What you see and what you hear

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(Photo: The Chiara String Quartet, who don’t need a music stand to know which way the score goes.)

Q: How is classical music different from all other kinds of music?

A (one of many): The audience for classical music is routinely treated to the thrilling spectacle of the musicians having their eyes glued to a sheet of paper as they play.

Of course, there are exceptions, at least in recent tradition. Vocal soloists usually go print-free in song recitals and during most guest appearances with orchestra, though it’s common for singers to use scores when performing extended oratorios (e.g., “Messiah”) and the like. And instrumental soloists, whether in recital or concerto, are expected to play by heart.

Or at least they were expected to play by heart. As New York Times classical critic Anthony Tommasini described in a recent article, this informal ban on soloists “cheating” with printed music has loosened of late, something I have noticed as well. While I don’t celebrate this new tendency as does Tommasini, neither has it really bothered me. As long as the soloist connects with the music — and with the audience — all else matters much less.

But speaking of the audience, where do they fit into this discussion? As usual for Mr. Tommasini, the audience doesn’t fit anywhere but in their seats. “What matters, or should matter,” writes the critic, “is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.”

Hey, I’m all for fine performances. I used to play fine performances all the time on the radio, and still like to present fine performances to the patrons of my chamber music series (the Miró Quartet plays Beethoven’s Razumovsky’s on Super Sunday, Feb. 7!). Nothing like a fine performance to make a music lover happy.

But isn’t there more to music than meets the ear? You bet. Always has been, and unless the presenters insist that the audience wear blindfolds, always will be. And you don’t have to be an out-and-out synesthesiast to know that in live music shows, what you see influences what you hear.

I’m trying to remember now — where did I read or hear about a study where subjects who only saw the visuals of a classical musical competition without any sound did better at predicting the winners than did other subjects who only heard but did not see? If someone could remind me, I’ll post the link. But this really did happen.

Much as many classical musicians (including some I spoke to recently and who will remain nameless) don’t want to hear it, classical music is not just music, it’s theater. I’d even go so far as to say that classical music is a form of entertainment, though I know that’s goin’ some. This applies both to unusually theatrical musicians such as pianist Lang Lang, who has become a critical bête noir for his enthusiastic stage presence, and to “serious” musicians whose restrained stage manner is more to the critics’ liking. But as musicologist Richard Taruskin opined in his article “Why Do They All Hate Horowitz,” now contained in the anthology “The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays,” even those artists renowned for their priestly communing with the music, performing in concert as if the audience didn’t exist (e.g., the great “serious” pianists Claudio Arrau and Myra Hess), were also putting on a show and, to an extent, pandering to their audiences’ expectations.

I admit that on this score (heh) and others in classicaldom, I see things with an audience-eye view. And from where I sit, classical musicians could do a lot more to make their performances visually as well as aurally engaging. No, I don’t need theatrics or fancy visuals. But that too is just me. Maybe future audiences, the audiences classical music will need to build if it is to survive, will want theatrics and fancy visuals. All the other art forms they enjoy them have them. Should classical music follow along with the times, or continue in its attempt to provide a calm, still refuge from the times? It could of course be a bit of both. But you know who will end up determining this? Not the musicians, not the presenters. It will be determined by the audience. They’re the ones with the money. And in classical music as elsewhere, money talks, buls**t walks.

Getting back to the question of score or no score, one classical sub-genre where this makes a huge difference is chamber music. Is there anything more visually engaging in instrumental classical then a string quartet practically acting their way through some great Beethoven (did I already tell you about the Miró Quartet playing Beethoven’s Razumovsky’s on Super Sunday, Feburary 7)? That may be one reason why chamber music provides me with more satisfacation then any other classical genre.

One oustanding ensemble, not uniquely but most prominently, has decided to take out the safety net and play most of its repertoire by heart. Why did the Chiara String Quartet go there? I asked their cellist Gregory Beaver:

We began playing by heart initially as a way to shake up rehearsal, but it had such a profound impact on our ability to improvise together, shape longer phrasing together, and other benefits, we decided to start playing without printed music or stands in concerts.

To be honest, we didn’t expect that the audience would care as much as we did, but the reaction has been extremely enthusiastic. Apparently, it also enhances the intensity of the connection between us and the audience a great deal. The problem with playing by heart is that it requires much more preparation to be worth the effort, so we cannot do it for every piece, particularly for collaborations, where rehearsals are always close to the concert with our guest.

