To love or to loathe?

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Love it or loathe it, no self-respecting classical music fan can get away with not having a strong opinion of the music of American composer Eric Whitacre. The 45-year old Nevadan, described without hyperbole on his website as “one of the most popular and performed composers of our time, a distinguished conductor, broadcaster and public speaker,” may be the closest thing American classical composition has to a superstar.

Part of that, to be sure, is due to Whitacre’s charisma, charm, savvy use of modern tech and social media and, not least, killer looks. Not too many composers I’m aware of have both given a TED talk and done modeling shoots for Vogue. Are you ready for your close-up, Mr. or Ms. Average Sunshine-Deprived Classical Composer?

But then there’s the music. Ah — the music. For those who need a refresher, here’s a playlist of four of his biggest hits:

After 28 minutes of listening, you do get the idea, don’t you? Whatever else can and cannot be said of Eric Whitacre, you can’t accuse him of not having “a sound.” Nor can anyone deny him his gift for drop-dead gorgeous effects of harmony and texture.

How about the other qualities we would ascribe to artists we considered to be leaders in their field, qualities such as originality, range, depth and profundity? Not all artists, to be sure, aspire equally to these and other qualities. In early 20th-century classical music, for instance, you have your Gustav Mahler and your Francis Poulenc. Without getting into a tedious comparison, let me just say I would have a very hard time deciding which of the pair I would sooner do without.

But here is where the case for Eric Whitacre becomes difficult — that is, if you thought a case needed to be made at all. In my opinion (I’ll let you assess its level of humility), compared to several other composers currently working in similar genres and idiom, Whitacre’s music is light on substance, heavy on effect and more given to cliché than fresh ideas. Moments of beauty juxtapose with passages of utter banality that I may enjoy the first time, but later feel embarrassed about. Even if the above playlist was your first encounter with Whitacre, didn’t you get the feeling by, say, the third or fourth piece that you had heard it before, and were being ever-so-gently manipulated into a programmed emotional reaction?

On the other hand, by the end of the playlist, you may still be in Eric Whitacre’s thrall.  To judge from his popularity and frequency of performance, plenty of listeners are. Not only do I not have a problem with that, I regard it as an act of arrogance to come down on those who feel differently than I do. Such as this blogger, writing after hearing the premiere of a new Whitacre work for orchestra and chorus titled Deep Field (more about which here):

For me, Deep Field isn’t just about celestial beauty, it’s about us—or more specifically, how that celestial beauty touches us. The human experience is at the core of Deep Field, serving as a guiding theme in the same way that Elgar’s hidden “Enigma theme” animates his Enigma Variations.

We as humans have always had questions about our place in the universe… questions we have repeatedly posed to scientific and religious authorities in an unending quest for Truth.  Or at least for some sort of definitive answer.

In Deep Field, humans ask those questions on a cosmic scale. In our search for truth, we have created the most sophisticated piece of technology we can conceive, the Hubble Telescope. And we have directed this technological marvel to peer into the deepest, darkest corner of the universe—a corner we believe to be devoid of anything at all. Sure enough, it does provide us with an answer, but an answer we did not expect. An answer that is more vast, more beautiful, and more profound than our mortal lives can comprehend. In fact, this answer is so vast that it shows the inadequacy of the questions we asked in the first place.

Would you like to hear what so moved the blogger? Here (for a limited time only) is the audio of Deep Field‘s international premiere, last Sunday at the BBC proms. Whitacre’s spoken introduction starts at about 28 minutes into part two, followed by the performance.

What did you hear? I heard the same old Whitacre, if anything even more filled with effect and cliché and devoid of content or originality than usual. And mine is hardly the only discouraging word. Get a load of this passage from Telegraph critic John Allison:

Whitacre knows how to write for choirs, and he knows how to give those formulae a clever twist. In his early Cloudburst, the sound of falling rain is effectively evoked in the clicking fingers and then clapping hands of massed singers (here the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus). But the smoothness of his writing de-natures some haunting lines by Octavio Paz. His new Deep Field (which received its European premiere here) is inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and towards the end of this long exercise in sonic paint drying the audience is invited to join in by activating the ambient shimmerings of a special smartphone app. Whitacre joked that his latest version of Equus, this time for chorus and orchestra, sounds like “Carmina Burana on steroids”; summoning up the the energy of a running horse, it also brought to mind a well-known equine waste-product.

