A cool survey of 20th century music

Alex Ross has a message for classical music lovers: Don’t be afraid of the 20th century.

Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker magazine, thinks contemporary classical music has gotten a bad rap. 

The 20th century left a rich musical legacy, says the author, who wrote about the subject with passion, humor and insight in his 2007 book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.”

On Saturday at Herbst Theatre, audiences can hear him in person. 

“The Rest Is Noise: In Performance” features Ross, joined by pianist Ethan Iverson, in an informal survey of 20th century composers.

The program grew out of the best-selling book; in a recent phone call from New York, Ross said that he and Iverson were paired for a lecture-performance in New York after “The Rest is Noise” was released. The event was a hit.

“People seemed to enjoy themselves immensely,” he says.  “I don’t know whether an open bar helped.  But I was delighted that people found the material funny as well as edifying.”

At Saturday’s morning event, presented by San Francisco Performances, Ross will read selections from the book, and Iverson will play works by the composers under discussion. A partial list includes Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Milton Babbitt, George Gershwin, Gyorgy Ligeti, John Coltrane and Jelly Roll Morton.

So why are audiences still so wary of 20th century works?  According to Ross, people associate “modern” music with atonal composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (he’s on the list, too.)

“When people think of 20th century music, they immediately think of dissonance,” he says, “a dark and stormy sound, something that confronts the senses and might be sort of a nasty-tasting pill that you have to swallow.”

It’s largely a question of context, he adds.  People know more about last century’s painters and filmmakers than its composers: audiences who enjoy Ligeti’s music on the soundtrack of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” for instance, still find the same music off-putting in the concert hall.

Learning about composers’ lives — and their connections to other artists — helps, says Ross. “People start to see that 20th century music isn’t something that exists in a sort of faraway, deadly serious laboratory atmosphere.”

Ross says that Iverson, leader of the post-modern jazz trio The Bad Plus, is an ideal partner for the exploration.

“We want to have fun with it, as well as putting forth some good commentary and performance,” he says. “Ethan is great for that.  He doesn’t take himself seriously at all, although he’s a very serious musician.  And he’s omnivorous.  He’s fascinated by music, from Ligeti to Lady Gaga.”

If you go

The Rest Is Noise: In Performance

Presented by San Francisco Performances

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 10 a.m., Saturday

Tickets: $24 to $36

Contact: (415) 392-2545; www.performances.org

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