Young Talents With Some Lively Ideas

There is no end of fretting in the classical music world.

Just look at the record business. The major labels have nearly ceased recording new cycles of Schubert symphonies and Wagner operas, perhaps finally realizing that the multitude of performances already available may be just about enough. Lowest-common-denominator crossover albums crowd the catalog. Clueless record executives seem able to discern the fact that there's an audience but can't quite figure out how to tap it.

These are appropriate concerns. But there are also signs of new life in classical music, which are apparent to anyone who looks for them.

No longer do emerging pianists automatically feel compelled to compete with Rubinstein by doing yet another Chopin program. Emerging conductors now realize they can follow in the footsteps of Frtwangler without mimicking him in Beethoven. In other words, there are plenty of new musicians with new musical ideas.

Moreover, it is relatively cheap and easy to make a CD these days, and small, independent labels are often eager to take chances with new artists and new repertory. The Times' music critics take a look a few of these emerging artists and their CDs:

* * * 1/2 "AMERICAN SPIRITUAL" New Piano Works Marilyn Nonken CRI

Dense with musical activity, these four pieces--written for Nonken by Jeff Nichols, Jason Eckardt, Michael Finnissy and Milton Babbitt between 1996 and 1999--resonate with sweeping gestures and tiny pinpricks, violent mood swings and calming emotional planes, lyrical stretches and craggy textures. Nichols' "Chelsea Square," Eckardt's "Echoes' White Veil," Finnissy's "North American Spirituals" and Babbitt's "Allegro Penseroso" do not resemble one another except in the intensity of their visions. Each is long, spread out, changeable and thick with thought, though sometimes mottled with transparency. What they share is Nonken's easy accomplishment and intellectual rigor, which make them apprehensible. As she admits in her notes, "The effort required to play the piece is an integral part of its aesthetic." And the effort never intrudes on the deed.

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