Virtual Discussion Panel
:: Composition Matters
:: 06/19/06 - 06/23/06

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About this Virtual Discussion (Click to Hide)

Drew McManus  

Drew McManus

Senior Editor & Research Principal
Discussion Moderator

Commissioning, acquiring, rehearsing, and performing new music are a complex processes within the typical orchestra. More often than not, when compared to traditional repertoire, new music is more expensive to produce, requires longer investments of rehearsal time, and is harder to sell to established audiences. Worse still is the inherent disconnect between the two groups of artists that are integral in creating new music: the composer and performer.

Within most orchestral organizations, it isn’t the composer or performer that has the greatest influence when brining new music to today’s audiences. As a result, musicians tend to feel disenfranchised when it comes to the process of bringing a piece of new music to the stage.

During a conversation about the process with a musician in a “Big 5” ensemble, he summed up an attitude which exists among many musicians I’ve talked to these days,

“I love performing new music but I get paid the same amount of money each week regardless of what we play. So tell me why should I care as much about playing new music when all it means for me is longer practice time at home, frustrating rehearsals, smaller attendance, and all the credit goes to our music director so they can go out and gets more guest conducting jobs?

When it’s all said and done, I feel like a cog in a wheel instead of an artist. To top it off, our management tries to make us look like the bad guys when we want to get paid for recording the new piece so composers and music directors can use it to their benefit. I don’t blame the composers over this but why should I care when I have such little vested interest in any of this?”

Why does the disconnect between orchestra musicians and composers exist? Does it need to be this way? In April, 2006, New Music Box conducted a discussion panel on the topic of new music which included two of our panelists for this event. One of the overriding themes from the New Music Box session was a strong desire to create stronger connections between orchestra musicians and composers.

Inspired by an article from Polyphnic.org contributor, Christian Woehr III, Nepotism to Amigo-ism - Can a composer enter an orchestra’s door without holding a conductor’s hand?, this Virtual Discussion Panel brings together composers and orchestra musicians to begin a dialogue that examines the issues behind these attitudes, explores non-traditional methods for increasing points of contact between the two groups, and finds conduits that increase the musician’s vested interest in performing more new music as well as augmenting the role of new music in orchestral repertoire.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed by the panelists during the Polyphonic.org Negotiations VPD are those of the respective contributors and do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of any organization or association. Neither Polyphonic.org nor the VPD moderator has edited any of the panelist’s contributions. Any change which may appear in panelist’s contributions throughout the course of this VPD is at the request of the respective panelist.

Panelists

Lisa Bielawa's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Lisa Bielawa  

Lisa Bielawa

Composer

Happily, I have had some wonderful experiences with players, chamber and orchestral alike, and the interaction I have with musicians is among my highest priorities/values in my professional life. Thank you (you know who you are out there) ! But yes, there are some things to discuss, and I have some things to ask.

Last week I was having dinner with a string quartet, new colleagues I don't know well but admire and genuinely like. One of them asked me about a recent performance I had had with an American orchestra. The quartet members bemoaned the fact that, in orchestral settings, the rehearsal process that prioritizes/values an ever-deepening relationship with a piece is simply not feasible. One of them commented that, when it comes to playing contemporary works in an orchestral environment, if everyone gets through the score with no errors, this is considered a 'good performance.'

So - as I read Chris Woehr's article and mentally prepare for this coming week, I find myself wondering about several things:

Given the pressure-chamber of the orchestral rehearsal process, how can the energies and enthusiasms of composers, conductors and musicians best be aligned? It would be illuminating for me to know what orchestra musicians value most about the experience of doing new works - in the best-case scenario. What are your priorities/values? Hands-on work with composers, influencing the direction of new work? Deepening relationships with new repertoire? New technical challenges? Pride in bringing new work to light? How many of these values are compatible with the scheduling rigors of orchestra life??

Looking forward to this !

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Comments for Lisa Bielawa

Thanks for your opening statement, Lisa. To try and answer your honest and specific question about orchestral musicians' values in playing new music: the absolute number one priority for me in playing a new orchestral work is none of these things you have listed. Rather, it is falling into the spell of a piece that absolutely grips, from first bar to last, on an emotional, intellectual, and physical level. The composer is unimportant, the genre or style is irrelevant, even the new cool sounds are small potatoes compared with the incredible power and sweep possible in orchestral music. I and most of my colleagues, I would venture, are complete junkies for this. Chris Woehr, viola player, St. Louis
woehrtunes on June 19, 2019 at 10:36 PM


Jennifer Higdon's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Jennifer Higdon  

Jennifer Higdon

Composer

What a wonderful discussion this is going to be... initially I'd like to say..."Thank you Drew, and why haven't we done this before?"

I believe fervently that the connection between composers and orchestra musicians is paramount to the survival of our corner of the music world. The connection is the spark that makes a complete circuit in an art that I think illuminates the soul...unfortunately disconnect is a common occurrence, and is distressing and damaging. After spending this past season being present to work with 9 orchestras, and serving 6 weeks with the Pittsburgh Symphony, as their composer-of-the-year, I feel I have a comprehensive picture of the general health of the relationship between the composer and the musicians.

I have found that there are certain things that are disturbingly common in every orchestra: there is always at least one individual that is genuinely angry that they had to practice the new piece. I have always believed that it is very important as a composer to listen to what performers have to say; while they're not always correct, as a composer I might learn something. That doesn't mean that the violist that recently cornered me because she was so angry about how hard it was to read her part in a Hindemith piece (I guess she felt I represented all 20th century composers because I was born in the same century) was justified for her small tirade (it was surprising how angry she was).

But I've also worked as a performer trying to learn a new piece where it was obvious the composer had decided that tempo markings, dynamics, and phrase markings were just too much trouble to put in, so I'm sympathetic to the frustrations that musicians feel when they're putting in time on a work and yet they feel there's no musical, monetary, or emotional payoff. Just as I don't want to assume that every musician is going to be like the "tirade" violist, I don't want every musician to assume that playing one of my pieces is going to be like every other new music experience they've had.

My staring point: the conductor does have an extraordinary amount of power in both music selection and the attitude that is initially brought to the experience of rehearsing and performing the piece. I've seen conductors make the entire experience negative for everyone, regardless of whether the piece was fantastic or dreck. Also, there will never be an instance where everything in a piece is perfect...it's not possible; but I also don't have a similar expectation in regards to the musicians (it's not going to be perfect in the reading or the performance either). We're all in this together, despite the fact that there are those who believe that music can go on without living composers (yes, I've heard quite a few people make this statement); and I will do everything I can to make things better for the composers, the orchestra's musicians and the audience. This forum is great because communication is what we need.

