COMMAND—Greenberg Review I

Jonathan Bellman


Some days ago I promised a response to Jay Greenberg’s Fifth Symphony and String Quintet, the recording of which finally arrived last week.  Full disclosure: I knew absolutely nothing of his work previously, and it cannot be denied that anyone’s music is going to benefit from readings such as these.  José Serebrier leads the London Symphony in Greenberg’s Fifth, and there is both a strong conception of the work and excellent execution.  The Juilliard String Quartet + Darrett Adkins on second ’cello give a nuanced and persuasive reading of the quintet, and so—in my opinion, anyway—one can really judge the pieces because they have passionate, thinking advocates like these performers.  You aren’t trying to listen through an under-rehearsed performance, you’re allowing the performance to tell you about the piece, to realize it.  Fortunate the composer—any composer—to have such advocates.

After quite a few listenings, my considered opinion (whatever that may be worth) is that this young composer really has something.  The pieces are immediately attractive, but they are also immediately challenging.  Greenberg has a great sense of what an orchestra actually can do—I don’t mean from a sense of color, so much, but rather from a sense of conversation and ensemble.  People have mentioned Shostakovich as an influence; frankly, I hear Hindemith (some Mathis in the first movement), Brahms also, and a variety of others.  I also felt the benign presence of several American composers of the twentieth century.  Still, it feels like a real symphony, not just like a real big something for orchestra that gets called a symphony for reasons of pretense.  Greenberg seems to understand the novelistic elements of the symphonic genre, the broad sweep and polygeneric nature of it (think, in a novel, of poems, correspondence, diary entries etc. that are part of the greater whole), the microcosms that make the macrocosm.  To my ear: not pastiche, but long-term coherence; not derivativeness and reliance on familiar gestures with familiar associations, but rather fearlessness about using them and, well, communicating.

The finale, one might imagine, might make some uncomfortable, since much of the orchestration and musical material sound as if they have relatives in the world of film music.  (N.B.  I mean this as a compliment: no better place to learn what an orchestra can do, plus all this indicates that Greenberg does not stay up at night twitchily fabricating ways to seem more “original.”)  To my ear, the composer sounds like a symphonist among symphonists, because he understands the language and the instrument—and and knowing this instrument means being able to encompass Debussyan, Brahmsian, American etc. orchestral idioms, which by this point may be taken as topics in the Ratnerian, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sense.  Here’s Hindemith, here’s a chorale in the third movement entering with a Brahmsian seamlessness, here’s America, here’s Russia, here’s film, and much more.  Not “derivativeness” but rather wit, odd juxtapositions, plays on musical words.  Oboes and flutes still work nicely for pastoral passages, and so sometimes that is what they’re given.  After centuries, it still sounds wonderfully natural and idiomatic.

As for the Is It Deep And Immortal, I won’t embarrass myself with an opinion except to say that I’m listening to this a lot.  For me, not a lot of music falls into that category, and it tends to be music to which I retain a long-term commitment. 

As for the Quintet, it is unsurprising that he writes for strings as a native; he started music study, if I’m not mistaken, on the ’cello.  There is twentieth-century music in the wings here, too: Bartók, Shostakovich, and again less in the material than in the use of the instruments.  I read somewhere that Greenberg has written three piano concertos; I would really like to hear these, because I understand that instrument better than the others, and it would give me a different, much wider door through which to enter his musical world. 

What strikes me in these two pieces above all is that there is no sense of apparent effort; in both works, he is unafraid of melody, unafraid of harmony, indeed unafraid of the instruments.  This may sound silly, but Greenberg is not writing a “symphony” on music by David Bowie or the Grateful Dead, the Symphoniæ Carminorum (that’s probably a mess; I have no real Latin) of our time.  (I hope neither Philip Glass nor Lee Johnson would make the case that “light classical” music is dead.)  He is writing more or less what’s in his head, and there was a time not so long ago when people were discouraged from being melodic or harmonic, perhaps in the same way they were discouraged from doing dissertations on Johann Strauss, or studying Gershwin.   There is a wonderful sense that Greenberg either never heard “you can’t do that anymore!” or simply never gave a rip if he did.  Again: he has decades of development ahead of him, but this is the most favorable of auguries.

This is already long enough by far; I’ll put the rest in a second blog.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to COMMAND—Greenberg Review I

  1. Galen says:

    I have no doubt that Greenberg writes better music than most kids his age and most adults, or that he’s highly talented, and since I have no familiarity with his work I’m in no position to judge. But what I wonder is this: is he a “child prodigy” because he has greater native ability or because he got more advanced training and practice at a young age? It looks like he started formal composition lessons at age 11 with Samuel Adler. He started composing seriously at age 8, and may have had formal training in composition, harmony, and/or counterpoint prior to his admission into Juilliard at 11. His 5th symphony was released in 2006, so let’s say it was written in 2005 when he was 14.
    A lot of composers start composing seriously in highschool and start studying composition and theory when they get to college. In terms of years of formal training, Greenberg wrote that symphony when he was the equivalent of a Senior in college. How does it compare to what other good composers write as Seniors? And is that a reasonable comparison, or is there really something strictly age related going on as well?

  2. Dan Johnson says:

    Yeah, I’m not sure I buy this. A “light music” after the symphonies of Brahms, Hindemith and Shostakovich? I think that pinpoints what I disliked about this disc—humorless, yet insubstantial.
    Most critics, praising Greenberg, single out his “potential” rather than his achievements. At this stage in his career, that seems about right, although it makes one wonder why he should have already received such a wealth of resources and media attention before he’s had a chance to build a real body of work.
    Why such first-rate performers for this repertoire? It seems obvious to me that Sony/BMG is cashing in on this child, the way they would any precocious star.
    I was delighted to read a very strong review of his new violin concerto—I look forward to the day when he lives up to the (slightly unreasonable?) expectations generated by his remarkable talent. In the meantime, I’d rather listen to something else.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I apparently wasn’t clear–the “light music” remark was aimed at people who do “symphonies” on Rock music, not at Greenberg himself. My fault for the parenthetical tangent; that thought didn’t apply to him at all.
    I wonder just how many like animals there are, to be honest; I suspect companies would have been cashing in long before if there were as many Konservatoriumwunderkinder as people are implying. It might be worth asking A-list composition teachers what they’ve seen. I’m also looking forward to the violin concerto–how one writes for a soloist is another measure of musical maturity.

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