George Tsontakis aims for quieter rewards

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kati AgocsComposer George Tsontakis: "I'm at the perfect place. I have commissions through 2013 - I'm recession-proof - and all my music is getting recorded. I wouldn't trade places with any other living composer."

ASPEN – Among George Tsontakis’ dislikes – along with cell phones, being referred to as a classical composer, and a schedule that keeps him from the softball field – is applause. For one thing, generating applause is about the easiest thing a composer can do – just whip up a loud, splashy ending, and you’ll get your ovation. Moreover, applause breaks the spell that, ideally, had been cast over the listener over the duration of the piece of music.

“It’s a horrible thing. Applause is a sonic eraser – it’s noise that erases the thing that should linger,” said Tsontakis, who has a fondness for the solitary, at-home listening experience with a CD player, a comfy chair – and no clapping. “That’s why I like recordings. Someone listens at home, it ends, then it’s quiet.”

If the accolades Tsontakis has been receiving of late could be equated to applause, it would amount to a standing ovation. In 2006, he became the recipient of the Charles Ives Living honor, a three-year award that allows the composer to concentrate on his art. The previous year, he took the Grawemeyer Award, representing a $200,000 payday. In 2002, it was the Berlin Prize; this past year, it was a residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and a Grammy nomination for his Violin Concerto No. 2.

And there are the abundant performances of his work. Last month, violist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han played his “Mirror Image” in Aspen; the piece premiered this past spring as part of Tsontakis’ Lincoln Center residency. Next week he goes to Santa Fe for the premiere of “Stimulus Package,” a work for a trio that Tsontakis admires for its artistry as well as, presumably, its name: Real Quiet. The piece, for cello, piano and percussion, has a performance the following week in La Jolla.

Friday, the Sinfonia, with conductor Peter Oundjian and violinists Angela and Jennifer Chun, play the world premiere of his “Unforgettable.” The piece – listed as a concerto but described by its creator as a tone poem, a quieter and smaller-scale form – is already scheduled for a performance next season by New York’s American Symphony Orchestra.

With the increasing stature has come an interest in performances of Tsontakis’ early works (even the ones he’d rather not hear again). On Monday, Aug. 10, the chamber music concert features his “Eclipse,” a frequently played piece – and one that he is happy to have programmed – that revolves around the clarinet, to be played by Joaquin Valdepenas.

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On another level, applause makes Tsontakis worry about what he is accomplishing, in his music and his career. He is wary of popularity and what it might mean for a 21st century composer of concert music. Raucous ovations can be an indication that he is pandering to audience expectations, and not exploring something new, mysterious and somewhat unfamiliar.

“I don’t write the music people want me to write, or expect me to write. Especially the younger composers – you get too much attention and you try to write what you think people expect to hear,” said the 57-year-old Tsontakis, who, over three-plus decades, has missed just one summer in Aspen, in the mid-’70s. “The best composers – [Christopher] Rouse, [Osvaldo] Golijov, even [John] Corigliano – develop later. And you have to wonder – if a composer appeals to so many people early on, maybe they’re not doing something as distinct as they should be.”

In presenting the Ives Living award to Tsontakis, Ezra Laderman, president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, said the selection was made to identify “a composer of enormous talent who is on the threshold of becoming a household name.” Presumably, Tsontakis didn’t mind the “enormous talent” part, but the “household name” part made him flinch. (And laugh: “Who’s a household name in contemporary music?” he asks.)

“If one aims to have fame in our business, you can achieve it,” he said. “But for me it’s about staying under the radar. I think it’s important for composers to just compose, and not worry about recognition. Creation is more like, ‘Let them come find me. I’m here; I’m doing this all alone. Come find me.'”

Such a statement can make Tsontakis seem like the hermit composer, which he is not. True, he has no website of his own, and he won’t allow his work to be submitted for Pulitzer Prize consideration, on the grounds of the process being too political. He would rather work with upstate New York’s Albany Symphony, which presents a ton of new music, than the New York Philharmonic (which does not). He is a voluble and physical presence, and doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind on things. He is also not about to bemoan the honors he has reaped over the last few years; they have, he says, put him in an ideal position, professionally.

“I think I have it down to the perfect science: Who’s going to commission me, and who’s going to record it?” Tsontakis said of his career strategy. “I’m at the perfect place. I have commissions through 2013 – I’m recession-proof – and all my music is getting recorded. I wouldn’t trade places with any other living composer.”

Tsontakis is not as sanguine about the state of the whole of contemporary music. The concert program standard of two hundred-plus-year-old pieces and (maybe) one contemporary work is destined to condemn classical music to ever-shrinking significance.

“Young people don’t want to hear music by dead composers,” he said. Tsontakis has come up with several metaphors to illustrate the point: “The creative thing has to keep living. You can’t grow new vegetables in inorganic soil. That’s what classical music has become. There’s still soil there. But it’s not growing anything.

“It’s like the way the country is going: If we take the same path, we’re going nowhere. We need change. I advocate the goal of having two works by living composers and one workhorse. And I think that time will come.”

But even for Tsontakis, who is up near the top echelon of living composers, that time hasn’t come yet. Or if it has, it’s only occasionally, when an entire program is devoted to his music – as happens several times a year, most often in Europe – or at a new-music festival.

“Fifteen hundred people hear your piece, and they go home. They weren’t there to hear your piece. They came to hear the Beethoven,” he said of the more typical experience. (Like tonight’s Sinfonia concert, which features Verdi’s Overture to “La forza del destino,” written nearly 150 years ago; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, which premiered in 1813.)

One key to addressing the situation is educating children. Tsontakis grew up on the North Shore of Long Island, with parents who weren’t especially musical. “The family could sing Greek songs,” he says. But in the public school he attended, the emphasis on music was strong enough that, when he was 16 and heard in the same week a Beethoven string quartet and Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” he knew he wanted to write music. “I said, ‘I want to do that,'” he recalled. “If you told me Stravinsky was a Polish jazz composer, I’d have said, ‘Oh, cool, that’s what I want to be.'”

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As it turns out, jazz plays a subtle part in Tsontakis’ latest work. He wasn’t thinking of jazz, or of Nat King Cole, when he set out to write what became “Unforgettable.” But in the final part, jazzy sounds began to emerge.

“These soft, cloudy jazz chords came out of nowhere,” he said. And they seemed to make sense. “It seemed the right consequence to the antecedent. I was writing almost jazz ballad lines for the violins, dreamy, misty jazz chords. And it reminded me of Nat King Cole; the mood was like that. And Nat King Cole – that’s my mother’s favorite guy.”

The jazz, though, is buried deep in the music. Tsontakis, like any composer of his era, has been influenced by a variety of styles: rock, jazz, and especially the music of Crete, the Greek island where his ancestors came from. Among his upcoming premieres is what he calls a “Greek klezmer clarinet concerto,” for the Albany Symphony in upstate New York, where he has been in residence. (Tsontakis lives in Woodstock.) But he does not care to make those influences obvious.

“Everything I’ve heard is in the music,” he said. “But it’s shrouded. I think it’s important that that stuff explode internally, but be beneath the surface. If it rose to the surface, it would be worse. I know it’s there and people can feel it. But if you can recognize them, I’m pissed off.”

Tsontakis describes “Unforgettable” as “very gentle. It’s poetry. The people looking for a concerto will not find it in this piece. It’s a tone poem. It’s breezes and flourishes of wind.”

And it ends without any yearning for applause. Like most of Tsontakis’ works, “Unforgettable” closes quietly – “with a ‘dot, dot, dot,'” he says.

“My mother always asks me: ‘Why don’t you end something loud for a change?”