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Comments for Jennifer Higdon

I think your statement is so helpful for players in terms of seeing composers as human beings, working very very hard to do their absolute personal best. Most of my orchestral colleagues have NO IDEA how much work goes into a piece for a modern full orchestra. As I sometimes like to point out in exceedingly whiney moments, in $/hour, I get more by a factor of several thousand as a player than as a composer. This usually doesn't sink in, but they do notice my glasses getting thicker each year. Chris Woehr, viola player/composer, St. Louis
woehrtunes on June 19, 2019 at 10:52 PM


Robert Levine's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Principal Violist, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

In a recent review, Bernard Holland of the New York Times wrote, apropos of an American Composers Alliance concert, that "American composers, unlike most of the people who play their music, have no trade union to protect their interests and promote their work." In his introduction to this virtual panel discussion, Drew McManus asks "Why does the disconnect between orchestra musicians and composers exist? Does it need to be this way?"

I sense a meme emerging. Holland's version is that composers are disadvantaged compared to orchestra musicians. A suspicious mind might even suspect that he means to imply a linkage between the feather beds that my colleagues and I supposedly recline upon (due to "The Union") and the briar patches where composers live. Drew's version, by contrast, is not pejorative, but does imply that the relationship between composers and orchestra musicians has a practical impact on either or both parties.

But does it?

I've been in this business for several decades, and have yet to see any concrete evidence that what orchestra musicians think of new music and the people that write it has any systemic effect on that music being programmed or the welfare of its creators. As my colleague Chris Woehr points out , orchestra musicians have, at best, a small role on programming new works. I have yet to notice music directors or artistic administrators giving much thought to what the orchestra will think about the new music that they've programmed. On those extremely rare occasions when musicians' opinions seemed to matter, it's been because they expressed the view that the music was unplayable - which, translated into conductorese, means that the performance was going to reflect badly upon them.

But that's not because of any desire on the musicians' part not to play the piece. I know a lot of orchestra musicians who neither like Bruckner symphonies nor enjoy playing them, but nonetheless do a thorough job of preparation nonetheless. We are, after all, professionals.

I suspect that these meme keeps resurfacing from a desire to find an explanation for the relative paucity of new music on orchestral programs that avoids cutting ourselves with Occam's Razor. For the simplest explanation of that paucity is that audiences don't want to hear music that they don't know - or at least don't want to hear very much of it.

There is, after all, a lot of great non-new music that doesn't get programmed. My orchestra has done about 10 performances of the seven Sibelius symphonies in my 18 years here; half of which were of the second symphony and none of which were of the sixth. We've done two of the nine Vaughn Williams symphonies, one symphony of Martinu, and have only done the fourth symphony of that most popular of composers, Ludwig van Beethoven, two or three times - once during a Beethoven festival. And new music is even more challenging for most audiences than is unfamiliar non-new music.

I played in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra during the last two years of Dennis Russell Davies' music directorship. Dennis was renowned for his aggressive programming of new works, which got the orchestra a great deal of attention. But the orchestra spent more money on marketing than it earned in ticket sales. This is not a path to success for orchestras, or at least not as it's defined in our system of orchestra financing.

I'm looking forward to learning what I can about how orchestra musicians might fit into solutions to getting more new music on programs. But let's not pretend that the answers lie primarily with us.

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Comments for Robert Levine

Thanks, Robert! Only once in my 35 year career have I been aware of a conductor doing a piece because of my telling him about it. (Unfortunately, he was not a very good conductor, and the experience ended up as rather miserable. It was the F# Minor Mass of Bruckner, which I love). Perhaps the most valuable course that could be offered in a music school might be a personal communications course. Nerdy practice room types, the ones who can win auditions and get jobs in orchestras, are often not naturally blessed with the personal skills necessary to ingratiate themselves with the boss. I at least am proof of this. Is there an orchestra where the conductor does not have complete power over repertoire (Orpheus, perhaps?) How do its players feel about the repertoire? How does the audience feel? I would be curious. Chris Woehr, viola player, St. Louis
woehrtunes on June 19, 2019 at 11:12 PM
Hi
Enjoying the discussion, but speaking of unplayed, underperformed pieces, do any of you..discussion panel) know of any organization staging, singing, or performing the orchestra music from the spanish zarzuela?
zarzuela on July 10, 2019 at 12:25 PM


Barbara Scowcroft's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Barbara Scowcroft  

Barbara Scowcroft

Violin, Utah Symphony & Opera

The thought that came to my mind when presented with the disparity between musicians and composers was,"It does not and should not be this way." As a member of the Utah symphony for 24 years, I have been one-hundred percent disappointed in feeling so separate from the process of presenting a brand new work to the world written by a living human being. Let's de-mystify the process. Orchestra committees, take action to present some parameters to facilitate appropriate and time-worthy interactions between the composer and the musicians. Composers, make it clear to the Music Director, as part of your experience with the orchestra, "I am willing to be involved with the musicians for the week that I am in their city."

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Comments for Barbara Scowcroft

For a number of years, St. Louis had a thriving Composer-In-Residence program. I remember in particular the efforts of two of these composers, Donald Erb and Joan Tower, in bringing musicians, civilians, and composers together. It even extended to arranging dinner dates between small groups with visiting composers like John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse. It was a wonderful time, and I miss it. I think it also gave a recurring face to the audience, so that a composer began to be seen as a regular member of the team, as opposed to a transient hired subcontrator. Haydn at Esterhazy, Bach in Leipzig, Beethoven or Brahms in Vienna, Wagner in Bayreuth. Real people you could see walking down the street, in rehearsal, in pubs.
It seems to me it shouldn't take much to get something like this to happen again, in an organized, compensated, regular way, and have it be normal operations for any successful orchestra. Most composers, I would wager, have a great deal to offer, as teachers, artists, and memorable characters. Why not take advantage of it? Chris Woehr, viola player, St. Louis
woehrtunes on June 19, 2019 at 11:32 PM


Molly Sheridan's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Molly Sheridan  

Molly Sheridan

Managing Editor, NewMusicBox

I probably have an unusual perspective on the role of new music within the modern orchestra's ecology, having played violin in such ensembles professionally and having served on the staff of both the American Symphony Orchestra League and the American Music Center. And as Drew outlines the parameters of this conversation, I think what startles me most is the "what's in it for me" take on the issue, the "why should I care" attitude. Why should you care? Because as a musical artist in an orchestra, it's your job. The sweat and talent you put into each performance of a new work is the bridge between the composer and the audience. This is not the role of the "cog in the wheel" as Drew's source says, but of the keystone within a living musical art form.

