Charles Wuorinen at 75, Guggenheim Museum, New York – review

Modern composers come and go. Trends change. Yesterday’s quest for complex agitation becomes today’s recourse to easy listening. But Charles Wuorinen remains Charles Wuorinen. He remains tough, daring and provocative.

A smart iconoclast, he has always marched bravely to his own irascible drummer. Popularity and accessibility be damned.

His compositions, more than 260 so far, invariably reflect an enlightened command of dissonance counterbalanced but never compromised by flights of relative lyricism. Hot passion is tempered by cool virtuosity. For all his impetuosity, Wuorinen always manages to convey a minutely organised sense of order. He also happens to be a clever orator, whose dry wit complements and, yes, illuminates his musical ideas.

All this came into focus on Sunday when, as part of its “Works & Process” series, the Guggenheim celebrated Wuorinen’s 75th birthday (June 9). Over the decades, he has written pieces of many sizes in many genres. Sometimes he has abandoned subtle abstraction in favour of overt drama. In January the Teatro Real of Madrid will mount the much anticipated premiere of his Brokeback Mountain, an opera predicated on the same Annie Proulx story that inspired Ang Lee’s celebrated film in 2005. Controversy no doubt looms.

The attraction on this festive occasion in the museum’s subterranean concert hall was chamber music. Fred Sherry, extraordinary cellist and a longtime Wuorinen champion, curated a trio of intimate challenges. He also engaged the composer in a breezy discussion of his technical and philosophical motives.

Iridule (2006) served as a rugged yet never ragged overture, its harmonic and rhythmic knots nonchalantly untied by the oboist Jacqueline Leclair plus six fine accomplices. New York Notes (1982) offered abrasive vitality offset by nearly gentle reflection. Wuorinen served as no-nonsense conductor for both. In between, Sherry, ably seconded by the pianist Alan Feinberg, imbued Fast Fantasy (1977) with superb frenzy.

When all was clashed and sprung, the audience serenaded Wuorinen with “Happy Birthday.” One wonders if anything like that ever happened to Arnold Schoenberg or Edgard Varèse.

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