It is a scene straight out of Mary Poppins. Strapped to a bass drum, cymbal in one hand, stick in the other, the conductor Richard Pittman parades around the Boston auditorium with a crash and a bang as if about to belt out chim-chim-cheroo. “Isn’t show business wonderful?” laughs a member of the orchestra. It is. But this isn’t show business. Or at least, I don’t think it is. In Europe contemporary classical music is a pretty dour thing. Not in America.
Pittman’s Boston Musica Viva may be one of the oldest contemporary music ensembles in America, their performances may be edifying, but their game is still showbiz. Next week they come to Kings Place in London with three all-American concerts. In the programmes, unrepentant 12-toners rub shoulders with post-minimalists, neo-romantics, former rockers, jazz men and slickly brilliant encores from Bernard Hoffer, the man behind the music to the TV animation Thundercats: an accessible, eclectic and, even at its most uncompromising, engaging medley. Contemporary American composition has a lot to teach its European cousins.
“Europeans are very serious about the craft,” says the composer David Rakowski, one of Musica Viva’s regular collaborators, whose website gives us the following information: “David Rakowski has male pattern baldness, high blood pressure, little hope of growing a real beard and a chin dimple.” If he wasn’t a composer, Rakowski could be a stand-up.