Christian Woehr, III  

Nepotism to Amigo-ism: Can a composer enter an orchestra's door without holding a conductor's hand?

Christian Woehr, III
June 15, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

The level of musician involvement with programming new music varies from one ensemble to the next, but overall, musician influence is minor. Historically, conductors exercise jurisdiction over these matters, and as a result, an inadvertent divide between musicians and composers has steadily grown throughout recent generations and is, perhaps, wider than ever.

Christian Woehr III is the Assistant Principal Violist for the SLSO and also an avid composer. These dual abilities create a unique dichotomy: as an orchestral musician, he has to work against the tide of conductor influence on programming of new music; but as a composer, the preferred method for getting his music performed is to curry favor with a conductor.

Chris' article explores these issues and more, in addition to serving as a prelude to Polyphonic.org's June, 2006, Virtual Discussion Panel.

- Drew McManus

“Don’t buck the conductor.”This was one of the very few bits of advice I received from my quietly practical but oh-so-shy dad.

As 4th horn and music librarian for the Pittsburgh Symphony for four decades, Christian Woehr II’s perspective on the orchestral world and who ran it spanned Reiner to Previn. His relationship with conductors was unique: as a player in the 40’s through 60’s, he pretty much avoided them; but as a music librarian and baton maker in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, he ended up serving conductors quite closely. Picking up a ringing phone in our household could just as likely bag you Antal Dorati or Mitch Miller. This was a situation that often freaked out my mother, Georgia Sagen Woehr, a PSO cellist known to hyperventilate at the prospect of sharing an elevator with William Steinberg.

It was in his second role that my dear dad gave a first boost to his youngest son’s composition “career.” Talking to Pittsburgh Symphony Assistant Conductor Henry Mazer one day, he mentioned his 16-year-old offspring’s composing obsession. Mazer’s immediate offer to play a piece of mine on a series of children’s concerts resulted in the monumental Rondo in A: three fun-filled minutes of drunken Haydn with screaming horn parts, futile bassoon warbling, a show-stopping viola cadenza for my teacher (Principal Viola Godfrey Layefsky), and final fugue.

My mom came home from rehearsal exclaiming cheerfully, “It wasn’t as bad as I expected!” Of course, as rank and file players, it never occurred to them to get me out of school to be invited to rehearsal. But I eventually heard the piece, on no less than eight PSO educational concerts, two of them at my own high school. I was even accosted for autographs from kindergartners. The next bona fide request from a conductor did not come for nearly forty years (this year, as a matter of fact.) It was again a freebie, and this time dear old dad wasn’t around to copy out the parts.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

Chris, enjoyed your article very much! well written!
denverwilds on June 19, 2019 at 9:36 PM
What a refreshing look at contemporary music! I laughed a good bit at your frankness. Reminded me of my own orchestra and many others I have worked with. I hope there is some change in the future, someone has to break this mold, thanks for shinning some light on the issues.
katin on June 27, 2019 at 9:34 AM

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