Or at least that's my take. When it comes to new work, I am a self-confessed addict with the manners of an evangelist. Love this, too! See, no dust! But preparing and performing a new work should be a highlight in the orchestra musician's workweek. For it not to be indicates a serious flaw in the system.

That's when I remember my first rehearsal in a large professional orchestra. I was subbing in the West Virginia Symphony, relegated to the back of the first violin section. The rehearsals whipped by and, faster than I thought prudent, the bright lights were up and we were performing. I felt like a factory worker in strappy shoes. Maybe after a few years' seasoning, I would have settled into the situation, learned how to not feel alienated artistically when I was sitting ten yards away from a conductor whose acquaintance I'd made only three days earlier. But I'm not very optimistic. It was a job and I was on the clock--a big one with a union guy right underneath it. Fine for assembly line work, perhaps; not exactly ideal for creating art.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the composer Joan Tower at the premiere of her multi-community, small-budget orchestra commissioning project Made in America in Glens Falls, New York. What struck me most was her general distress over the state of the composer-orchestra musician relationship. Having come out of the chamber music world, she placed herself in the same camp as the rest of the musicians, though having logged some hours on the podium personally, she also knew that asking the "orchestra's" opinion on a detail could bring a rehearsal to an unforgiving halt. But she wanted to find a workable balance, to underline that she was not "management." And even if she was willing to schmooze with orchestra donors, she was quick to confide that she was most at home working out a solution to a new passage or even just telling jokes at the bar with the performing crew. Convincing the orchestra to allow her the opportunity was oddly the difficult part.

Successful composer residencies highlight how the composer and the orchestra fit together when the process is not restricted to a composer drive-by the night of the premiere. When composers are offered time with the players to polish the piece and involve themselves in the community, the energy surrounding premiere events underlines the amazing things that can happen when the musicians and the audience feel personally invested in the process of creating a new work. Suddenly, the Beethoven on the program is genuinely much less exciting.

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Comments for Molly Sheridan

Funny you should mention Joan Tower, given my fond memories of her great job as St. Louis Composer-In-Residence and general creative ambassador of good will and comradeship. Given the considerable number of unused services currently in the St, Louis Symphony schedule, maybe she should be asked back.
The people who make the budgets, the top administration of an orchestra, are probably far away from this way of thinking during these modern times. Our orchestra at the moment is being run like a bank, with Endowment Growth almost as the very reason for existence. We have an incredibly energetic new music director, David Robertson, who could certainly get behind reviving and re-invigorating the Composer-in -Residence program for our orchestra. This, perhaps helped by sustained lobbying from orchestra members on various committees and the Board, is what it would take. Even with the usual obstacles, St. Louis is very fertile ground. I will do a little plowing. Chris Woehr, viola player, St. Louis
woehrtunes on June 19, 2019 at 11:50 PM


Roberto Sierra's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Roberto Sierra  

Roberto Sierra

Composer

When I think about the disconnect between the orchestra, audiences and composers, I believe that the answer is that while a new work has to basically reflect the artistic power and integrity of its creator, at the same time it has to be interesting and rewarding for the performers and also engage the audience at a basic emotional level. If the connections at any of these levels are missing, then the work is not likely to succeed. This is actually true not only for new works, but for music of all eras. The first, and in many ways the most important step is the connection between the composer and the performer, which in fact is the first "audience" for a new work. I firmly believe that composers need to win the trust of the performers through their work, and at the same time performers need to approach new works with an open mind.

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Comments for Roberto Sierra

Absolutely! Right on!
The emotional connection of a composition with a player is often surpisingly physical. Hearing my mother light up about playing certain pieces of music because they felt so satisfying to play, either melodically or rhythmically, was an important experience of my growing up in a musical household. Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Schubert, Schumann all could turn on this light for my mom. The actual audience doesn't have this immediate first hand experience of physical movement in emotional context, but sitting in front of 60 string players bowing powerfully and in unison toward a climax, they can get pretty close.
Chris Woehr viola player, St. Louis
woehrtunes on June 20, 2019 at 12:03 AM


Christian Woehr, III's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Christian Woehr, III  

Christian Woehr, III

Assistant Principal Viola, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

The disconnect between orchestra musicians and composers doesn't exist when they are one and the same!

At a certain point in history we all seemed to become specialists. Players were too busy playing everyone else's music to write down their own, and somehow were no longer qualified to undertake the "sacred task" of creating original music. At the same time composers were deemed too busy and/or important to undertake the mundane task of playing an instrument well enough.

I've always felt this was an absurd state of affairs, since a player within an orchestra, exposed virtually every day to the inner workings of the greatest music ever written (as well as some of the worst), is in an ideal position to learn orchestration, critique form, and in general learn what makes great music tick. This may be radically idealistic, but I've always felt, if you scratched a player deep enough, you'd find a composer, and occasionally a damned good one! And once this connection was made for a player, every composer, dead or alive, became a real flesh-and-blood colleague.

What I have learned, sitting on a tour bus next to a professional percussionist or tuba player, is information not available in any music school. What I have discovered, sitting in a rehearsal of the Beethoven 4th Symphony and the Bartok 3rd Piano Concerto, about the timing of textural changes or the delay of the return to tonic, are principles not laid out in any composition textbook of which I am aware. If the player is excited enough about his or her creative potential, he or she is in the best possible place to improve, day in, day out, year in, year out. The only real obstacle is being taken seriously enough, by both oneself and others, to get heard.

And of course, the composer who can really play viola, or trumpet, or bass clarinet, is going to be that much more in touch with the all important "musical- bang-for-the-rehearsal-buck" equation, and write music that might still be played in 50 or 100 years. For me, it's all about being real.

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Comments for Christian Woehr, III

To that end, I strongly recommend attending a 5 day workshop which has proven of immense value to me as a composer and player. This is a workshop called The Art of Improvisation, run by master teacher and improvising cellist David Darling and the expert instructors of Music For People.
Where else can you bring together 70 musicians from across the world spectrum of music making, and have them free jam, without sheet music, without pre-organized chord structure, without judgment or negativity or fear? From orchestra and chamber musicians to piano teachers and Djembe drummers and bluegrass musicians and singers and digeree-doo players, it's an amazing and life transforming week. If you think you might have a compositional bone in your poor tired orchestral body, this workshop will unearth it, clean it off, and get you pounding a drum with it.
Chris Woehr [l=http://www.musicforpeople.org/][/l]
woehrtunes on June 20, 2019 at 12:17 AM
I think Christian has touched upon an important and fundamental truth. Until quite recently composers were also performers, and great composers tended to be, by all accounts, great performers (or at least had the chops to be great performers). It was prerequisite. Brahms could play Brahms. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach et all presented their own works to the world to much acclaim. Virtuosic ability it would seem, is indispensable, if history is any guide.

