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Sunday, January 4, 2009

2009 Grammy Awards

The 2009 Grammy Nominations for Classical Music were announced on December 8th, 2008. The 51st Annual Grammy Awards ceremony will be televised on CBS on February 8, 2009.

Drum roll please...

The nominations for the Best Classical Contemporary Composition (A Composer's Award for a contemporary classical composition composed within the last 25 years, and released for the first time during the Eligibility Year) are:

Concerto Pour Flûte
Marc-André Dalbavie
[EMI Classics]

Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems Of Bob Dylan
John Corigliano

Violin Concerto No. 2
George Tsontakis
[Koch Int'l Clasiscs]

Symphony No. 1, The Four Elements
Chris Walden
[Origin Classical]


The Garden Of Cosmic Speculation
Michael Gandolfi

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is an unusual work. It’s music is distributed throughout 16 separate movements that are grouped into three parts. Each movement ranges in duration from about two minutes to just over nine. It’s a lot of music to take in, lasting over 67 minutes in total, but very well performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under conductor Robert Spano.

The work eschews most of the modernist aesthetics that dominated in the late 20th century in favor of a musical language deemed more agreeable by mainstream symphonic patrons. It’s clear that Gandolfi draws more inspiration from John Adams and Philip Glass than Arnold Schoenberg, Pierre Boulez, or Elliott Carter. The pieces are largely modal, full of lush chords constructed from “white-note” diatonic pitch collections, and revolve around quickly shifting tonal centers. It’s one of very many works written today where I can almost hear the impact of the cut-and-paste function of modern-day music software manipulation.

The fast works in the collection often succumb to a toe-tapping regularity that has become a generational divide: Younger audiences find appeal in the obsessive repetition and rock-influenced texture of endless repeated notes, while mature audiences (which I consider myself a member) tend to be annoyed by it. But Gandolfi’s orchestration is skillful, and it’s not often that a composer’s music is so carefully rehearsed and recorded with respect and attention to detail. That’s what makes this Grammy nomination unique.

Listing to each of the sixteen movements, I find them rather diverse in expression. There is a clear musical idea within each piece, but aside from contrasts between in tempo and style across movements, little unifies the one-hour plus work as a whole. This loose notion of form seems to be supported by Gandolfi’s statement that the movements can be re-arranged in any order (I assume only within each of the three larger sections). It’s almost as if the movements of the overall work can be may programmed in “shuffle mode” on an iPod. I suppose that’s the way we would walk through a garden – in random paths of order. It empowers the listener to a degree, similar to how John Cage allows listeners to perform along in the piece using the volume, tone, and balance knobs of their stereo system when listening to recordings.

One does hear a myriad of influences through Gandolfi’s large orchestral work. I spied John Adams (#1), Bartok (#2), Pärt (#3), neoclassic Stravinsky (#9), Copland (#11), George Gershwin (#14), Scriabin (#16), and - as many beginning pianists will recall - Hanon finger exercises (#13).

The large center section of The Garden (Part 2) is in the form of a Baroque Suite, but introduced with a space-like movie soundtrack prelude a la Ligeti. It soon evolves into a musical history of the universe complete with a presentation of well-known musical quotations doled out in chronological order. I will leave the precise playlist a mystery, but it begins with Medieval plainchant and then quickly traverses though Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, and even 1940’s big band tunes.

The Baroque Suite of Part 2 is what I would consider the meat and potatoes of the work. It utilizes the standard suite dance forms (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Passepied, and Gigue). Concluding the sections is a Chorale. It reminds me a lot of the landmark orchestral work Baroque Variations composed by Lukas Foss in 1967. Baroque Variations is in three movements, each based on Handel, Scarlatti, and Bach. It was released originally on Nonesuch a LP (H 71202), became a stable in personal music record libraries, and was a big sensation at the time.

The Grammy Award is a big one for living composers actively involved with contemporary music. While it is difficult to single out any particular composer from the masses of well-deserving practicing musicians, the number of new recordings of orchestral music released commercially each year is much more limited in scope. Upon hearing of the prestigious nomination, Gandolfi told the Boston Globe (12/19/2008) “Awards such as the Grammy emphasize that composers of classical music are alive and well, and producing work that is appreciated by those in the general community."

Everyone can agree with his outlook. My prediction is that he will win the annual Grammy award in this prestigious category. We will find out on February 8th.