Last month, I got a chance to see one of M.'s favorite contemporary composers conduct a concert of his work at Carnegie Hall. Eric Whitacre has made a decent career out of creating work that's beautiful and engrossing but also highly accessible to amateur musicians. I'll admit that in the past, I've steered clear of comp tickets offered for scholastic groups performing at Carnegie -- there seem to be a lot of them -- but the promise of seeing Whitacre do his own work and M.'s own recommendation was enough to sway me this time. I wasn't disappointed, and it made me re-evaluate my expectations when it comes to such shows. (I too was a scholastic musician once, so why not assume they're good, even if I'm not a proud family member, as so many in the audience usually are.) The recent concert featured two super-choirs, comprising smaller groups from across the country and even a few from abroad. They were clearly well-rehearsed and many seemed to show an affection for Whitacre's music and maybe even the man himself (think movie star Aaron Eckhart with longer hair).
Like a pop star, the composer offered some patter between each piece, none of which were very long. He says he didn't really "discover" classical music until around age 18, and his works do reflect someone who's in search more for a captivating soundscape than, say, skillfully executed counterpoint. That's not a bad thing. It's fair to assume that coming to the classical realm late in life left him open for experimentation, and fewer qualms against going for cool effects. A hint of one such effect came as each of the young choristers walked onto stage carrying a single sheet of blank copier paper. The props' intention was revealed at the end of "Little Birds," set to a poem by one of Whitacre's favorite poets, Octavio Paz. As the piece ends, the choir snapped the flock of papers above their heads for a quick vigorous flutter. Granted, more avant-garde composers have been using extra-musical effects for decades, but they came across as more plain-hearted and accessible in Whitacre's hands. You can almost imagine him saying to himself, "Would it be really neat if we did this ..."
Because he so often writes with the young musician and the chorus in mind, I don't think Whitacre has quite become a staple of the more traditional classical circuit yet. But maybe that's starting to change. He's set to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in October in a program that also features his wife, soprano Hila Plitmann. He's also apparently going to be composer in residence at a college in Cambridge this fall, a university that has a rich and storied choral tradition. Well before then, he'll be back at Carnegie June 15 for the NY premiere of the concert version of his musical "Paradise Lost," which includes electronic beats, anime projections and Japanese drummers, and has been performed in various incarnations since 2003.