Up With Pleasantness

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:05

On the composer Christopher Theofanidis and the pianist Jonathan Biss

The music of Christopher Theofanidis has been heard a lot in New York lately. By that I mean, two of his pieces were performed in the space of a month. For a living classical composer, that is rather a lot.

First, the American Composers Orchestra displayed his bassoon concerto. He wrote it in 2002 for a friend of his, Martin Kuuskmann, who was the soloist with ACO. Then, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented a new work of his. This was a piece called Quasi una fantasia, for two clarinets and string quartet.

Two clarinets? One of them was David Shifrin, the veteran musician who for many years was the artistic director of CMS. Last month, he masterminded, and starred in, a concert of music featuring the clarinet or clarinets in some way. The program ran from Mozart through Mendelssohn through Stravinsky to yesterday. Theofanidis dedicated his piece to Shifrin.

In calling it Quasi una fantasia, he is harking back to Beethoven, whose two sonatas of Op. 27 are labeled "Quasi una fantasia." The words are Italian for "almost a fantasy." The second of those sonatas is the one known as "the Moonlight" (though purists cringe at this sentimental designation). The label "Quasi una fantasia" pops up now and then. György Kurtág, the Hungarian composer, wrote a piece of that title.

The Theofanidis piece is about ten minutes long, and shows craft and imagination. It is maybe on the busy side. It is also somewhat jazzy. I thought I heard a touch of Copland, his Appalachian Spring. I also thought I heard an Irish reel. Maybe my own imagination was playing tricks on me. Sometimes, the piece seems to be telling a story, and there is a good deal of passion in it. Overall, the piece is pleasant. That may sound like a putdown, or faint praise. But pleasant is good. There is enough unpleasantness in contemporary music, and in other areas of life.

I would like to hear the piece again. Is that more faint praise? On the contrary, it is rather high.

According to his bio, Theofanidis has two big pieces in the works. One of them is an oratorio called Creation/Creator. This makes us think, of course, of Haydn's Creation. The other is an opera called Siddhartha, based on the novel by Hermann Hesse. We may well think of Satyagraha, the opera by Philip Glass. Perhaps these two works will be confused with each other in future years.

Some people hold that the great writers and philosophers down the centuries simply talk to one another. Sometimes it seems that composers talk to one another, or respond to one another, too.

Theofanidis is an American composer who teaches at Yale. David Shifrin teaches at Yale as well. This university has come up in the musical world, especially since a businessman (and Republican donor) gave them a huge gift in 2005. No one who studies music at Yale pays, as I understand it. They are all on full scholarship.

I wonder whether artistic people understand what we owe to a free economy, and those who make it sing. Maybe we should ask the good folk who work at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater.

At Carnegie Hall, the Orchestra of St. Luke's offered a program of Leó Weiner, Schumann, Bartók and Mozart (in that order). The Schumann was his piano concerto, and the soloist was Jonathan Biss. On the podium was Iván Fischer, the Hungarian maestro.

Biss is a Hoosier who is the son and grandson of musicians. His mother is Miriam Fried, the violinist. Mother and son have appeared together as a duo. Biss is a serious and capable musician-there is no question of that. So I will spend my time picking at his Schumann.

Cooks have an expression, "Salt to taste." Rubato, or license with time, is a matter of taste too. Biss did not salt to my taste in the first movement of this concerto, and so it was throughout. I often found the rubato erratic and willful, rather than musical. Biss can be a wonderfully fluid pianist, but he also suffered some tightness on this occasion, particularly in tricky passages. Furthermore, I often wanted more sound. "Sing out, Louise!" Biss seems not to have a fat tone, à la Rubinstein, but he did not have to be so retiring, in my view.

The opening of Schumann's second movement, the Intermezzo, is a little tricky. There is a delicate figure to play. Pianists often accent the first note, wrongly, and I think they do it simply to make sure it sounds. Biss did this, I believe. Immediately following that first figure is a similar one, and Biss played it perfectly. But the second movement at large, I'm afraid, was lost in a Romantic soup. It deserved more spine.

In the final movement, Biss was a little sloppy, but technique was not the main problem: The music needed more panache, more blood. More strength and vitality. This is not drawing-room stuff (as the pianist surely knows).

Again, I have picked on Biss because he is a serious and capable musician. Otherwise, he would not be worth picking on, so much. It may be that he is more suited to cerebral 20th-century music than he is to Romantic concertos. In any event, he is a versatile fellow, and an adornment to the musical scene.