The first few times playing by heart, anyone’s playing sounds worse, until the initial hump of memorization is overcome. Only then do the benefits kick in. We have to plan our preparation more carefully than before, which we love! As for the debate over whether to play with music or not, like anything abstract and politicized, we couldn’t care less. It’s about the quality of the performance only, so whatever brings that to the fore is what matters.

After I congratulated the quartet on their gutty move and offered a much-shortened version of my above audience-centric screed, Greg replied:

Well we decided to bet the bank on it, by only advertising programs by heart, so I hope our gamble pays off for everyone involved.

Me too. And though it’s easy for me to say — I’m “only” an audience member, after all — I hope more groups like the Chiara would gamble a little, or a lot, more.

 

Beethoven’s best on Super Sunday

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Now that the air has gone out (ouch!) of the Patriots’ run for a fifth NFL championship, here’s a cool way for New England sports fans to soothe their souls on Super Sunday, February 7. At 4:00 p.m., two and a half hours before kickoff, three of Ludwig van Beethoven’s finest plays will be scored — er, finest scores will be played at Sweeney Concert Hall, Sage Hall, Smith College, when Music In Deerfield (soon to be known as Valley Classical Concerts) joins the Smith College Music Department in presenting one of America’s leading chamber music ensembles, the Miró String Quartet. The concert will be preceded at 3:00 by “Concert Conversations,” featuring members of the Miró in conversation with moi, as well as fielding questions from the audience. Click here for info and tix.

Composed in 1806, Beethoven’s three “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59,  are masterworks of what is known in musicological geek-speak as Beethoven’s “middle period,” when he also composed such genre-defining works as the “Eroica,” Fifth and “Pastoral” Symphonies, the “Emperor” Concerto, the “Kreutzer” and “Appassionata” Sonatas and the “Archduke” Trio. One could even analogize these works’ place in Beethoven’s output to that of such great “middle period” Beatles albums as “Rubber Soul”and “Revolver” — not as ingenuous as “With the Beatles” or the Op. 18 Quartets, or as visionary as “Sgt. Pepper” or the last Quartets, but j-u-s-t right. What do you think?

The Quartets’ nickname comes from the music-loving Russian ambassador to Vienna, Count Andrei Razumovsky, who commissioned the works, and in whose honor Beethoven included Russian themes in the first two of the three. This is a program both to astound a chamber music newbie as well as to delight the most discerning chamber music connoisseur — especially in the hands of the Miró Quartet, an absolutely fabulous ensemble which plays with a life-and-death intensity. Now, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get to your TV screen by kickoff. But hey, it’s only Cam vs. Peyton, so who gives a damn? Come on over and party! Beside, we’ve got by far the cooler musical act.

The political lesson of Perry Mason

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Photo: Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) and Della Street (Barbara Hale) inspect the evidence.

My maternal grandfather Andrew Palochick (1891-1978) could reliably be found watching television at his and Grandma’s tiny home in Georgetown, Conn. when not putting in his hours at the nearby Gilbert and Bennett wire mill. His favorites were the news, Yankees baseball, “Wagon Train,” and best of all, “Perry Mason” — a televised diet as hearty as Grandma’s famed stuffed cabbage and babka, all “homemake” in her lexicon. “Put on Mason,” Oppo (as he was known) would command from the back porch from where he watched while sipping warm Schaefer out of quart bottles, getting up only to let out when he had taken in. As to whether Op’ ever poured me some brew before I had attained legal drinking age, not to mention puberty, I plead the fifth.

For those not in the know, Perry Mason, the literary creation of lawyer and writer Erle Stanley Gardner, was a fictional Los Angeles attorney, and in his televised incarnation, the signature role of great Canada-born actor Raymond Burr. In case after case, aided by faithful girl Friday Della Street and rakish detective Paul Drake, Perry would save his client (usually a sweet young thing) from a murder rap while simultaneously pinning the crime on the real perpretator — to the eternal frustration of District Attorney Burger and police Lieutenant Tragg, the Washington Generals of televised drama.

