influenced by Irish fiddle music. Adapting folk music is a custom of composers going back hundreds of years, but Clyne freshens the tradition by giving it a current sound, often distorting notes and slurring phrases.
While many orchestras – and musicians in general – don’t like playing contemporary music, it’s vital that they do. Not only does it support current and emerging composers, it’s part of the ongoing evolution of music itself. It’s living art. If orchestras don’t play it, deep and rich as the history of classical music is, like anything that doesn’t evolve, the orchestral world risks becoming stale and dull.
That many classical musicians don’t like playing contemporary music doesn’t surprise me. Traditional music is timeless, with solid form and obvious structure. It’s comforting. It’s familiar. Most audiences prefer to listen to traditional music as well. They want to hear epic works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The melodies might stray, but they always come back to something exciting and recognizable in the end.
On the other hand, contemporary music – generally composed after World War II – is completely different. Many musicians think it’s too demanding. The time signatures can be irregular and difficult, and the composer’s markings can ask for musicians to play mechanical but gentle or labored and aching or phat. Sometimes players don’t even play their instruments; instead they shout or clap or stamp their feet. For listeners, contemporary music can be just as demanding. Subgenres such as atonal music, for example, can sound grotesque and impossible to follow. Sometimes, it’s just noise. Minimalism might involve the same chord or tune played over and over and over again. Or there might be barely any notes at all.
What I like about The Seamstress is that it has elements of both traditional and contemporary music. That’s not to say the piece doesn’t challenge the listener: There are times when the soloist pulls the musical threads apart like a seamstress pulling apart her work, but it’s never impossible to follow.
For people who don’t know much about contemporary music, The Seamstress is a good introduction. They shouldn’t find themselves bored or offended. If anything, I think most will enjoy it. For those who already like contemporary music, this piece won’t disappoint. For all its form and structure, The Seamstress doesn’t try to be safe. Like the stories the seamstress comes up with while sewing, it wanders far and wide but always comes back to something exciting and recognizable.
Coming up: Brahms’ Symphony No. 1
TFO violinist Sarah Shellman will be featured in Anna Clyne’s The Seamstress, in a concert that highlights the influence of women. Also on the program are Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Schumann’s Manfred Overture, with guest conductor Gemma New.
Free tickets for kids and teens in advance to this and all Tampa Bay Times Masterworks concerts.
Fri, April 12, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, April 13, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, April 14, 2 pm, Mahaffey Theater – Matinee