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Gerald Carpenter: University Symphony to Showcase the ‘New and Newer’

Wednesday's program will feature the premiere of Clarence Barlow's Serenade and works by UCSB student composers

“In a living musical culture,” Robert Craft wrote many years ago, “the new music must have primacy over the old, if only because the new obliges us continually to revise our relationships with the old. This has become a tiresome argument, but it is nevertheless true even though most new music is bad — as it always has been. It follows that the composer is the center of musical culture and that a new work is of far greater consequence than the most publicized antics of Big Personality Conductors.”

Dmitri Shostakovich, a virtuoso at survival
Dmitri Shostakovich, a virtuoso at survival.

I used to quote these lines quite a bit in ages past, particularly when one of those “Big Personality Conductors” would come through town, at the head of a world-famous orchestra, graciously playing Pytor Tchaikovsky and Johannes Brahms for us provincials. I felt they were squandering the opportunities that came with their big names — since most music lovers go to hear ensembles rather than specific pieces of music — opportunities to play new music for us as well as it could be played, making us want to hear the piece again (and again, for that is the only way the unfamiliar becomes familiar enough to be judged good or bad on its own terms).

It is, I suppose, a duty to seek out the occasional new work, on spec as it were, but every once in awhile that duty yields tremendous pleasure.

However, I cite Craft now, not to chastise a gaggle of migrating superstar honkers, but to applaud Richard Rintoul and UCSB’s University Symphony for the program of their final concert of the 2010-11 school year, set for 8 p.m. Wednesday in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. (I suspect that the current occupant of the Corwin Chair in Composition, professor Clarence Barlow, also had something to do with the program, above and beyond allowing his colleague to conduct the world premiere of a youthful work of his own, from 1967.)

In any event, the program abounds with, as the title has it, “New and Newer.” This is as it should be, for if Rintoul and his young musicians are not a world-famous box-office draw, they comprise a very good orchestra, underwritten by a great university.

So, we will hear, besides the above-mentioned premiere of Barlow’s Serenade for Wind Quartet and Strings, new works by student composers Emily Gargus, Kiyomitsu Odai, Brian O’Donnell and Ian Wallace. The evening will conclude with a work that, for all that it is familiar and well-loved, was composed as recently as 1937: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D-Minor, Opus 47. “New and Newer,” indeed.

Every composer risks, with every premiere of every new work, the sullen hostility of the musicians, rejection by the audience and the scorn of the reviewers. Shostakovich, although these prospects concerned him, too, had a unique additional worry that trumped the other problems: Josef Stalin, who was not only a psychotic totalitarian mass-murderer but a rabid anti-Semite who did not take kindly to Shostakovich’s well-known sympathy with the Jews.

At the time he was writing the Fifth Symphony, the composer was under attack by party stooges — attacks he was convinced were orchestrated by Stalin. (His concern was, of course, justified: if Papa Joe took against you, your days were numbered.) If you have ever heard his Fourth Symphony (1935-36), which he withdrew on the eve of its first performance, then you understand that his music had already evolved away from the hyper-modernism of his First Symphony and the opera that angered Stalin, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (“A criminal ruler?” Shostakovich is reported as saying, “Why should Stalin be bothered by that?”), and was showing more Gustav Mahler than Igor Stravinsky.

The Fifth Symphony is a little less jagged, a little more lyrical — that’s all. So, the composer’s motto for the new work, “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” should be read for what it is — blatant ass-covering — rather than as the announcement of aesthetic surrender.

Tickets to the concert are $15 for general admission and $7 for students, and will be available at the door.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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