The first five seasons of the original series, which debuted in 1957, are now available on CBS All Access — over a hundred shows in all. The Wife and I have of late made it mandatory daily pre-dinner viewing, lubricated by something a bit more palatable than warm Schaefer. Of course, the plots were formulaic and contrived. So where those of “Mission Impossible,” “Columbo” and countless other hit shows. But the original “Perry Mason” is a veritable time capsule of its time and place. The cars. The clothes. The hair styles. The SoCal exteriors. The social mores. The jazzy theme song and musical underscoring. All in glorious black & white, brought to you by Sweetheart Soap, New Blue Dutch Cleanser and Beads-o’-Bleach. Smart, sexy and with delectable notes of noir, this was and is great adult entertainment.

Does Perry Mason’s geist hold any lessons for our zeit? If one were to keep score, more things have no doubt gotten better since Perry’s time than have gotten worse. Whatever the show’s nostalgic appeal, I certainly don’t regret living in our world rather than Perry’s.  But I will point out one thing that dawned on me after about the twentieth episode — something that made me yearn for at least one aspect of former times.

Part of the show’s fun is interplay between Team Mason and Team Burger/Tragg, the teams treating each other with an ice-cold cordiality that barely conceals their mutual loathing. Each team would do anything within the law, or just outside it, to gain the upper hand on the other. Rather like our current political parties, wouldn’t you say?

But on several episodes, the adversaries put their differences aside in the cause of justice. See for instance season one, episode 18, “The Case of the Cautious Coquette,”at the end of which (spoiler alert) Mason, Burger and Tragg jointly set a trap that snares the real murderer.  Despite the loathing, there is enough respect and trust between the teams to work together for a common goal and higher purpose. Something the aforementioned parties could take a hint from, wouldn’t you also say?

Before we take our leave, I need to single out William Talman, the actor who played District Attorney Hamilton Burger, for the courageous television spot he filmed only weeks before his untimely death in 1968 — the first spot of its kind. The video is grainy and Talman’s speech slurred from pain medication, but the message retains its power.

Album du jour: Kim Kashkashian, Sarah Rothenberg, et al.: “Rothko Chapel”

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Whenever I walk around in an art museum, I find myself inevitably drawn to artworks that inspire a sense of silence and stillness in me — which suspend me, at least temporarily, from the normal rhythms of life. For as long as I’m in contact with these artworks, time ceases to pass, the world falls silent, and I and the artwork are alone in quiet contemplation.

The three composers represented on this new album also sought to create an artistic space for quiet contemplation, though music, whose media are sound and time, can never literally be either silent or still. Even John Cage’s notorious “silent” work, 4’33” (not featured on this album), consists of sound — the ambient noise of the performing space, the listeners’ breathing, etc. — played out over time.

And while there has always been contemplative music in the Western classical music, the works of Erik Satie, John Cage and Morton Feldman are different in their avoidance of the elements that have made Western classical unique among the world’s musics. Of the contrapuntal intricacy of Bach, the formal mastery of Haydn, the conflict of Beethoven, the virtuosity of Liszt, the weltanschauung of Wagner, the emotionalism of Tchaikovsky, the egotism of Strauss,  the profundity of Mahler, the harmonic and rhythmic movement that all composers used to give their works shape and direction, there are little-to-none. The music of this triumvirate is instead purposely undramatic, uneventful, impassive, often repetitive, seemingly (or actually) random, devoid of frill, ornament or excess of any kind. Cage in particular spoke of removing the composer’s ego from his music, and of compelling the listener to focus on the sounds without trying to discern their meaning.

OK, you might have known some of this about Cage, and you can certainly hear it in Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel (see below). But Erik Satie, the eccentric late-19th, early-20th century Frenchman best known for such piano hits as the Gymnopédies and the Gnossiennes? Where does he fit in with Cage, Feldman and the rest of the mid-20th century avant garde?

As an acknowledged and honored precursor. From pianist Sarah Rothenberg’s notes to this new album:

“… Now what happens when something so simple is repeated for such a long time?” asks Cage in regard to Satie’s music. “What happens is the subtle falling away from the norm, a constant flux with regard to such things as speed and accent, all the things in fact which we could connect with rhythm. The most subtle things become evident that would not be evident in a more complex rhythmic situation …” Cage believed that Satie’s contemplative works expressed the spirit of Zen Buddhism, a philosophy that Cage embraced in the 1940’s.