This should not surprise, for music is a whole person activity. Doing it well, including writing it well, requires a visceral "understanding"; an in the flesh and in the bones understanding, as well as a deep intellectual understanding, and also the part we often weakly refer to as the "emotional" understanding e.g. "...is the piece happy or sad?". A more high-falutin' term might be the "emotional-spiritual" understanding e.g. "is the piece joyous or tragic...? ...does the piece allude to the existential dilemma of humankind? ... does the piece offer a glimpse of redemption?, etc. These types of understanding (and others no doubt) combine in the rare few to form what might be characterized as a fully "human" understanding of music. A lack of any of these is bound, I would submit, to lead to mediocrity at best.

The 20th century experiment with music as a purely intellectual/conceptual activity went nowhere. When the highest compliment a composer's work receives is that it is "interesting", (s)he should reconsider. That a listener might remember elements of a composition well enough to physically enjoy them (tapping of toes) or re-produce them as (s)he leaves the hall (whistling) is seen as the hallmark of an insult to the quality of the piece (if the piece appeals in such an unimportant and base manner it must be trivial), the train is plainly off the rails. There is nothing base nor trivial about engaging the whole listener, body, mind and soul. Quite the contrary. Engaging the whole listener is the whole point. Anything less than this trivializes, actually.

Christian's point that the performer is the first audience so important. If composers want their work to succeed in the world, the first order of business is to ensure that musicians want to play it. More than once. Preferably all the time, for the rest of their lives (or at least so often that they eventually burn out on it, the way some can burn out after the 75th performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; when I feel this way about the Sixth and about Brahms' Second, I'll know it's time to hang up the skates). Now every musician has his/her favorite few criteria for placing a piece in the category of "That was so fun. Let's do it again!", but some common ones that come to mind are beautiful melody (groan), "architectural" integrity (formal coherence?) maybe, ingenious counterpoint, compelling-or-at-least-convincing meter and rhythm, general craftsmanship (craftspersonship?), a true understanding of not only what's possible on the instrument(s) ("gee, I didn't know the 'cello could make that terrible noise but since it can I'd better write it in") but also of what's fun to do on the instrument (things that "lie well", are easy to play but sound hard, etc.). Lots of possibilities.

Someone ( a composer) earlier in the forum mentioned that she was sometimes surprised and affronted by musicians who are angry at much modern music and many modern composers. This is so common as to be banal, if it weren't so genuinely uncomfortable and distressing for all concerned. I have been angry. I will be again, no doubt, and do not look forward to it. Thankfully, I am quite cheery at the moment.

Nevertheless, anger (ignorant) at composers is where the old Rite of Spring Premiere Anecdote always comes into play in this discussion. Sure people were angry, but then, after a while, they realized Stravinski's genius and were suitably chastened and humbled, silly quaint non-composer, non-genius folk.

Whatever merit there ever may have been to that anecdote, (less, I suspect than myth would have it) the above is not a very useful attitude either when dealing with performers or writing for them, but it is one that is all too often evident. So there is, amongst many orchestral musicians, a reactive/defensive posture that has become established over many decades and has become something of a cultural bias, to wit;
"our musical likes and dislikes are not only disregarded, but are in fact held in patronizing contempt by people who imagine themselves to be cleverer than us and who think that we might one day, if we are very lucky, understand their brilliance, but that we might not, poor us, and that's o.k. too."

If I might be so bold as to offer two small pieces of advice to composers they would be:

1) Try to find out what it is that musicians like to play (and be careful of the too polite ones who say they like something that they really don't), and then write it, and 2) be able to play it yourself, at the keyboard preferably (nothing cooler than someone who can convincingly render a big orchestral score).

Tony Christie
Assistant Principal Cello
Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony



tonyc on June 22, 2019 at 2:58 PM


 

General Comments on This Discussion (Click to Hide)

Hello and thank you for this greatly needed discussion. After reading the pannelists' statements, I am suprised that the audience (that crucial third party in music making) receives almost no mention. As a violinist who's passion is presenting new music to audiences, I propose that the fact that we are leaving the audience out of consideration is the foundation of the disconnect we are discussing. In a recent conversation with a composer from whom I am commissioning a new piece, I asked that the new work be in some way accessable to the audience. The composer was almost offended and informed me that under no circumstances would he be limiting his creativity by thinking of what the audience wants. It was as if I had suggested that I ask him to sell his integrity. Why is that? From a performer's standpoint, the audience is crucial. If I alienate my audience, they will not return.

I have performed in orchestra concerts in which new music was received with roaring enthusiasm from the audience. At the same time, I have never seen the orchestra work harder or with more passion to get it right. If going to hear the premier of the new symphony was the enticement for huge audience turn-out, wouldn't musicians of the orchestra be more inclined to put the hard work in? By the same token, wouldn't audiences be more likely to love the music if the enthusiasm of the musicians was palpable? Let's bring the audience back into the discussion!
jnardoli on June 19, 2019 at 11:29 AM
I agree that the audience should be part of the equation. Some new pieces are noisy and difficult to listen to, therefore alienating the very audience members whom we are trying to encourage. If those people do not return to the concert hall, this translates into lost wages for musicians. That is why musicians may seem wary of composers who sniff at the concept of pleasing an audience. Also, we are often forced to spend long hours figuring out how to achieve certain effects or rhythms simply because of the lack of clarity in the instructions or the awkward notation. Sometimes the problem is mis-aligned staves, bad spatial rhythmic orientation of notes, illegibility, or too many unnecessary changes of meter or counter-rhythms, which causes the music to become much more difficult than it really is. We are often frustrated by the lack of musicality in a new performance, simply because we are so busy just counting furiously that we can't get a grip on the lines and phrases emerging around us. More cues in the parts would help a performance enormously, resulting in far fewer mistaken entries. I would also encourage composers to learn more about the capabilities and ranges of orchestral instruments. Sometimes books on orchestration can be misleading, especially for harp. Effects that work in one register do not work at all in another, or are so soft that they do not work in a tutti section. In our orchestra, we have regular reading sessions, in which the composers are present, and we have feedback sheets to fill out. The composers are allowed a little time to explain their concepts to us before we start. I always welcome composers to ask me questions about my instrument, and particularly love open-minded composers who are willing to change a badly-written part. I am pleased to see a trend toward more accessible music. I hope that grant committees reward the composers who are writing music that we will still want to hear 200 years from now.
Plucky on June 19, 2019 at 2:22 PM
Thanks, Drew, for organizing this shin-dig. I hope it helps to improve life on all sides of the podium.

