Contemporary music: is anyone listening?
It is no longer a secret: Contemporary music has lost its audience and very few seem to really care. An analysis of what went wrong has been the subject of numerous books, one of which, Samuel Lipman's ''Music After Modernism''(New York: Basic Books, 1979), is especially readable and informed. Though he eventually branches off into unrelated (but interesting) areas, he does raise some valid points about the crisis in music today. He points out that new music today is too often being written for new-music mavens and other composers - a tiny group of people, in this country at least. Without offering conclusions - pat or otherwise - Lipman explores the problems that elitism has created, most visibly the audience it has alienated.
As Lipman affirms, a return to some sort of easy romanticism is not really the solution, since it neither challenges nor forwards what should be the continuous progression of a musical language. But as yet no one has come up with a real solution.
Yet there is no question about it: Put a new piece on the program of any major symphony orchestra concert in the United States, and at least indifference (manifested in rattled programs, gross restlessness, stares and knowing glances at neighbors, and, at worst, walk-outs) ensue. Sometimes they listen to a composer who has decided to change his or her idiom in the hopes of greater accessibility, for which he reaps the scorn of critics and that musical elite. And as engaging and appreciated as that popularizing effort may be, it at best contributes only an aside to the mainstream of music.
It could be argued that much music is an aside: Stravinsky stopped being ''influential'' after the big ballets, ''Firebird,'' ''Petrouchka,'' and particularly, ''Rite of Spring.'' But he assimilated the best of new trends and made them uniquely his own. And that is all one can ask of talents and geniuses, even if there is no collective progress.
Perhaps the problems would be less complex if critics did not too often muddle the issues. Some feel obliged, possibly out of a certain guilt, to like new music. They are likely to bend over backward to find genius in every tone cluster, revolution in every prolonged silence, and ravishing beauty in every clashing tone. Those not consumed by this guilt sometimes err on the other side - damning everything not accessible, not graspable, not tuneful. There are few critics writing today who evince a genuine love of new music and can communicate it to their readers.
To add to the problems, many conductors do not really enjoy learning the scores, and their performances show it. Orchestras, for the most part, hate playing them, especially when scores read like comic books, and players are told to do everything but play their instruments.
Caught in the middle of all this is the hapless concertgoer, who would quite happily forgo the new for Brahms. If, perhaps, he had some sort of guide to help him understand the piece, he might glean more from a first (and usually only) listening. Program notes, which should serve that purpose, too often tend to be of little aid.
Two new works were introduced to the US recently. In one case one must ask why (and the tepid audience response asked just that). In the other, a stunning new tone poem has been presented.
Karlheinz Stockhausen has for years explored the electronic idiom and has often tried to make his ensembles sound electronic. His latest effort is the surprisingly tame, inconsequential ''Jubilee,'' commissioned by the Hannover Opera House for its 125th anniversary in 1977. Zubin Mehta gave the US premiere of the 1980 revision at the opening concerts of the '81-82 season. The opening theme - one that recurs in various accelerations and decelerations - owes a good deal to Olivier Messiaen's unique muse. The time factor is very dreamy and elongated, in the style of Steve Reich. The tonal clusters and effects are very all-purpose modern. It is 14 prolonged minutes of facelessness.
On the other hand, Hans Werner Henze's ''Barcarolle'' is a stunning achievement as heard with the New York Philharmonic under Mehta. It has something of a vague program: Charon is taking a boatload of passengers across the Styx, and in the last bars they have a view of Ithaca. Henze is a master orchestrator, and he puts forth his musical moods and moments with brilliance and vividness, mixing dark rumbling ominousness with ethereal mystery and even restfulness. It is full of drama, of brooding vistas, storms and calms, and it never outstays its welcome.
Will any of the new works heard this year become classics? This is a particularly intriguing question when one is listening to Stravinsky's ''Le Sacre du printemps'' caps and lc okay which has become the ''Beethoven's Fifth'' of the '80s. Mr. Mehta offered it on the same program with the Stockhausen: For openers, a bit of contemporary blandness, for closers, a grand slam of genius. Stravinsky was a radical who alienated his first audiences. Today we take this music for granted. It has character and drive. It is evocative, atmospheric, dramatic, with its own special sort of melody. All the splendid orchestral colors and effects are sewn together with a master's thread. Even in its densest onslaught, the ''Sacre'' orchestration is clear, fully audible.
Curiously, Mahler was also on the all-20th-century program. Mahler was not greatly appreciated in his day; he was considered a desecrator of tradition. His slogan ''my time will come'' echoed up to the '60s when Leonard Bernstein championed the revival that put Mahler on the musical map in terms of popularity.
Now we listen to the gloomy ''Kindertotenlieder'' and the heaven-storming Second Symphony with relish and abandon. It is music that communicates, particularly when the ''Kindertotenlieder'' soloist is the haunting, restrained, Christa Ludwig. She gleans the essence of the text and projects it with minimum effort and maximum impact. In the Second, she again captured it.
Mehta knows how to make Mahler crackle with particular intensity. He does not necessarily give listeners new insights, but such vitality, beauty, and thrilling elan (particularly when the New York Philharmonic plays as well as it did in the Mahler), are hard to come by in this bland, riskless age.
After the final climax - with Miss Ludwig, the honey-toned Kathleen Battle, the Westminster Choir, and the orchestra blazing away - the audience went (justifiably) wild. It went wild for the Stravinsky, and even for the Henze, if in not so boisterous a manner. The Stockhausen received a skimpy ovation. Even in this resistant day, audiences will admit to liking some new works, but they are works with some ties to music as we have all learned it, even if that tie is rather distant. There surely is a message there.