Would you like to hear the connection? Start with the album’s final track, Cage’s In a Landscape (1948,) then go back to the preceding track, Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 (1890), both gorgeously played by Rothenberg. Don’t analyze and compare the works’ melodies, harmonies or architectures. Consider instead the effect they each have on you. There it is.

Then go back to the album’s opening and longest track.  Composed in1971 to be performed in the Houston landmark of its title, and intended as a tribute to the composer’s friend, painter Mark RothkoRothko Chapel also serves as a relatively accessible initiation into the unique soundworld of Morton Feldman, the composer who took the idea of music for quiet contemplation to the ultimate extent, especially in his almost interminable later works.

Using just a solo viola, a celeste, a very restrained percussionist, two wordless vocal soloists and a wordless choir, Rothko Chapel unfolds slowly and ritualistically, mostly maintaining a low dynamic level, at times hovering just above silence (parts are marked to be performed “barely audibly”), and on only a few occasions raising its voice as if in impassioned lament. The section near the end where the choir divides into twelve different parts, singing densely-clustered chords that practically had light emanating from my loudspeakers, has to be heard to be believed. And throughout, the hauntingly vocal tones of Kim Kashkashian’s viola gave what I heard as a cantorial quality to her part, one consistent with the comments from Feldman quoted in the booklet notes: “The quasi-Hebraic melody played by the viola at the end was written when I was fifteen. Certain intervals throughout the work have the ring of the synagogue.”

As classical albums go, the programming on this one is unusual in alternating between choral and solo piano works. But this sense of variety-within-unity may be closer to how real listeners actually listen to music nowadays — the Pandora model, you might call it. In any case, I give it my strongest recommendation.

Alas, there’s no Spotify playback available for this present album. You can, however, find out more about the album and sample tracks here. You can purchase and download it here. And you can hear the original recording of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, featuring violist Karen Phillips (a frequent Feldman muse) and the Gregg Smith Singers on Spotify here.

Album du jour: Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld: “Never were the way she was”

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My, my, what fabulous sounds can be found in the seams, edges and cracks of and betweeen musical genres. Today, for instance, we have a pair of instrumentalists associated with such major indie acts as Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, one a violinist, the other a specialist in low reeds (tenor & bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet), inventing and performing, without looping or overdubbing, original music combining elements of minimalism, free jazz, ambient, electronica, and noise, just to cite a few of their many influences. By turns ethereal, ecstatic and haunting, “Never were the way she was” (click to purchase and download) is the kind of album that keeps this old classical coot engaged with what those smart and talented young people are doing today. Check it out.

Album du jour: Grimes, “Art Angels”

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“A lot of people have been really excited about this,” the young lady at the check-out counter informed me when I picked up this new CD at Newbury Comics in Northampton last Saturday. Make that a lot of people plus me. And add Grimes (the nom de musique of Vancouver, BC native Claire Boucher) to the list of fabulous femmes who make the widely disparate conglomeration of musical styles inadequately but inevitably grouped together under the banner of “indie” my current favorite source for unique and stimulating new sounds.

Hardly any of which have been more stimulating than “Art Angels.” What non-stop energy and invention! With a voice like a superannuated Powerpuff girl, multi-dubbed and multi-layered to a fair-thee-well, placed over, under, and inside of a minutely detailed, constantly shifting instrumental soundtrack, propelled by beasts infectious enough to raise the recently deceased, “Art Angels” plays like the coolest Pandora station you’ve ever heard, all in one handy package. As is often the case with similar artists, the bubbling optimism of Grimes’s music is somewhat at odds with her lyrics (sample here) — thank goodness. Even if you overlook all the other non-classical stuff I post about on this site, don’t overlook this one.

Album du jour: Lubomyr Melnyk, “Rivers and Streams”

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“first came FRANZ LISZT….then came LUBOMYR.”

The above history of the great pianists came to you courtesy of the website of Lubomyr Melnyk, which also describes him as “one of the truly great innovators of the piano — an explorer whose remarkable technical capacities and his poetic mastery has enthralled audiences wherever he plays !”

But wait — there’s more where this came from.