It's only been the first day and already it seems we have an overarching theme of communication, or lack thereof. One of those intangibles that is never taught - probably can't be taught - but has a huge impact on the success of a new work. Whether it's the composer's music that doesn't engage with its intended audiences (including the orchestra), the composer's intentions that may or may not be clearly conveyed through the written page or the various personal interactions that do or don't take place throughout the creative process, if these lines of communication are rusty, vague or non-existent, nobody's gonna have any fun and then what's the point?

At first glance, a layperson might look at this mess and suggest that the composer simply write a pretty tune, enroll in an orchestration class and go hang with the orchestra at the local pub after rehearsal (actually, those sound pretty good so far) and life would be good. But they're all band-aids...and they all assume the composer's work has been selected for performance, which could be a huge assumption and not a small item of concern for the composer.

One precept of this entire discussion seems to be bringing out is the contrasts, rather than the disconnects, between the viewpoints of the performers and the composers. Performers could be more aware of how it feels for a composer to have 60-100 highly-trained, highly-motivated individuals looking up and expecting that composer to know, well, "everything". Composers might realize that they have intimate contact with each and every performer with an object that can be very dangerous if not handled properly - the part. All these issues can raise the stress levels and create conflict where it isn't necessary. As has already been mentioned, the more forethought that the administration puts into the preparations for a new work, including scheduling enough rehearsal time, opportunities for interaction between the composer and performers, etc., the better the entire process could be.

I would like to pose these questions to the panelists and see what comes of it:
- Would or does the presence of a full-time composer-in-residence with an orchestra have a positive affect on the attitudes of performers towards composers and new music?
- Going off of Robert's mention of performers having little to do with the overall programming of ensembles, what might be some creative ways to address and alter that fact?
- Do all of these issues start up at the professional level, or are there opportunities for these issues to be addressed during the education of all involved?

Thanks again!
hausorob on June 20, 2019 at 3:45 AM
Moderator's Note: Rob, you're very welcome and I have to point out that this was very much a team effort internally at Polyphonic.org as well as a collaboration with NewMusicBox . Additionally, we have a wonderful article from Chris Woehr and next week we'll be publishing an article by SPCO Bassoonist, Charles Ullery, about more new music issues.
drewmcmanus on June 20, 2019 at 7:13 AM
[Moderator's note: this comment has been edited from its original form.]
What distressed me at the top of this discussion was the attitude of the un-named musician towards his or her job. Doesn't this realize it is a privilege to be an orchestral musician? To be the real-time, live communicative medium between artwork and audience, and to be paid a decent living for it? To perform new music that could change someone's life? I think that should be a great honor. I have honestly never met a composer who had this kind of attitude towards his or her profession... For me personally, to write for an orchestra of eighty or so highly sophisticated and experienced professional musicians and to hear them play my work for a large, eager audience is a truly extraordinary thing, one which I would never pooh-pooh.

Regardless of individual or collective complaints within the orchestra (artistic control, union rules etc.—why don't the players join together and DO something about it if they are unhappy?), I believe that composers have great respect for the orchestra as a whole and for individual players. I also believe that in general composers get a terrific education in how to write for the orchestra. I also believe that composers learn how to write for the orchestra (and for an audience) by hearing their work performed - not just once but multiple times. There is no way to judge the success or failure of a work until it has been performed many times for many audiences. To put in all that work - composing and rehearsing - for just one performance is a huge shame.

There's been some finger-pointing too (the composer did this or that! the orchestra did this or that!), even if no names have been named. Sure, everyone wants to do their job well, and one person can sink the whole experience for everyone. In the composer-orchestra relationship, the responsibility is a two-way street. The composer's job is to write well for the orchestra on a technical level, as if he or she were a performer on every instrument; to bring the utmost artistic integrity and individuality to his or her work; to write something that he or she would like to sit in the audience and listen to; and to show up whenever possible and work with the orchestra, to be a real human being. The orchestra's job is to investigate the work and take interest in it; to respect the integrity of the work and the composer; and muster all its combined ability, experience and know-how to communicate the work to the audience in polished, committed performances. Also, I believe it is so important to have an open mind. I have had both great and not-so-great experiences working with orchestras; I'm sure each musician has had great and not-so-great experiences working with composers. But I want to share one of the most wonderful moments that I had with orchestra players: after a performance of my work, two violinists came up to me and said "When we first looked at your music, we hated it...but now we really like it!" Personally, I would like to have more of those kinds of experiences myself: to be convinced of the wonderful-ness of something new. I think that's what should happen between composer, orchestra, and audience, and in the best of situations it does.

Another thread that briefly came up that irked me is the preference for so-called 'accessible' music. I fear that this leads to an under estimation of the audience. This often goes hand-in-hand with what I see as an artificial distinction between 'tonal' and 'atonal' music. The implied hierarchy is 'tonal: pleasing and good, audience will like'; 'atonal: displeasing and bad, audience will hate'. This is simplistic at best, damaging at worst. For example, Minimalist music, like that of Glass or Reich, is 'tonal' in the sense of using triadic harmony, but not tonal in the sense that it does not follow 19th century-style harmonic progressions and voice-leading rules. The oft-loved music of Copland, thought of as 'tonal', is often based on quartal harmonies, which are, in a strict sense, dissonant. There are passages in Bach (or Mozart, or Beethoven for that matter) that are so far-out as to be 'atonal'. Definitions of tonality, of consonance and dissonance, change over time. Renaissance counterpoint, Beethoven's modulations, Schoenberg's twelve-tone concepts, Messiaen's modes of limited transposition - these are all different concepts of how to organize sound, and isn't music about organizing sound in time? The judgement of 'tonal' vs. 'atonal' is about as false and ridiculous as a judgement of 'black' vs. 'white'.


What if we had more respect for the audience? What if we gave them the tools to understand new and potentially fulfilling kinds of music? It's not the 19th century anymore! There is an amazing variety of music out there. Show how languages evolved. Give them Liszt first, then Bartók, then Ligeti. Fauré, then Ravel, Messiaen, and Takemitsu. Show how splits happened: for example, Stravinsky vs. Schoenberg. As it happens, those two respected each other's work much more than you'd think. When Stravinsky heard the news of Schoenberg's death, he sat in silence for a whole day. Why should we split music of the past into warring camps? Why should we split music of the present into warring camps?

