Two Cents

There is a pretty harsh review out there from John Allison writing for The Telegraph of London. The reviewed person in question is Eric Whitacre, a composer about which I (and apparently John Allison) share particularly strong feelings. The concert functioned as a sort of "Eric Whitacre and Friends" type of mixtape concert featuring Jonathan Newman, Gershwin, Copland, and a heaping helping of Eric Whitacre, the man himself. One of my problems with Eric Whitacre is the way in which he deems a piece "new". The BBC Proms program which was conducted by Whitacre contained four Eric Whitacre pieces, two of which exist in other versions than the one presented at the Proms. In a similar vain, the Minnesota Orchestra put on an "Eric Whitacre and Friends" concert in May which consisted of three Whitacre pieces, two of which where premieres of new versions. So here is the process of a new version of a Whitacre piece; let's take arguably his most well known work Lux Aurumque. The piece was commissioned for SATB, then transcribed as a new version for TTBB, later a new version for wind ensemble, then a new version for string orchestra, and then finally the newest version for full orchestra. The original version works fine and so does the TTBB version, but after a while, the notion must appear that a single piece cannot work wonderfully for every type of ensemble. I have always felt that more than any other composer Eric Whitacre is a single man industry (Eric Whitacre Inc.™). It feels as though a piece gets written and stretched to its limits by being reworked for every kind of ensemble. I, of course, have no problem with a composer making money and being popular, but the way in which old pieces are put through the mill and come out as a new versions for several kinds of ensembles seems a little like a disingenuous act. (And for God's sake, he has a merchandise section of this store and not for CD's and scores. I'm talking T-SHIRTS! Rightly or wrongly, the dude is a freaking rock star

To address John Allison's review, certain words and phrases were written that are pretty harsh. Referring to Whitacre are a "slick yet hollow package" and describing his new work Deep Field as "sonic paint drying" as well as comparing his new(ish) work Equus to "a well known equine waste product". Pretty rough stuff. And as it happens in 2015, people take to Facebook, Twitter, whatever to post there two cents (mine happens to be this Squarespace website). On my own Facebook New Feed, Travis Cross, director of bands at UCLA, posted in response to the Whitacre review...

"comments by composition students who revel in snarky new-music reviews, because they obviously think themselves too good for work that is created sincerely and loved by thousands of others"

There is nothing wrong with being popular and loved by thousands of others. The other composers represented on Whitacre's BBC program, Copland and Gershwin, were/are wildly popular and each have a catalog of works which have been put into the canon and have/will continue to have long and happy lives. The issue with Eric Whitacre is once again in the BRAND that is Eric Whitacre. Being as popular as Whitacre is, he has had the rare opportunity to travel around the world giving talks about his music. This leads me to my pet peeve with Eric Whitacre which is how he is able to mystify the compositional process. In his talks, Whitacre expands the mystification of composing far beyond the already romanticized notion people have of writing music. His talks closely resemble the stock images one gets Googling the word composing. The room is dimly lit, the composer ponders over the piano for the right notes, and then YES! The piece has been created by some divine spirit channeling through a mere mortal. When giving a talk about Deep Field with the Minnesota Orchestra, Whitacre played several themes from the piece on a keyboard. When describing the first theme, Whitacre says "[this theme] has really deep meaning for me, the top of a Lydian chord. It's something I've been haunted by since I started composing (maybe even before then)." Playing the third theme (La-Ti-Do-Re nothing wrong with simplicity), he describes that "it sounds aspirational. It sounded to me like what I imagined an innocent boy reaching up...endlessly reaching up". *swoon*. Everything seems a little over the top and very mystical. The number of times phrases such as "deeply emotional", "moved to tears", "the music lives deep within my soul"  and so on rise up in his talks reminds me somewhat of televangelists who share their emotions nakedly but seem have a current of manipulation running under the surface. 

In an interview with a local Arizona PBS station, a reporter asked a question which basically boiled down to how commissions work (quote "Do you know if the music is going to be a choral piece or a wind piece or a film score?"). Many composers have been asked this question during interviews and the answer is always something along the lines of 'here is how a commission works'. However, Whitacre answers with "No. I don't always know. I can be quite surprised with where the music goes". It is reminiscent of that moment in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy where George M. Cohan is worrying about the keyboard, trying to find the right notes for the song "Over There". THEN, suddenly it comes to him and he plays the entirety of the song right then and there.

There is nothing wrong with Whitacre's music. Composers find their niche and their sound and very often steal from themselves. Nothing wrong with that. However, I feel as though with this amazing public image Eric Whitacre has (probably the most public figure of classical music next to Dudamel), he is give the audience exactly what they want to hear, not so much with the music, but definitely with how he talks about the music. Many composers give talks like the one Whitacre gave at the Minnesota Orchestra, but those always feel much more genuine and, dare I say it, more humble. Whitacre has a wonderful platform, but the way in which he uses this platform never fails to make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end (and not in the good Whitacre Cluster Chord™ way).