LUBOMYR MELNYK is one of the most innovative and fascinating pianists/composers of this century. During the 1970’s he developed a totally new “language” for the piano, called Continuous Music,and with it, a stupendous physical and mental technique that is totally unprecedented in the history of the piano.
Using thi remarkable technique, ,Lubomyr Melnyk has set 2 world records for pianistic achievements:

  1. the FASTEST pianist in the world — sustaining speeds of over 19.5 notes per second in each hand, simultaneously, and
  2. the MOST NUMBER of NOTES in ONE HOUR — in exactly 60 minutes, Melnyk sustained an average speed of over 13 notes per second in each hand, yielding a remarkable total of 93,650 INDIVIDUAL notes.

With such agile fingers, one would perhaps expect more accurate orthography, not that I have anything to brag about on that score. One might also ask which governing body certified Melnyk’s two alleged world records. Was there a Pianolympics I didn’t hear about? Who came in second?

But all right, let’s put aside the spectacular claims for now and concentrate on the music, specifically on Melnyk’s “continuous music” technique. To spare you the chore of wading through his website’s verbiage, I’ll summarize it as the two hands independently playing intricate, gradually shifting patterns at great speed and over extended time spans while the damper pedal remains depressed, creating a ringing, shimmering sound capable of considerable beauty and euphoric effect. Not totally without precedent, Melnyk’s music triggers reminiscences of pianists/composers as dissimilar as Sergei Rachmanin0ff, Phillip Glass, George Winston and the other New Age tinklers and, for you avant-garde folks, Charlemagne Palestine and his incredible “Strumming Music” (click to listen). But having heard Melnyk once, you would never again confuse him for anyone else, or vice versa.

On “Rivers and Streams,” my first encounter with Melnyk, he is joined on a couple of tracks by either the subtle guitar accompaniment of Jamie Perera or the squalling, tropical bird-like Korean flute of Hyelim Kim. But even in the duos, the focus is on Melnyk’s keyboard prowess, one which, for all its multi-noted wizardry, tends toward the one-note in expressive range. In other words, whether his pieces are titled “Parasol,” “Sunshimmers”or “The Amazon,” Melnyk brings to each more-or-less the same onslaught of notes and a rather similar expressive arc. It’s dazzling, no question about it. But by the sixth track, few surprises are left.

Still, full credit goes to Lubomyr Melnyk for developing his style and sticking with it. It adds something unique and occasionally beautiful to the world of music, and to our lives. That’s not something to sneer at.

No Spotify playlist, alas, but you may sample each track and download the album here.

 

Album du jour: Tom Jones, “Long Lost Suitcase”

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Yes, that Tom Jones — the one-time hitmaker (“It’s Not Unusual,””Delilah”) turned open-shirted, over-sexed, women’s-undergarment-thrown-at cliche of a Vegas lounge act. Yeah, I wasn’t a big fan either. But you have to admit that even if you faulted his material, even if you faulted his sartorial style, even if you faulted everything else about him, you couldn’t fault his pipes.

And you still can’t. At age 75, he can still bring it. Baritonal in quality, tenorial in range, and with just a hint of the patina of age, Jones’s voice is a wonder, whether at full belt or smooth croon.

What’s changed on this new album and its two predecessors (“Praise & Blame” and “Sprit in the Room”) is the material he lavishes his vocal gifts upon. Working with producer/guitarist Ethan Johns, Jones covers on “Long Lost Suitcase” songs associated with Willie Nelson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Los Lobos, Gillian Welch, the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Lavern Baker. et al., and does so with utter aplomb. These Tom Jones/Ethan Johns albums have to consitute one of the most remarkable artistic rehabilitations since Johnny Cash teamed up with producer Rick Rubin for those great “American Recordings.”

Mind you, one still doesn’t listen to Tom Jones to admire his subtlety or restraint (though listen to tracks 6 & 7 to have your opinion adjusted). And those aggrieved by the mere thought of cultural appropriation as presently defined should excercise extreme caution, lest your delicate sensitivities be bruised. Me, I think that a septuagenarian Welsh coal miner’s son singing such a range of Americana (the Stones’ “Factory Girl” not excepted) does credit both to Tom Jones and to our musical culture.

“‘Long Lost Suitcase,'” the cover copy informs us, “is the companion soundtrack album for Sir Tom Jones’ first ever autobiography, ‘Over the Top And Back,’ out now.” Imagine waiting until 75 to put out your first autobiography. Would that others showed similar modesty.

