Getting hearty helpings of J. S. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms is easy around here, but a glossy brochure from the Miller Theatre in New York City reminds me that something is amiss. Sure, Seattle boasts many outfits that perform contemporary classical music, including the Seattle Chamber Players, Quake, Sorelle, Seattle New Music Ensemble, the Esoterics, and the UW Contemporary Group. I'm also grateful when the UW music department imports esteemed performers such as musikFabrik and Nicholas Isherwood. But where is the cutting-edge orchestral music of today?

The Miller Theatre's tempting "Composer Portraits" series starts with Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and then delves into the deep stuff with New Complexity stalwart Michael Finnissy, the eclectic Tania León, John Zorn, Nicolai Roslavets (a victim of Stalin's switch to Socialist Realism in the 1930s), Minimalist Master Steve Reich, and Augusta Read Thomas, and concludes with another guru of the New Complexity, the daunting Brian Ferneyhough. There's also a mini-festival of Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), who wrote perhaps the most rhythmically complex music ever.

Too many 20th-century icons are missing in action here in Seattle, including Stockhausen, Xenakis, Ligeti, Tippett, Carter, Scelsi, and post-Agon Stravinsky. Major composers in their prime--Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, Michael Torke, John Adams, Wolfgang Rihm, and Steve Reich--should be heard here more often, and not just in a lone piece on a program. Listeners lose twice, not only by missing top-flight contemporary music, but when those composers do get performed, musicians with little experience in making such music must grapple with unfamiliar musical styles and techniques. A diet of Piazzolla, Shostakovich, and other 20th-century B-list composers is poor preparation for the 21st century.

Two recent releases elegantly bookend the 20th century and today, The Essential Louis Armstrong (Columbia/Legacy) and the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble's Memory/Vision (ECM). Armstrong (1901-1971) was indeed a singular figure: a great pop singer, an innovative soloist, and an eagle-eyed bandleader. Along with the hits "What a Wonderful World" and the definitive rendition of "Mack the Knife," the joyous, rollicking swing of "Willie the Weeper," "West End Blues," and two dozen other seminal jazz classics make this disc a must.

Evan Parker and his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble solve today's chief problem of improvising music: the organic integration of acoustic and electronic instruments with digital processing. An eerie soup of hiccupping samples, turbulently shifting timbres, and sumptuously smeared sonics, Memory/Vision is essential listening for anyone interested in the future of improvised music.

chris@delaurenti.net

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