While I seem to be perpetually at war with classical critics, I do rather appreciate this fragrant style. You’d almost get the idea from the foregoing passage that new classical music was important enough to have strong opinions about and even sling a little mud over.

So OK, I’ve taken my shots at Eric Whitacre and had my fun. And if you feel otherwise, you can tell me I’m full of horse-bleep. However, I would ask those who go gaga for Whitacre to at least try some of the other composers now doing the best stuff for orchestra. Such as the Italian composer Luca Francesconi, whose new Violin Concerto, “Duende — The Dark Notes” also had its premiere at this summer’s BBC Proms. You’ll find the audio here, starting about 20 minutes into Prom 13, part one.

You may not find Francesconi’s work as immediately appealing as Whitacre’s. But if you listened to each for a second and even third time, think about which work reveals more of itself each time through, and which perhaps stops having anything new to offer. That’s not the only way to decide which of two works of music is the better one, if you even care to decide such a thing in the first place. But it’s a revealing exercise nonetheless, one that might both stretch you as a listener and sharpen your critical judgment.

And in the end, there’s time for the musical equivalent of a magnificently prepared work of the culinary arts, and time for the musical equivalent of a gooey fudge brownie. Nothing wrong with that — as long as we don’t confuse one for the other.

4 thoughts on “To love or to loathe?

  1. Hello and thanks for the quote from my blog—I see that the recent performance of “Deep Field” at Proms has rekindled interest in this post written when we premiered the work in Minneapolis. A bit of clarification, which may place my comments on the work in context. I was writing those words not as an audience member, but as one of the performers (I am a member of the Minnesota Chorale). As such, I was trying to understand Eric’s thoughts behind the work and his overall artistic goal, and to provide a bit of context for the audience. I intended to write a review of the concert when the run was over, but Eric mentioned that after hearing the work live he was going to make a number of changes, and it felt like a moot point.

    For the record, I enjoyed performing it (although I can understand what he meant about our concert being a first draft). It was particularly fascinating to observe the audience response to it—the people absolutely loved it. In talking with some of the orchestral musicians afterwards, several mentioned they were astonished by how deeply it affected the audience. It was clear that the work created a powerful, and tangible connection between audience and musicians, and the force of that connection had the musicians seeing the music in a different light. Will it have staying power? I do not know. But I’m most curious as to how this work fares over the long-term, away from the high emotions of a world premiere or the glamour of Proms.

    My apologies for the length of my response… I’ve been writing about music of the 20th Century recently and been giving great thought to the works of living composers. For the record, I’m a strong partisan for a number of Nordic composers such as Kalevi Aho and Einojuhani Rautavaara, as well as several American composers. I’ve greatly enjoyed Kevin Puts’s pair of new operas, and am thrilled that he’s heading the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute and Future Classics concerts, which celebrate the music of emerging composers.

    Cheers!

    • Thank you, Scott! While I no doubt cast a thumbs-down vote, I in no way begrudge those who feel otherwise, and in fact broadcast Whitacre’s works many, many times during my long career in public radio. As for a work’s or a composer’s staying power, I tend to be more focused on here and now, since future listeners are going to decide what from the past they value anyway, without regard for our often wrong predictions. OK, take care and happy listening. And P.S. — I may be hearing the premiere of Aho’s latest symphony (his 389th, right?☺) in Helsinki next month.

  2. “Not only do I not have a problem with that, I regard it as an act of arrogance to come down on those who feel differently than I do.” And good on you for that, John (no ironic read here). When I play Mr. Whitacre’s work, I find it had an immediate and visceral (in a good way) impact on our audience. So is it samey-samey? A lot is, and his public persona really annoys. And yet it is effective–like the John Williams of choral music. Personally, I find the Choral works of Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Part, and Tarik O’Regan to be more compelling, but sometimes a good and simple sonic wash is just what the soul needs…and Whitacre’s “Alleluia” is just right.

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