Joseph Schwantner is 36 and a teacher of composition at the Eastman School of Music, a post from which he is currently on leave. He also is one of a growing number of younger composers who are openly avowing a desire to write music that is "easier to grasp on first hearing." Schwantner puts it, "What is on the surface is more easily perceived."
The results of his deliberate decision were heard last night in the auditorium of the Hirshhorn Museum when the 20th-Century Consort gave the world premiere of Schwantner's "Sparrows." Completed only a few weeks ago, the work is a setting of 15 haikai by Issa, the first and last of which speak of sparrows "Greet the new sky with consonance of harmonies -- right to the sparrows!"
The music is scored for soprano backed by a lush combination of harp, flute, clarinet, piano, string trio and percussion. Schwantner's imagination leads him not only to exotic uses of these instruments, but also to the happy idea of having as many as six of the players -- including even the pianist's page turner -- sing along wordlessly, providing, from time to time, a luxuriant background texture.
The solo vocal writing is designed to heighten the composer's purpose of creating "a series of dream states." He achieves his purpose in music of exquisite sounds and images, all of which were fully conveyed in the beautiful singing of Lucy Shelton and the players directed by Christopher Kendall.
The program, which closed with the Schoenberg Serenade, opened with a chamber symphony for piano and electronic sound by Maurice Wright, who is 30. By intent conventional in from and thought, the symphony also could be said to be for "piano and electronic orchestra." It emphasizes once more that the central fact these days is not one of electronic sources of sound, but, as it always has been, from whatever sources sounds are produced, the quality, the interest of the music. Wright's strongest ideas come in the finale, when both piano, and an electronic cadenza are built of stronger materials than those which precede it.