Paul Moravec: Mining Tonality for New Intricacies

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With the attention Paul Moravec received after his Tempest Fantasy (2004) won the Pulitzer Prize for music, one might have hoped that this would have put to rest—once and for all—the tired dialectics suggesting that tonality and complexity, or intellectualism and accessibility, are somehow mutually opposed. But even if these canards persist in the conversation about new music, at least the prize fulfilled its function of bringing to the front ranks a composer heretofore quietly esteemed by connoisseurs.

Chamber groups like eighth blackbird, who created Moravec's The Time Gallery (2000), and the violin/piano duo of Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff (1992's Sonata, 2001's Ariel Fantasy) had already known what Tempest makes yet clearer: Moravec's meticulous writing gives him the flexibility to create suites of distinctive character pieces, each drawn from a highly individual palette, to create extremely dense or rhythmically complex textures, or to refine those textures into an expansive, unified sonority that makes the ensemble sound bigger than it is, all without losing the audience's attention to its detail or sympathy for its affect.

Another early champion, critic Terry Teachout, famously counted Moravec among what he called the "new tonalists," composers writing a kind of unselfconscious music that exploits tonality without the distance of irony or nostalgia. But it might be more useful to think of his music not as part of a movement or reaction, but rather as part of a continuous tradition of composers for whom tonal harmony has never been an obstacle, but instead a means, for innovation, from Debussy and Bartok through Britten and Shostakovich, to the present day.

As Moravec's reputation has continued to grow, so has the prestige of his musical projects. Brandenburg Gate, a concerto inspired by Bach's Brandenburg No. 2, was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for a 2008 premiere. The Santa Fe Opera, in the summer of 2009, put on The Letter, an opera based (by Teachout) on the play by W. Somerset Maugham, starring American soprano Patricia Racette, and 2010 saw the premiere both of Moravec's Piano Quintet, written for Jeremy Denk and the Lark Quartet—longtime boosters of Moravec's string quartet repertoire—and of the Violin Concerto, another collaboration with Maria Bachmann.