Music is a language whose vocabulary has been expanding since Day One, and 'accessibility' ensures most people won't learn much beyond the major scale. I am upset at the dumbing-down of new music, and to me, 'accessible' is a code-word, a euphemism for this. Composers - and orchestras - shouldn't fall prey to that. I can get dumb, easily digestible entertainment on television or the movies. The world is constantly changing, yet there's an incredible, almost violent attachment to this 'tonality'. Yet, as I've tried to argue above, 'tonality' can be a vague concept. I don't believe that new music has to be derivative of the past in order to reach an audience. I believe there are audiences out there that want to hear something new and surprising (and if not shocking, at least refreshing) at an orchestra concert, and if not they'd much rather stay home. Bravo to everyone who is genuinely committed to keeping this relationship fresh and real.
boeu-sur-le-toit on June 20, 2019 at 8:40 AM
It's been my experience that tonal vs atonal is not an issue for most orchestra players. A piece tend to get written off by players when the piece's emotional statement doesn't match the forces or content, a sort of "Much ado about nothing" scenario. Players in my orchestra look for content first, not accessibility. This usually means having a compelling long range structure, with a selective use of loud and soft, and a realistic duration (esthetically) of a given texture.
Woehr, St. Louis
woehrtunes on June 21, 2019 at 12:16 AM
In using the term "accessible", I did not mean "tonal", but rather music that doesn't assault the audience. I do not enjoy dumbed-down music any more than the next musician.
Plucky on June 21, 2019 at 1:24 AM
As a reader of Adaptistration and as one concerned that professional orchestral musicians and composers in America don't communicate or socialize together enough, I wanted to contribute my concerns here about the socialization of young orchestral musicians in the United States. (First, let me thank boeu-sur-le toit and the others here who want orchestra members to be happy about their work, open to intellectual and spiritual challenge, and proud to be contributing to a creative field which potentially could have world-wide and long-term consequences for human happiness. And a special thank you to Drew who wants orchestral musicians to feel empowered and to be leaders both within the music field and within their communities.)

My comment will be about the National Orchestral Institute, a professional orchestral training institute in the region where I live, which was founded in 1987, and which attracts top national young orchestral talent and a stellar roster of conductors to their month long summer residencies, outside of Washington, D.C.

Last June, I wrote in my blog criticizing the Institute for conducting a June program -- under leading American conductors David Robertson, Roberto Minczuk, and Gerard Schwarz -- which programmed difficult classical works by Mozart, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius, Stravinsky, and Boulez ('Notations', under David Robertson) --but only one work by an American composer, Copland's 'Appalachian Spring'.

I asked in my cultural blog, last year, why this National Orchestral Institute wasn't including an American work on each of the three programs (with my hope that one or two of the works would be important, exciting, and superbly orchestrated works by living American composers).

Well, I received a very strong and articulate (though wrong) response to my blog from "Sarah", a participant in the NOI, who objected to my suggestion that American classical music should be part of the Institute's program. She said that she was an aspiring American orchestral musician who would soon be auditioning, under severe competitive pressures, and would be asked during auditions to play only from the most difficult European classical works. (I don't believe this is true.) She said that she and her fellow "best and brightest" young orchestral musicians simply did not have time for American classical music, given the huge treasure chest of the European classical past.

In responding to "Sarah", I mentioned that I thought it sad that she was not interested in what American classical composer Gabriela Lena Frank, whose work the San Francisco Symphony was performing in public parks that summer [2005], was doing, as one of her American musical peers. I also gave a link to Ms Frank [www.schirmer.com/composers/frank].

This June, the participants of the National Orchestral Institute -- this year under Michael Stern, Stefan Sanderling, and Eri Klas -- are performing NO American classical works by either past or living American composers. Instead, they are programming works by Weber, Wagner, Mahler, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Strauss, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Britten. The NOI press materials trumpet the fact that participants have gone on to win positions with the Cleveland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Israel Detroit, National, and MET Opera orchestras.

The residency program also is reported to include a workshop with Washington, D.C. choreographer (and MacArthur Fellow) Liz Lerman, a lecture by Mellon Foundation executive Catherine Maciariello, and a class on injury prevention by Leah Fleisher, daughter of distinguished pianist Leon Fleisher.

However, in all of this, there is not representation of a single past or living American classical composer! Could not the NOI program have included an American composer in residence and a premiere of a new or recent work of classical American music? Or how about three newer American classical works, one for each of the three Saturday programs -- along with three American classical composers in residence?

Thankfully, most American youth orchestras are programming works by American composers -- past and living -- on many of their programs. In my view, it is sad that young American orchestral talent graduate from youth orchestras and conservatory and university orchestras to backward-looking elite orchestral programs such as the National Orchestral Institute.
garthtrinkl on June 21, 2019 at 10:04 AM
garthtrinkl wrote:

"Well, I received a very strong and articulate (though wrong) response to my blog from "Sarah", a participant in the NOI, who objected to my suggestion that American classical music should be part of the Institute's program. She said that she was an aspiring American orchestral musician who would soon be auditioning, under severe competitive pressures, and would be asked during auditions to play only from the most difficult European classical works. (I don't believe this is true.)

It is true. I've played a number of auditions and heard more than I can count. I can't recall one excerpt from music of a living composer, much less a living American composer.

On the other hand, the fact that the NOI doesn't play American music doesn't bother me nearly as much as does the existence of training orchestras, most which in my view are either ways of getting reasonable-quality orchestral performances without paying musicians or simply monuments to someone's ego. Participants in such ventures could spend their time far more productively either by practicing or playing chamber music.

Robert Levine

bratschewurst on June 21, 2019 at 12:52 PM
Regarding NOI, when I did my two summers there, I specifically remember playing Adams "Short Ride in a Fast Machine", along with several other American composers no longer living. A Harris Symphony was just one that happens to come to mind. NOI was a fine training orchestra, massive amount of rep. and really fine coachings. I just wonder if there would be more American music at these training orchestras if more American music was requested at auditions. Besides Copland 3, there is rarely anything but Romantic music with a splash of Classical. I know it can be tricky with rentals to include most American modern pieces, but I also know that in many auditions, the outcome would be vastly different. Just about anyone these days can pull off a decent Don Juan. But can just about anyone pull off the Daugherty Metropolis Symphony? Or what about Rouse Symphony # 2? Wouldn't it be interesting to change the formula audition one day?
Holly on June 21, 2019 at 3:32 PM
Holly wrote:

Quote:
I just wonder if there would be more American music at these training orchestras if more American music was requested at auditions...Wouldn't it be interesting to change the forumula audition one day?


