Composer's originality questioned by critics

Composer's originality questioned by critics

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Composer's originality questioned by critics

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by BOB KEEFER, The Eugene Register-Guard

kgw.com

Posted on February 18, 2012 at 4:32 PM

Updated Monday, Feb 20 at 3:53 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- When the Eugene Symphony performed the Pacific Northwest premiere Thursday night of "Sidereus," a newly commissioned work by Grammy Award-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov, two members of the audience had a sudden sense of puzzlement .

Tom Manoff, a National Public Radio classical music critic who lives in Eugene, and Brian McWhorter, a University of Oregon music professor and trumpet player, attended the concert together -- mostly to hear the F.J. Haydn trumpet concerto performed by the evening's featured guest, Andrew Balio.

But when the concert opened with Golijov's "Sidereus," a 9-minute composition that premiered in 2010 in Memphis, Tenn., the two men looked at each other in shock.

That's because, both said on Friday, they recognized large parts of Golijov's composition from a different composer's piece, one they both had been working with recently: accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman's 2009 work, "Barbeich."

Ward-Bergeman was credited in the symphony program notes only for his melody. Golijov alone is listed as composer of "Sidereus."

Neither composer could be reached for comment on Friday.

Manoff says Golijov used much more than Ward-Bergeman's melody.

"At least half of the piece I heard played by the Eugene Symphony is known to me as Ward-Bergeman's `Barbeich,' a work for accordion and ensemble which, according to the artist's website, was composed in 2009.

"The musical content of `Sidereus' includes substantial sections of Ward-Bergman's composition, including melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, and notable musical structures," he wrote Friday on his blog.

"My gut reaction is this kind of thing reflects the general decline of the classical musical culture, a dumbed-down culture with few professional music critics, which has reduced music to pure commerce in the guise of high culture," he later elaborated by e-mail.

McWhorter also was disturbed by the similarities he heard.

"Oh my God, it was like verbatim," he said on Friday. "I can't begin to describe how surreal it was to hear."

McWhorter has been working with Manoff recently to finish a recording of a trumpet version of Ward-Bergeman's "Barbeich," performed with his ensemble, Beta Collide. Thus, both men were intimately familiar with "Barbeich."

"What I worry about is the credit," McWhorter said. "It's an amazing piece of music that Michael wrote."

Eugene Symphony was one of 35 orchestras that chipped in, aided by a grant from the League of American Orchestras, to commission the Golijov work in honor of Henry Fogel, the league's esteemed former leader, now retired.

Ryan Fleur -- president and chief executive of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, which coordinated the commission -- said Friday that the orchestras contributed between $1,500 and $4,000 each, although much of the total went for associated costs, such as producing scores for musicians and marketing the work.

Fleur downplayed the idea that the similarities between the works represented anything underhanded. For one thing, he said, musical borrowing is part of the classical tradition; Ludwig van Beethoven borrowed from Wolfgang Mozart.

Besides, he said, there are no clearly agreed on standards for crediting work by a composer.

"The amount you can quote from a work can be quite extensive."

Fleur added that he had watched the development of "Sidereus" under Golijov's direction in New York in the months before its premiere and then in final rehearsals. He said he was confident that it was ultimately Golijov's work.

"We watched the piece come to fruition. And it was transformed into a very different piece," he said.

The Eugene Symphony had no complaints with the work it helped commission, interim executive director Maylian Pak wrote in an e-mail.

"We were very happy with the concert, as was the audience, judging from their response," she said.

Ward-Bergeman did not respond to an e-mail asking for comment.

Golijov was busy working on a new composition and was unavailable for comment, his New York agency said Friday.

"I certainly don't have anything to comment since frankly I haven't heard the piece live or seen the score," Jonathan Brill, executive vice president at Opus3 Artists, said in an e-mail. "Just to say as a personal note that Michael and Osvaldo are and have been close colleagues, collaborators, friends, since many, many years.

"Mr. Golijov is now in midst of composing another piece and has asked not to be disturbed, and I am honoring that request."

On the website of Boosey & Hawkes, his music publisher, Golijov elaborated on the use of Ward-Bergeman's music.

"In `Sidereus,' the melodies and the harmony are simple, so they can reveal more upon closer examination," Golijov wrote. "For the `Moon' theme, I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia."

Golijov, who teaches music at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, is the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius award." He won two Grammys in 2007 -- for best opera recording and best classical contemporary composition -- for his opera "Ainadamar: Fountain of Tears."

The Oregon Bach Festival commissioned his "Oceana" and premiered it in Eugene in 1996; The Bach Festival also performed the Northwest premiere of his "La Pasión Según San Marcos" to open the festival in 2005.

Golijov, who is often said to be a perfectionist in his work, has apparently had trouble completing recent commissions on time.

Last year, he was late in delivering a string quartet that was to have been performed in March by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Carnegie Hall. The premiere was put off until October.

In May, the Los Angeles Philharmonic canceled the premiere of a violin concerto that the orchestra had commissioned from the composer because it wasn't ready. And in 2010, he failed to deliver another new work to the L.A. Philharmonic. It was to have been performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw, pianist Emanuel Ax -- and his friend and collaborator, accordionist Ward-Bergeman.

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