Like many people, I love listening to music. I enjoy music from many different genres – alternative, rock, jazz, pop, EDM, hip hop, new wave, instrumental…you name it. And certainly as a cellist and a member of an orchestra, I listen to quite a bit of orchestral music from symphonies to film scores. But it’s hard love ALL classical music because there are so many very different styles within the genre.
I’ve never been a big fan of Renaissance and early music and the same goes for the other side of the spectrum – modern classical. However, recently, I’ve been trying to expand my horizons when it comes to classical music written in the last 80 years and I have to say, I may be coming around. I’ve found many really interesting pieces that are part of the “modern classical” era that are definitely worth a listen. Even if you’re a die-hard fan of the Romantic or Baroque composers, here are some of my favorite modern pieces and composers that may turn you into a 20th and 21st century classical music fan.
If there’s one name that stands out as the most well-known in the modern classical era it is Philip Glass. Even if you don’t recognize the name, if you’ve seen films like The Truman Show, The Hours, and Candyman, you’ve heard his music. Glass’ music is described as minimalist, characterized by repetitive structures and simplicity. He has written operas, symphonies, works for ensemble, and, as previously mentioned, film scores among other works. He received the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors on December 26.
Here are some of my favorite Philip Glass works:
- Etude No. 2
- Truman Sleeps
- Concerto Fantasy for 2 Timpanists and Orchestra
- Anthem – Part 2 from Powaqqatsi
John Adams’ music draws upon pop, jazz, electronic music, and minimalism and is infused with expressive elements. He has written everything from chamber music and cantatas to large orchestral works and operas. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he wrote On The Transmigration of Souls for orchestra, chorus, and children’s choir. The text from this work was derived from fragments of notices posted at the WTC site by friends and relatives of the missing, interviews published in the New York Times, and randomly chosen names of victims. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for this composition.
Here are some other cool John Adams works:
- Short Ride in a Fast Machine
- The Chairman Dances
- Grand Pianola Music: On the Great Divide
- Shaker Loops
Henry Cowell – Hymn and Fuguing Tune
Henry Cowell was born much earlier than the previous two composers, but he was considered an avant-garde composer. Often called an ultra-modernist, he infused his early music with what we now call “world music”. His upbringing on the West Coast exposed him to a great deal of Irish airs and dances and music from China, Japan, Tahiti, and India. He also worked with and encouraged composers like Carlos Chávez who incorporated themes from Mexico’s indigenous people.
Unfortunately, he was arrested and incarcerated on a “morals” charge and that affected his later works which were markedly more conservative. His Hymn and Fuguing Tunes are among these later less-radical works, but they do retain some of the progressive bent of his earlier years. In between the lively melody of his Hymn and Fuguing Tune #10, you’ll hear some interesting and atonal chords.
His Sailor’s Hornpipe saxophone quartet is also worth a listen.
Marjan Mozetich – The Passion of Angels
Unlike the previous composers who are all American, Marjan Mozetich is a Canadian composer. He has written music for theater, film, and dance as well as symphonic works, chamber music, and solo pieces. His music has evolved over the years but typically blend the traditional, popular, and modern infusing lyricism and romantic harmonies to evoke spiritual and meditative feelings. This is particularly noticeable in his 1995 work The Passion of Angels written for two harps and orchestra.
Soloists Janet Harriman and Don Hilsberg and the Parker Symphony Orchestra performed this work on February 15, 2019 at the PACE Center.
Jennifer Higdon – blue cathedral
The newest piece on this list, blue cathedral was commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music for their 75th anniversary. It was composed by Jennifer Higdon, a modern American composer, whose music is considered neoromantic and is not intentionally written with a form in mind but is allowed to unfold naturally.
Like The Passion of Angels, blue cathedral has a spiritual feel. It was written in memory of Higdon’s younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, who died of skin cancer in 1998. The composer remarked that the process of composing this piece was “the most cathartic thing [she] could have done”.
Henryk Górecki – Symphony No. 3 Mvt. 2
Górecki was a Polish composer who was largely unknown outside of Poland until the mid-to late 1980s. His Symphony No. 3, also known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, was recorded with soprano Dawn Upshaw and released to commemorate the memory of those lost during the Holocaust. It became a worldwide commercial success, selling more than a million copies.
Du Mingxin – Festival Overture
Du Mingxin is a Chinese composer known for ballets, concertos, and a symphonic Beijing Opera. His Festival Overture is an exciting and interesting piece.