That's a fantastic idea, Holly. The biggest argument against contemporary scores in training orchestras as well as university ensembles is that the performers aren't being properly prepared for the audition process. If performers were asked to prepare new works, it very well might have an effect on the overall programming paradigm we're living with today.
hausorob on June 21, 2019 at 10:18 PM
I play in a Canadian orchestra and, through a combination of fluke and my own persistence, have had a lot of involvement with programming during the more recent of my 27 years with the group. Here are a few observations:

New music has largely become a localised occurence. Orchestras tend to commission new pieces by composers from our city/ province(state)/ country. As an artistic organisation living in the present, we in principle want to play new or near-new music. In Canada we are expected by our (not as generous as you might think) government funders to play Canadian music, and since our audience has a limited tolerance for new and near-new music, most of the new and near-new music we play tends to be Canadian.

From what I can tell, this same situation occurs, more or less, in other countries where there are orchestras. Some years ago we had James DePreist as a guest conductor. He had recently moved from Quebec City to Oregon as Music Director, and had programmed for us a piece he knew by a Quebec composer, along with some Schumann and Nielsen. I asked him if he conducted Canadian music in the States. He shook his head and replied, "it's the same there with their composers." I find this sad, as music is a wonderful way to communicate between cultures, and I am frankly curious about the new music being played in Poland, Malaysia, Egypt, not to mention USA, England and so on. I see in the ASOL survey that Jennifer Higdon is getting a lot of performances in the USA, but I don't expect to play her pieces anytime soon, because that place on the program is occupied by a deserving Canadian piece. Same goes for Rouse, Harbison and the rest. May I suggest John Estacio's "Frenergy" or "Spring's Promise" or Allan Bell's "Percussion Concerto" or "An Elemental Lyric", some near-new Canadian music that has gone over well north of the border ?


Here are a few practical suggestions to add to Robert Levine's, not so much how to write, but how to increase chances for performance.

Write for an orchestra of basic instrumentation. For example, my orchestra has on full contract 2222 4231 timp+1 harp strings 12 9 8 8 6, (those violins work hard!), what I've read referred to as a "full", though not a "large" orchestra. My guess is that many "large" orchestras will slim down to "full" size for many youth and outreach performances. Anything over the above instrumentation will add to the cost and reduce the chances of a new or near-new work being performed.
When adding to that complement, following the standard additions found in the standard repertoire, eg. 3rd flute, 3rd trumpet, one more percussion etc. will help to economise. If extras are already hired for another, well-known piece, playing your new piece on the same program won't add to the cost for extra musicians, so if your piece happens to have the same instrumentation as "An American in Paris", and the right people know about it, it might have a chance on a program with that piece.

Write for an amateur SATB choir with professional orchestra but without soloist. Many orchestras have dedicated affiliate choirs, but putting them on stage often involves hiring vocal soloists for thousands of dollars each to sing less than five minutes, a considerable disincentive. Not too difficult choral parts please.

Write for children's choir with orchestra. Many orchestras seek to be more relevant to their communities. Involving children in performances brings all kinds of good will.

Good titles. "Short Ride on a Fast Machine" is a good piece with a fantastic title. I know a good composer who wrote a piece with a title sort of like "Our Victims", which will likely be his least performed work. Titles in foreign languages or using words that need to be looked up in the dictionary or worse yet, followed immediately by their translation in parentheses get no points from me. Sorry.

If you've got a winner, consider releasing it for sale, rather than rental. Though I wouldn't begrudge any composer or publisher their due, rental fees can tip the balance away from including a new work on a program, not to mention the hassle of having to order the music, mark bowings etc. There are a few works of Copland that are performed a lot, and I suspect one of the reasons is that the parts have been purchased and sit in the orchestra libraries ready to go at a moment's notice. To point out the irony of this, I quote from Oscar Levant's 1939 book, "A Smattering of Ignorance". "He (Copland) talked emphatically about the need for an organization, especially to impose a system of fees for performance rights on orchestras ... using American material. It seemed to me that the position of the American composer was decidedly a paradoxical one - to be demanding performance fees when conductors were reluctant to perform their works at all. But Copland insisted on the need for establishing a precedent, even at the risk of losing performances."

What about "near-new" music? I expect one reason for the special concern for "new" music is that composers get their biggest fee up front, for the commission. Fair enough. The result is that new pieces become a sort of disposable commodity. Once performed they're on their own, and it's on to the next commission. Keep flogging those old ones!

Modular compositions. If writing a longer, multi-movement work, try to design it so that sections that can be performed independently.





Robert Levine wrote on Day 1, "I suspect that these meme(perceived resistance of orchestra musicians to new music) keeps resurfacing from a desire to find an explanation for the relative paucity of new music on orchestral programs that avoids cutting ourselves with Occam's Razor. For the simplest explanation of that paucity is that audiences don't want to hear music that they don't know - or at least don't want to hear very much of it."

Once I'd looked up Occam's Razor, this became the most pertinent remark, I've read in this discussion so far. I'd like to add that there are a couple trends that are making matters worse, rather than better for new music. One is a trend in marketing orchestras, away from "pre-packaged" series and towards "create-your-own" series. Under the "pre-packaged" series framework there was the notion of offering the subscriber something called "balanced programming" whereby generous portions of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky would balance modest helpings of Bartok, Stravinsky (yes, those are still considered modern by many) and other inheritors of the classical music tradition. Under the "create-your-own" framework the balance goes out the window, and, pardon the metaphor, patrons are encouraged to load their plates with steak, a potato and gorge on desserts if they so wish. Using concert-by-concert ticketing data, the marketing department have no choice but to tell the artistic department to cut back on the vegetables, and heart disease is hereditary anyway, so who cares.

A related, artistically insidious development is concessionary musician contracts that include "profit-sharing" as a means of softening the blow. This can make the orchestra itself an active partner in moving towards the most populist, least adventurous programming choices as a means of building that possible, though usually illusory year-end bonus. I'd rather not be in the position of asking myself, "How much would I pay from my own pocket to play Ligeti's "Lontano"?".

The need for visionary, smart and strong Music Directors has never been greater.
lanemirh on June 21, 2019 at 11:03 PM
I am happy that Holly was able to recall American works being performed during her past NOI summer training seasons. I hope that she enjoyed the experience of playing American orchestral scores by Roy Harris, John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Michael Daugherty, and others. [I also hope that she has played, in training orchestras, some works by living American -- and foreign -- woman composers.]

