New Music With a Tonal Twist

New Music With a Tonal Twist -

Ahh, the smell of fresh new music, and it actually smells pretty good! Who would have thunk?

Melody? Catharsis? In more doctrinaire decades, writing music with such features constituted professional suicide. Today, an increasing number of composers utilize tonality, weaving melodic lines, dissonant riffs, electronic effects and ethnic or pop influences into a compelling 21st-century fabric. But tonal music still elicits disdain from diehard modernists. Mr. Spano chalks it up to elitism—"If people like it, it can't be that good."

All too often, music commissioned by symphony orchestras is as ephemeral as a shooting star, lighting up a concert program and quickly vanishing from view. Compare that to the rollout given "City Scape" by American composer Jennifer Higdon. After its premiere by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2002, "City Scape" was performed on tour, recorded for Telarc and reprised in later concert seasons.

Rehearsing a movement of the piece a few years ago, Mr. Spano had a kind of epiphany: "We played it through once," he recounted over coffee in his studio in the Memorial Arts Building at the Woodruff Arts Center. "It felt like we were coming back to a Beethoven symphony. It was repertoire."

The Ohio-born conductor has led the ASO in an impressive 55 works by 33 living composers since taking the helm as music director in 2001. But he is particularly known for his espousal of a cadre of primarily American composers dubbed the "Atlanta School." They are Ms. Higdon (this year's Pulitzer Prize winner), Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golijov and Christopher Theofanidis. The addition of a fifth composer to the group, 29-year-old Adam Schoenberg, will soon be announced. Over the next few seasons, the ASO will premiere two of Mr. Schoenberg's works, one of which will be recorded.

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