"Looks don’t concern me, maestro," says the character Katerina Cavalieri in the film Amadeus. "Only talent interests a woman of taste."
Perhaps. But looks certainly put the proverbial foot in the door.
I never heard of Michael Hersch till I was browsing the Naxos website one day, and when I saw his photo, I thought, "Oh! Nerdy hot!" Huang Ruo was referred to me through a circuitous series of events when I explored this topic of classical music hotties previously. And Ned Rorem? The guy turned 85, and he’s still described as "boy-ish".
Huang Ruo, Chamber Concerto Cycle (International Contemporary Ensemble)
Huang isn’t afraid to coax timbres out of instruments that they weren’t designed to make, which essentially makes him a creative descendant of George Crumb. But the incorporation of Asian music in a contemporary Western context also puts him in league with Yamashiro Shouji, composer of the frightening score to the groundbreaking anime Akira. As a matter of personal taste, I actually find the taut texture of a chamber ensemble far more appealing than a full orchestra. In Huang’s case, the intensity of the pieces feels far more direct and adventurous.
Michael Hersch, Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / Fracta / Arraché (Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)
Hersch came to composition relatively late in life, not discovering classical music till he was in his late-teens but catching up fairly quickly. He knows his way around an orchestra, and these works take full advantage of the orchestra’s colors. There were moments where I thought I was listening to Joan Tower, but Hersch’s harmonic sense is much more expressionistic. I’m not sure I found anything in these works that I couldn’t find in Arnold Schoenberg. Then again, I already have a stated bias against orchestral works. I’ll need to find some of his chamber music instead.
Ned Rorem, Eleven Studies for Eleven Players / Piano Concerto in Six Movements (Louisville Orchestra)
I keep encountering Ned Rorem in passing — a stray chamber work here, a piano piece there — but I had yet to hear an entire album of his works. Rorem is generally described as a tonal composer, but that doesn’t mean he’s a Romantic-era holdover. Some of the Eleven Studies for Eleven Players reminded me of early Stravinsky in the more genial moments. The Piano Concerto in Six Movements showed a lot more bite. Rorem is coy about whether the opening theme in the first two measures of the concerto is developed serially — he was a lot less dogmatic about serial composition than his contemporaries at the time. I still need to hear more of his art songs, though.