‘Expanding Tonality’ Explored


The triumph of modernism in music is usually designated to Arnold Schoenberg, to the post-tonal world he and the followers of the Second Viennese School embarked upon and mapped out beginning in the early 20th century. Yet as the 20th century recedes into the mists of memory, a path is seen that modernist ethos recognize wasn’t a straight line, but a web of fractures, of fault lines that sometimes run parallel, sometimes run opposite of each other.

And tonality, a concept from which Schoenberg and his school hoped their 12-tone technique would emancipate them and a new generation of composers, turns out not to have been vanquished, but is alive. Not just alive but very distinct, as much a part of what became modern musical language as anything serial and atonal composers ever devised.

“There were a number of composers who chose to expand the concept of tonality rather than abolishing it,” said composer Stephen Cohn who, along with pianist Judith Lynn Stillman, will be curating, “Expanded Tonality,” a piano recital focusing on composers who resisted the pressure to abandon tonal harmony. “Expanding Tonality” will be presented at Boston Court in Pasadena on Friday night at 8 p.m.

Often, Cohn noted, these composers wrote “some very colorful, beautiful and communicative music.”

They also composed music that could be as audacious, as harsh as anything forged in the post-Schoenbergian kiln of atonality. Examples that come to mind are “Horace victorieux” and the “Symphony No. 1” by Honegger, the “Piano Sonata No. 1” by Shostakovich, and Britten’s late works.

“The level of their audaciousness is in the eye of the beholder,” said Cohn. “But our concern [in assembling this program is] the communicative value of the resulting music.”

The familiarity that is the tonal underpinning of music is something that Cohn in this recital displays as being something not merely historical, but as a movement still growing and finding new ground.

“Given that music was traditionally a way of expressing human spirit and emotion, the inclusion of tonal materials, along with what has evolved subsequently, offers the possibility of preserving some of the most loved musical values,” Cohn said.

And the composer of today, he feels, need not align with one rigid ideology over another.

“I see in contemporary composition [that] all musical history [is] at our fingertips – literally – with the Internet and the availability music from all periods and all cultures,” Cohn explained. “Composers are making use of all these materials with a new perspective, one that frees them from tradition and uses them in creative ways for the expression their idea.”

General admission tickets to “Exploring Tonality” are $25, seniors $20. To purchase tickets and obtain more information, visit https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/930330 or call (626) 683-6883.

Boston Court is located at 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena.

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