Can different classical styles just get along? Yes.
Outside of NEPR, I also volunteer as Artistic Director (a fancy term for "music picker-outer") for a classical concert presenter called Music In Deerfield — mostly chamber music, with an occasional instrumental recital. The three Bs and other masters form the core of the repertoire; it's amazing how much the best young musicians can still reveal in the timeless classics. But we also invite our musicians to include the off-the-beaten-track selections they have made their own, especially if they're recent. Contrary to the common impression of classical fans as hopelessly resistant to new sounds, our audiences eat them up. So, they took it in stride in January when the Borromeo String Quartet played a contemporary classic (oxymoron?) of chamber music, Steve Reich's "Different Trains".
For those who don't know it (you can find samples on YouTube), "Different Trains" employs live and pre-recorded strings, sound effects and amplification — hardly your basic quartet set-up. Neither does the music behave in any way like your traditional four-movement, standard forms, themes-and-development string quartet. Instead, Reich presents a series of unrelated melodic licks, based on recorded speech fragments, over repetitive, constantly chugging rhythms. Yes, "Different Trains" is a masterwork of musical minimalism, probably the most pervasive new style to hit classical music in decades. It's the style that Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and others developed a generation ago, in part out of frustration with 20th-century modernism, in part out a natural desire to incorporate the energy and ideas of the music they loved, such as rock, jazz and non-western musics, into their own distinctive sound, It caught on like wildfire, and rare is the contemporary classical work that doesn't show at least some of its influence. So, any composer not using minimalism, post-minimalism, or some other hip new variant is a dinosaur, right?
Not so fast. Just last Saturday, the Ciompi Quartet premiered a work that showed beyond a doubt that there's still life left in the old forms — in the hands of a composer who has something fresh to say in them, such as Donald Wheelock. Don's String Quartet No. 6 is, more or less, your traditional four-movement, standard forms, themes-and-development string quartet. There's an intense, imposing opening movement, a muted slow movement, a playful scherzo, and a finale with an extensive quartet cadenza, a fugal passage, and other ideas that wouldn't shock anyone who knows Beethoven's late quartets. In a pre-concert talk, Don came right out an said that his frame of reference is classical music up to the mid-20th century, and that he wouldn't mind being called a "European" composer. Indeed, their was nary a note of American vernacular in Don's dense, eventful quartet, a work accessible enough to follow the first-time through, while also promising to reveal much more in subsequent encounters. "I wouldn't mind hearing it again" was the consensus of the many people who came up to me after the performance.
Funny thing, Steve Reich and Donald Wheelock are just about the same age, yet approach classical composition from opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum. And each has made significant contributions to the string quartet repertoire with works that couldn't sound more different. What does that say about contemporary classical music? Basically, that there are all sorts of ways to compose it, none invalidating another, all adding to the rich diversity of a very exciting time for new music fans. Besides, denouncing composers either for threatening to end classical music civilization as we now it, or for not joining the march of musical progress, is just sooo 20th century. We don't do that any more, or at least we shouldn't. If there's one good thing the 21st century can do for classical music, it's that.