Saturday, January 1, 2011

Birth daze

It’s now officially OK for pianists to not play something by Robert Schumann and/or Frederic Chopin in every performance. Their anniversary year is past. This year, pianists will be expected to play something by Franz Liszt (born 1811).

Emphasis on already familiar works by canonical composers during round-numbered anniversary years has become a herd behavior, and it’s gotten pretty lame.

Schumann and Chopin are central to the piano repertory; not much of their worthwhile music languished awaiting 2010. Mozart’s greatest hits hardly needed a special year in 2006. Mahler’s symphonies and symphonic song cycles are regularly essayed by orchestras, so performances of them in 2010 (centenary) and 2011 (100th anniversary of death) have been and will be . . . special? How, exactly?

More worth celebrating are anniversaries of composers whose works are not part of the standard repertory, or who maintain a toehold with one or two pieces. These are not as widely marked as those of brand-name composers. Last year marked the centenaries of Samuel Barber and William Schuman, but neither got anything approaching the amount of program time given to Schumann and Chopin.

In addition to being the Liszt and dead-Mahler year, 2011 is the centenary of Gian-Carlo Menotti, which may produce more performances than usual of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" but probably not of "The Saint of Bleeker Street." And this year is the sesquicentenary of Edward MacDowell, the American composer whose piano music occasionally might garnish all that Liszt.

This year’s round-numbered anniversaries of compositions include:

* The 100th of Debussy’s "The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian," Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, Ravel’s "Valses nobles et sentimentales" and Bartók’s "Duke Bluebeard’s Castle."

* The 150th of Brahms’ First and Second piano quartets and "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel."

* The 200th of Beethoven’s music for "The Ruins of Athens" (source of the familiar "Turkish March") and Weber’s opera "Abu Hassan" and First and Second clarinet concertos.

* The 250th of Haydn’s cycle of "Morning," "Noon" and "Night" symphonies (Nos. 6-8) and Gluck’s "Don Juan" ballet music.

* The 300th of Handel’s opera "Rinaldo."

Aside from some understandable attention-seeking by clarinet soloists, I’m guessing there’ll be no anniversary rush to program any of that music.

Loads of Liszt, though.

Speaking of whom, pianist Stephen Hough, writing for The Guardian (UK), offers a useful overview of Liszt the man, the popular sensation and the musical visionary: