DIEGO JEWISH TIMES—August 27 through September 9, 2004
in the Wilderness
in the Wilderness is a book that
takes us through the lives and music of six major American composers of the
mid-20th century. These were not the wild revolutionaries who sought
new musical styles to shock and awe us, but rather the ones who extended the
tonal, traditional music of the immediate past by contributing their
own individual, albeit conservative idioms (call them “neo-romantics”), to
the concert hall.
The author is the
respected musicologist and critic Walter Simmons. He has dedicated his life to
promote the music of great contemporary masters whose musical styles gave them
fame and fortune in their early and middle years, but later fell out of favor
due to the wave of the more radical, avant-garde
music of more recent times.
The six composers
that Simmons chose may be familiar to you: Ernest Bloch, Howard Hanson, Vittorio
Giannini, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, and Nicolas Flagello, all recognized
masters of their art form.
For me, reading
this book was like the old saying of “preaching to the choir.” I have
conducted in concert and in recordings the music of all of them; and the late
Paul Creston, a San Diego resident in the last years of his life, was a personal
All of these
composers’ music is audience friendly and accessible. And here is where the
crux of the problem is. From approximately the 1950s until our times, most of
the musical trends have been controlled by the academic avant-gardists,
composers, who as a group, forced new music and composers into styles that have
not endeared themselves to the music-going public. These musical steam-rollers
were (and many still are) in prominent positions in academia and in arts
management. This has resulted in a general distaste for what we generically call
“modern music” expecting it to be horribly dissonant and difficult to enjoy
and/or absorb on a first hearing.
Also, this has
alienated many people, unjustly, from enjoying the many rewards of newer music,
and in turn has negatively affected concert attendance and support for the
musical arts. But the six composers of this study maintained their traditional
voices, and the quality and depth of their work is undisputable. Remember that
J.S. Bach wrote conservatively for his time, in the 1700s, but the quality of
what he composed is what counts and endures, and that is what made him one of
the greatest composers of all time.
critic Arthur Cohn wrote of Giannini: “A 20th century composer
using well sharpened tools of the 19th century.”
not only gives us an academic description of these composers, their lives and
their works, but puts the entire spectrum of 20th century serious
concert music in logical focus. The introduction to the book, by itself, is a
masterpiece of clarity and logic, guiding the reader through historical
perspectives and the trends in music that brought us to the present. Luckily, we
are seeing a reversal of the radical, atonal, serial music of the past, to what
has evolved into more accessible styles that audiences can appreciate and enjoy
crystalized in my mind the eternal question: are the arts better served by
skilled traditionalists, or by progressive, risk-taking modernists? My personal
preferences seem to favor the former.
But, even though
I was already familiar with most of the music mentioned in Voices in the Wilderness, Simmons’ writing reawakened in me the
desire and interest to explore the music that I have not heard, and re-acquaint
myself with music that I have neglected to enjoy for many years. It also
reinforced and drove home my obsession and repeated mantra, which has been
frequently mentioned in my column: there is a treasury of wonderful music out
there, ready for us to discover and enjoy; especially music that falls in the
styles of these six aforementioned composers. Of course there are many other
modern masters, but this essay focuses specifically on that group.
The book makes fine
reading for the amateur enthusiast, for all of the reasons stated above, and
also for the professional, who can gain insights and other bibliographical
sources and analysis from the meticulously referenced writing. Also, as a guide
to selecting music for concerts and recitals, Voices
serves as a useful starting point.
in the Wilderness is published by
the Scarecrow Press, Inc., and was released early this year. The website is www.scarecrowpress.com.
Needless to say, it is highly recommended.
I am thoroughly convinced that a great part of the revival of
interest in serious orchestral and chamber music has to originate in composers
such as the ones mentioned by Walter Simmons. Also, the creation of new
repertory, available in concert halls and recordings, composed by skilled
artists in a musical language that is challenging and complex, but also
accessible, exciting, and audience-friendly. We are not talking about any
compromise in quality, but I adhere to my belief that music can inspire,
satisfy, evoke in us an emotional reaction, and touch the soul.
Amos has directed the Orchestra at the East County Jewish Community Center for
25 years. This orchestra is now affiliated with Tifereth Israel Synagogue. Amos
has also recorded 25 compact discs with orchestras in Israel, U.S., Eastern
Europe and London. He is in frequent demand as a guest conductor and lecturer in
his specialty, American and Jewish orchestral music. His recordings are played
on radio worldwide.