Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Messiaen Connection?

Once again I find myself reflecting on a claim made in an review I wrote this morning. This time the claim was that one of the sources that influenced Lera Auerbach in her Opus 47 collection of 24 preludes for cello and piano was the "Noël" movement of Olivier Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus. I can imagine that there might be readers questioning how much exposure a music student who was a teenager during the fall of the Soviet Union would have had to Messiaen. Therefore I wish to state for the record that my very first exposure to the Vingt Regards was a recording produced by Melodiya of the Russian pianist Anton Batagov, originally made in 1989 (when the label said "Made in USSR")!

Ultimately, this exercise was a gentle but humbling reminder of just how provincial the American view of contemporary music was during the second half of the twentieth century, if not in the present day. For most Americans Messiaen was an unfamiliar name; and most of those who did know the name probably associated it with the good intentions of Leonard Bernstein to broaden our horizons, even if those intentions were seldom matched by either understanding or skill. As a rule of thumb, America tended to know far less about what was happening in the name of contemporary music in Europe, on either side of the Iron Curtain, than Europeans (again regardless of the Iron Curtain) knew about what was happening in the United States. Remaining with Messiaen as a case in point, the opera Saint François d' Assise was completed in 1983; but it was not performed in its entirety, let alone staged, in the United States until 2002!

My guess is that American audiences have begun to build up a broader experience base since the turn of the century. This may even be one of the more sanguine consequences of the world the Internet has made. Our awareness of serious music is no longer at the mercy of the Columbia and RCA record labels (both pathetic shadows of their former selves) and the myth of "Big Five" American orchestras that they promulgated in the interest of improving sales. We now live in a world in which we can "virtually" attend concerts, approximating the experiences of those in the concert hall through the power of real-time audio and/or video streaming. This is also a world in which such "captured" performances are archived, allowing the experience to be reproduced at any later time. Then, of course, there are all the amateur (or sometimes better) efforts at video capture that find their way to YouTube, often allowing us to experience performing artists who have not yet mustered the resources for an American tour. None of this will ever be an acceptable substitute for actually being in the performing space, but the Internet is slowly but surely becoming a better way to be aware of just what is happening in the world of serious music than any recording industry has ever been. When it comes to contemporary music, we shall no longer have any excuses behind which our ignorance can hide; and hopefully we shall all embrace these opportunities that facilitate our progress towards being better listeners.

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