I also strongly agree with Rob that it will be a task for Drew and his colleagues, and for orchestral players, to try to work to influence the auditioning processes of American orchestras, which currently seem to force young aspiring American orchestral talents to alienate themselves, early in their careers, from their own American orchestral musical culture.

Let me quickly note that I was fortunate to play violin in an excellent youth orchestra which, over two years, performed works by the (then) living American composers Lou Harrison (Pacifika Rondo), Chou Wen-Chung (And the Fallen Petals), Samuel Barber (Violin Concerto), and Stephen Chambers [Talib Rasul Hakim] (Shapes for Orchestra) -- the last two works of which we toured to [West] Berlin, Germany, along with American works by Charles Ives and Ernest Bloch. My high school orchestra, at the same time, was playing major works by (then living) composers Aaron Copland (Appalachian Spring), Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), and Benjamin Britten (War Requiem). I would hope that many American orchestral musicians, composers, conductors, and music administrators today would have had comparable happy exposures to the American orchestral music tradition early in their careers.

And yes, of course, the need for visionary, smart, and strong Music Directors has never been greater, as noted immediately above. I am perplexed, however, by Christian Woehr III's comment that "It is extremely rare, [in his opinion], to find a conductor who is good at both a Daugherty and a Brahms Serenade." If this is so extremely rare, then I feel that the American orchestral and compositional fields are in graver danger than I had ever imagined, and that American classical orchestral culture will need more than composers-in-residency programs. James Levine, Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Slatkin, James Conlon, Kent Nagano, David Robertson, Robert Spano, Marin Alsop, Michael Morgan, and at least a dozen others, strike me as not "rare" at all, and quite competent to conduct both Brahms and Elliott Carter, Ingram Marshall, or Gabriela Lena Frank.

What is missing, rather, is a thoughtful and orchestral musician empowering overall approach to reconciling the three bodies of orchestral music with which American orchestras are entrusted (major American orchestras play more early twentieth century music, than they play 19th century music, according to ASOL statistics): one, the classical and romantic repertoire; two, the repertoire of popular, early modernist, early 20th century works; and three, the emerging later 20th century and American repertoires up to and including world premieres by American and foreign composers. Conductors, I believe, should be hired -- by Boards and musician representatives -- on their ability intelligently to lead musicians and audiences in all three orchestral repertoires. [By the way, here is the link to Columbia University's recent "The Musical Tastes of Classical Music Critics"; I don't know whether a comparable study exists for American Orchestral Musicians and Conductors.

http://www.najp.org

Final thought. As professional orchestral musicians, composers, administrators, patrons, and funders look further, over time, into the issues of composers-in-residence, and orchestras and new American orchestral music, I hope they will look at some of the realities of the current orchestral world here in America. One of those realities is that often the largest orchestras do less for new and newer American orchestral music than do the more mid-size and smaller, more community-based orchestras, under the direction of younger, dynamic music directors, whose salaries have not yet pierced the $1 million (or tenth of a million dollar) barrier. In other words, at the same time composers-in-residence models are explored, keep in mind the orchestras that sometimes repeatedly win the ASCAP Awards for Adventurous programming. For example, while the San Francisco Symphony might not now have a composer in residence (past composers in residence, who come to mind, are George Perle and George Benjamin), its present Music Director is favoring foreign composers next season for world premiere performances (Robin Holloway and Kevin Volans) over American composers. At the same time, the more community-based (and less frustrating to play for?) orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area, under innovative 'Magnum Opus/Meet the Composer' American composer commissioning, are leading up to a dozen new, and multiply-performed, American orchestral works of all stylistic voices. [Compare San Francisco Symphony world premieres over the past decade, to Magnum Opus world premieres over the past few years.]

http://www.meetthecomposer.org/magnumopus.htm


garthtrinkl on June 22, 2019 at 1:01 PM
Is there really such an enormous divide between new music and not-new music? As one of Lisa's percussionist sub-group, I may have a built in bias to new music, but honestly I have never taken an interest in a piece because solely because it was new - the only criteria I have used is whether or not it resonates with me. Now where it gets sticky is that different things will resonate with different people. So choosing what to program for the orchestra in the new music arena becomes a darn near impossible task. I also have never really taken notice of the nationality of the pieces that interest me or not, only whether they sound good or not! (Disclosure: the current composers whose music I am working on: Libby Larsen, Per Norgard, Alejandro Vinao. UN here I come!)

Lisa also said about my sub-group -

Percussionists, too - that special sub-group among orchestra musicians - are often eager to make these connections. Is this because the percussion repertoire is uniquely weighted towards the recent and the modern? Surely percussionists' audition repertoire has a higher American and contemporary representation than the list to which "Sarah" (of NOI) refers.

As much as I would like to say I am undertaking the noble cause of making connections, it really is mostly out of necessity, as the field of percussion, compared to its orchestral brethren, is still very much in the developmental stages. So, much of the dialogue between composer and percussionist is simply a nuts and bolts discussion of how to make a certain sound. Beyond that, I personally like a lot of time to get a good grasp on the piece (or my particular part in it) myself before I get the composer involved. Christian's comment that deep inside every instrumentalist must live a composer (I paraphrase horribly here) makes me wonder as I can't see myself as a composer. More accurately, I should say the thing I bet I would like most about being a composer is releasing it into the wild to be interpreted by others, without my input. I have yet to hear a real life composer echo this sentiment.

About auditions: Percussion audition repertoire certainly by comparison has more American and contemporary components. The main culprits: Gershwin (need I hum Porgy and Bess?) Copland, Schuman (one N, not two, i.e. William). Timpani lists are largely devoid of such examples, although a current audition list includes Naïve and Sentimental Music by John Adams.

There has been some discussion of auditions to help mew music get into the system more. This seems to me to be putting the horse before the cart. New music simply requires a commitment from all relevant parties within the organization. In years past, when the conductor was the big cheese (bigger than today at least), he/she could simply program new pieces. With the three part system we have today, plus more emphasis on the bottom line, getting the new stuff in takes more work. Too often, orchestras fall victim to tokenism, bringing new music to audiences the way a parent brings brussel sprouts to their kids. Like it or not, orchestras have to "want" to play new music, or it is bound to fail. Furthermore, for the sake of the audience, they should revisit some of those works that hold promise again, so that the audience can get close to the comfort level they get with Beethoven, or at least Sibelius.

Final disclosure: I was at NOI many years ago - played Copland Third Symphony. One of my favorite performances ever.

CMcNutt on June 22, 2019 at 8:12 PM

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