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Why does contemporary classical music spurn melody?

Proponents of modern symphonic music cast unhappy audiences as unenlightened. But for most listeners, music elicits emotional rather than intellectual responses. Certainly, classical music should should challenge and evoke. It just shouldn't sound like bus crashes.

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A few years before he passed, my father and I were discussing contemporary symphonic music. Like most concertgoers, Dad didn't care for it – except he wasn't like most concert-goers. He was a charter member of the Duluth, Minn., Symphony Orchestra, and sat in its French horn section for nearly 40 years.

He said that during his tenure Duluth conductors scheduled at least one modern unconventional score each season. "During all those years, the orchestra repeated Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky – most of the classical canon – many times," he said. "But we never again replayed a modern composition."

In 1986, when he became music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Edo de Waart was an advocate of contemporary composers. On a radio talk show, a caller asked him, "Why do we have to listen to music that sounds like bus crashes?" To which the maestro replied, "Sir, you're living in the wrong century." In other words, get used to the dissonance.

Another view: Why concerts are boring

But ticketholders had little patience with discordance, and Mr. de Waart and the orchestra largely reverted to the familiar oeuvre of classic works.


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