Album du jour: Oneohtrix Point Never, “Garden of Delete”

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Once again, old friends, I invite you to travel with me to the land of Electronica, one of the world’s leading producers per capita of creative new music. Our guide today is 33-year old Brooklynite Daniel Lopatin, late of Winthrop, Mass. and Hampshire College, and producer of very cool sounds under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never (a play on the frequency of Boston radio station WMJX, aka “Magic 106.7”). With the music just a mouse-click away, further analysis from me would be superfluous. But not my recommendation. Go for it.

How new is your “new music”?

Late last month, Q2 Music, the online new music channel of New York classical radio station WQXR, ran an informal poll asking listeners, in their words, “What Does the ‘New’ in ‘New Music’ Mean to You?” Listeners were asked to vote on whether they would define “new music” (meaning “new classical music”)  as any written in the past 20 years, 40 years, 60 years or 80 years. How would you have voted? Think about your answer before moving on.

As it turned, out of 242 voters, 90 of them (37.2 %) chose the narrowest definition of “new music” as any written in the past 20 years. 68 voters (28.1 %) chose 40 years, 67 (27.7 %) chose 60, and just 17 (7 %) chose 80. Of course, the poll was entirely unscientific, good for provoking discussion and little else. And one could, indeed should, argue that a musical work’s “newness” or lack of same has to do with much more than its chronology. Some works remain edgy, challenging, fresh, etc., for decades; others are stale right out of the box.

But it struck me as odd that in a group of 242 people interested enough in new music to listen to Q2 and to vote in this poll, nearly two-thirds of them (62.8 %) accepted the term “new music” when applied to music produced during or prior to 1976, forty or more years ago. Doesn’t it stike you the same way?

For grins, I looked up the music of 1976 (thank you, Wikipedia) to get a sense of how new it remained. Before clicking on the link, can you name the top two singles of the year? Why of course, they were ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody!” Cool songs, to be sure, but they’re not exactly bumping Adele from today’s charts. Top albums of 1976 included “Wings at the Speed of Sound,” “Frampton Comes Alive!” and Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” Oh, and let’s not forget the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). In other words, it was so long ago that the Eagles were already putting out a greatest hits album. As for how “new” any of these records remain, let’s just say that if you actually owned any of them then, you probably own an AARP card now.

“Sure,” you might say, “that’s pop music. How about classical?” All right then, here are some of the classical “hits” of the year, if you’ll pardon the expression: Elliott Carter’s “A Symphony of Three Orchestras,” George Crumb’s “Dream Sequence (Images II),” Henri Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit,” Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Violin Concerto No. 1” and Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).” From the world of opera, 1976 was also the year of the premiere of Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.” Not a bad crop, including two works (the Górecki and the Glass) that, at least to some extent, transcended classical and opera to take their place in the overall cultural landscape.

But would you still call these pieces “new music?” Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about this, but I say “no.” Rather, I’d say that these are pieces of their time reflecting the mix of styles of their day, from high modernism to neo-romanticism — neither of which is currently in vogue — along with an early milestone of minimalism. Their composers’ names will appear in future music history books in the chapter devoted to the 20th century, not the 21st. They’re part of the soundtrack of the ‘seventies, just like the pop records in the preceding paragraph.

OK, we get that classical music is supposed to have a longer life than pop songs, most of which, compared with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, have the relative life span of a fruit fly. The two musics, classical and pop, operate under different calendars. For listeners to Q2 Music, a piece from 40 years ago could be “new.” On the Top 40 pop stations I grew up listening to (our family favorite was New York’s WABC), any song that had been off the charts for more than six minutes was an “oldie”.

But it used to be the latter way in classical music too. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, when our current idea of a “classical canon” was emerging, the music scene resembled Top 40 radio — current hits and occasional “oldies” from a few years earlier — more closely than it does today’s classical radio, with its emphasis on the music of prior centuries. For instance, when Joseph Haydn was producing one hit symphony after another in the 1780s and ’90s, music from 40-to-60 years earlier would have been that of J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and their contemporaries. Yet other than the oratorios of Handel (especially “Messiah”), such music was regarded as totally out-of-date and only of interest to antiquarians. An avid concert-goer could go a lifetime and never hear any of it.

So once upon a time, what we call classical music meant new music. And new music meant this year, this month, today. If in their attempts to modernize their appeal, classical music institutions would rather not turn to pop music for emulation and inspiriation, they could at least look to their own music’s past. Once upon a time, classical music was the coolest, hippest, newest thing around. It could be that way again.