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The masterpiece vs. the unknown gem

In last week’s Weekly I made a couple of serious omissions in my list of acknowledgements surrounding my mother’s memorial service. Frist, the choir was expertly and sympathetically directed by Mike Kornelsen, a good friend and colleague of ours. Indeed, as I pondered why I had so inexplicably left him off the list, I realized that, as I was “looking” around the church in my mind’s eye, I was doing it from my usual vantage point of standing in front of the choir. So I looked left and right, behind and ahead, and was able to list everyone I saw who had contributed to the service. But I forgot to look at right where I was standing, which is where Mike was during the service. In fact, it might be seen as a little bit of a compliment, in that the choral music was exactly as I would have wanted it had I been conducting, and therefore Mike was “invisible” due to his having been my other self, so to speak.

Secondly, I omitted to mention Tom Folkert, who ushered, as well as provided us with a beautiful portrait of my mom that we set up in the porch of the church, so people could see and recall her as she looked in her prime, which is how I am now more and more remembering her.

My apologies to Mike and Tom for this oversight.


There was an excellent article on music in this week’s New Yorker magazine by Alec Ross (music contributor to The New Yorker, and author of several books on music) that I wish to mention. The immediate occasion for the article was the ongoing rediscovery of the music of a female African-American composer named Florence Price (1887-1953); but the article meandered beyond that into some fascinating reflections on greatness, genius, and the cult of the masterpiece.

Before I reflect on those meanderings, a couple words on the article’s main topic. I first became aware of Florence Price a couple years ago while doing an independent study with an MSUD student, Misty D., who was doing an essay on Price’s choral music. I discovered an interesting life story, some beautiful music, and an unsung (both literally and figuratively) and tragically neglected composer. I have since done a couple of her pieces with my church choir, and intend to do more with St. Martin’s Chamber Choir. So I am overjoyed to see her works gaining more attention.

But the article struck me mostly with its reflections on what gets performed and why, and some observations on the tyranny of the familiar at the expense of the unknown. It’s a natural human tendency to return to the beloved and familiar; but this is also a crutch and a handicap, and stunts growth. Here are some excerpts (two paragraphs) from the article:

“In progressive musicological circles these days, you hear much talk about the canon and about the bad assumptions that underpin it. Classical music, perhaps more than any other field, suffers from what the acidulous critic-composer Virgil Thomson liked to call the “masterpiece cult.” He complained about the idea of an “unbridgeable chasm between ‘great work’ and the rest of production . . . a distinction as radical as that recognized in theology between the elect and the damned.” The adulation of the master, the genius, the divinely gifted creator all too easily lapses into a cult of the [. . .] hero, to whom such traits are almost unthinkingly attached.

“I feel some ambivalence about the anti-masterpiece line. Having grown up with the notion of musical genius, I am reluctant to let it go entirely. What I value most as a listener is the sense of a singular creative personality coalescing from anonymous sounds. I wonder whether the profile of genius could simply evolve to include a broader range of personalities and faces. But there’s no doubt that the jargon of greatness has become musty, and more than a little toxic. [. . .] If we are going to treat music as a full-fledged art form — and, surprisingly often, we don’t — we need to be open to the bewildering richness of everything that has been written during the past thousand years. To reduce music history to a pageant of masters is, at bottom, lazy. We stick with the known in order to avoid the hard work of exploring the unknown.”

I agree passionately with both Ross’s embrace of the unknown, and his ambivalence about abandoning the concept of masterpiece entirely. My principal musical passion is in unearthing and performing neglected choral works. Sometimes they may prove to be masterpieces (like, I think, Granville Bantock’s “A Pageant of Human Life” that we performed this last September). But it is no less worthy an endeavor to perform the unknown work that turns out to be good and interesting and worthy, but not necessarily a masterpiece.

The “rub” here is that the cult of the masterpiece (or worse, the familiar or popular) often governs ticket sales; and no organization that is not self-funding can afford to ignore them. And hence, St. Martin’s more-than-occasionally performs works from the “canon” of choral masterworks that Ross alludes to above. And, mostly, I do not mind this. In fact, sometimes, after performing a work like Brahms’ German Requiem, I feel such a profound sense of satisfaction that I am tempted to ask myself “Why perform anything but the truly acknowledge masterworks of human achievement? This is guaranteed. This is bountiful.” And I have met conductors and studied under teachers who embrace this viewpoint, and do not wish to waste any of the precious hours of their life on preparing and performing anything but the very best music. But if this were all there was, then I suspect newly composed masterworks would never come to light; and the contribution of forgotten masters of the past would be discounted, and pass entirely from human memory.

So as I look to put together our 2018-19 season, which is my current big project, I am trying to balance the known (what will sell) and the unknown (my passion, my mission-in-life) in order to create a season that both does well at the box office, and fulfills what I believe to be St. Martin’s unique and indispensable mission of performing unknown but deserving pieces. But this is a tall order, and I don’t always succeed. In fact, when I DO succeed, it puts more pressure on me the next season to replicate that success. For instance, two years ago, when we did a Christmas concert on the theme of Sir David Willcocks a year after his death, we broke records with our ticket sales. So, even though I knew ticket sales would not be as good this season with the centerpiece of the Christmas concert being Britten’s “A Boy was Born,” I still passionately want to be the kind of ensemble that can perform off-the-beaten-path works, even (maybe even especially) at Christmas. But the pressure of equaling the success of two years ago could conceivably create a monster that devours what I feel to be our true mission. A paradox. Or, perhaps better stated, a tension.

Anyway, all comments appreciated. And if you like what you read of Alec Ross above, check out his books!


Speaking of known and unknown works, the upcoming St. Martin’s concert (“Bruckner and Kellogg: Sonic Splendor”) features a little of each, but probably more of the latter. We collaborate with the Colorado Wind Ensemble, David Kish, director, in two major works: The symphonically-conceived Mass No. 2 in E minor by Anton Bruckner (1838-1896), and the world premiere of a new work commissioned for the occasion by Daniel Kellogg, “Darest Thou Now, O Soul.” The Bruckner is rarely performed, but is a masterpiece (there’s that word!) of Bruckner’s late-Romantic, highly colorful and chromatic style. It employs 15 wind and brass instruments in addition to a double choir. St. Martin’s asked Daniel Kellogg to write a piece for the identical forces to be a complement to the Bruckner, and his brilliant rejoinder is this 8-minute piece on a text by Walt Whitman from his “Leaves of Grass.”

Also on the program will be Francis Poulenc’s playful Suite Francaise performed by CWE alone; and Terry Schlenker’s “In Paradisum” and William Harris’ “Faire is the Heaven” (both extremely lush harmonically) performed by SMCC alone.

Friday, Feb. 23, 7:30pm, Montview Blvd. Presbyterian Church, Park Hill
Sunday, Feb. 25, 3:00pm, Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills Village

Get tickets from our website, call the SMCC office for assistance (303-298-1970), or purchase tickets at the door.

ALSO: This weekend 16 singers from St. Martin’s Chamber Choir join the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra under Cynthia Katsarelis, director, on Bach’s Cantata No. 80, “Ein feste Burg” (A Mighty Fortress”). Other works on the program include Haydn’s 86th Symphony “La Reine”, a piece by Jennifer Higdon, and the premiere of a work selected by way of a performance competition at CU. Get tickets from the PMCCO website.