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

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Lisa Bielawa's Statement (Click to Hide)

Lisa Bielawa  

Lisa Bielawa


Thank you colleagues and commentators for some gritty discussion fodder yesterday. Although it seems that many of us agree that we all need what Barbara has aptly called "time-worthy interactions between the composer and the musicians," I was fascinated with the range of things that were said (and that were left unsaid) about the actual or proposed content of these interactions.

It is clear in some of these accounts that there is a considerable amount of bottled-up frustration on both sides, and there are detailed accounts of numerous bad experiences. I feel wary of any argument that takes any experience with an individual composer or musician and claims it is representative of the problem. Since I am a performer as well, and frequently perform with orchestras, I can testify too: I have felt deeply insulted by a composer's disregard for my instrument; and I have also felt deeply grateful to a composer for showing me something I never knew I could do, even though it took enormous courage and considerable practice time.

And on the other side: I have just enjoyed a delicious bottle of wine given to me by a principal flutist (thank you!) who enjoyed the challenges we worked through together in my piece, and yet I have also seen some shockingly unkind and injurious words in response to similar challenges, on those feedback sheets that "Plucky" mentions in his/her general comment. I am hoping that we can get beyond some of this pent-up frustration and story-telling. We have the much-desired forum, right here! Let's get creative - how should we use it?

I would propose that a lot of us seem to be suggesting that a deep relationship, built on trust, and access to ongoing, evolving interaction between a composer and an orchestra's musicians, is part of the answer. Roberto mentions the word 'trust.' Both Molly and Jennifer cite some compelling reasons that extended residencies, and enhanced time with musicians - if it is used well and thoughtfully by composers and musicians alike - can help build this trust. A similar criterion - enhanced access - underlies Christian's claims as well.

Yes, we do have responsibilities to our players. We are putting fellow artists out in front of people, sometimes recalcitrant people, and asking them to put their gifts forward in the way we choose - as composers we mustn't ever underestimate the sense of vulnerability musicians often feel when they are unveiling new work. Of course, ideally we have these feelings too! (if we are really writing sincerely, and without guile) and this could be a powerful site of commonality if we could tap into it.

Face time with players can help create a personal connection that supports this mutual act of vulnerability. Musicians know that they are not alone up there, that the composer has supported them in this act of vulnerability, through the integrity of what s/he sees on the page in the part, and through the composer's hands-on manner, which can in the best scenario be a mixture of openness, authority and respect for the process.

Intelligence, innovation, artistry and heroic detail-management are only part of our job. Kindness and wonderment (admittedly hard to muster sometimes on an orchestra rehearsal schedule!) are the other part. We can't move forward without these. Of course there are millions of details, whole multiple lifetimes of training brought together in one place, exponential opportunities for error on every side, involved with every single world premiere or even every performance of a contemporary piece. But that's the wonder of it all, right? Isn't that why we do it? It's ridiculously difficult what we are all expecting each other to do - and we should keep expecting it! And of course, we should remember how tender this process is for everyone. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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Jennifer Higdon's Statement (Click to Hide)

Jennifer Higdon  

Jennifer Higdon


Oh my gosh! What fantastic thoughts and observations by everyone on this all have gotten me thinking to such a degree that I was delayed in getting back to you.

A couple of points seem blatantly obvious to me:

First, I think it's really time for a sea-change in programming methods. The musicians need to have much more say in what gets done. It's better for the orchestra's musicians and better for the audiences, and ultimately better for composers (I do believe that). Barbara's suggestion of musicians voting on music programming is's a win-win situation.

Chris' realization, along with Shafer Mahoney, that the composer has to write the best, most engaging music they can in order to make this a better situation for all parties, is key to my personal philosophy (but let me say, I feel every composer is entitled to their own feelings on this). If a piece "speaks" to musicians, I find that they will most often play the piece well. If there is enough enthusiasm for a piece, artistic administrators and conductors are more likely to take a chance in programming the music with their own groups.

Both Barbara's orchestra and Robert Levine's orchestra have programmed pieces of mine based on the prior "buzz" about the works that were programmed. The 2 particular pieces have gone over well with orchestras (much better than some of my other works) because the musicians commented on how well it showed off their instruments and their abilities. I have lots of orchestral works that have not accomplished the same thing, but I do find that thinking about the musicians and the audience while writing helps to assist pieces to move in this direction.

My time this year (6 weeks, at various times) with the Pittsburgh Symphony actually attempted quite a few of the things that folks have suggested. The orchestra played 5 of my works; this gave the orchestra a chance to become familiar with my musical vernacular, and their comfort level increased with each work. We endeavored to schedule general meetings over pizza between myself and the musicians (on a voluntary basis) to talk about music and composing.

I was always present to answer questions and make changes in the music (listening very carefully to each suggestion made by a musician). And I made sure to remember that I was a guest, and that changes in the rehearsal schedule, where I was being asked to give up rehearsal time in order for the orchestra to do a small presentation to retiring musicians, was important to honor, as these were like family members departing the group.

These were some of the larger things that came about. There were a ton of other smaller conversations with musicians, education concerts, radio interviews and school visits that helped me to become closer to being a part of the orchestra. Not everyone liked it, not everyone was convinced, but it did go a long way in assisting in breaking down the composer/musician barrier.

Finally, Christian brings a unique perspective being a composer playing in an orchestra (or vice versa)...he understands how much time it takes to write a piece. Not everyone in an orchestra is going to understand this, but having a perspective of the other person's viewpoint always makes it easier to make things better (his example of knowing how much work it takes to write a piece). The point is that the communication between all parties is extremely important, because it's the only way to learn and understand.

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Robert Levine's Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Principal Violist, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Roberto Sierra wrote :

"Robert, I believe that, as I have observed in all these years, conductors tend to be more appreciative of pieces that orchestra musicians appreciate and enjoy playing. I don't think that this could be anything that can be planned, since it always happens in spontaneous ways."

Absolutely right, and a variant of Chris' thesis that orchestra musicians respond well to good pieces. Certainly that's been our experience in Milwaukee with Roberto's works; not only have we premiered a number of his pieces but several are pieces we play often for kiddie concerts.

Roberto also wrote:

"While many orchestra musicians like playing new works, there are those who do not, and this last group tend to be usually more vocal about their opinions. So, the ones more positively inclined should assume a more proactive posture."

True enough, although I wonder why managements seem to pay so much attention to negative thinking. Perhaps orchestras could institute a version of the conductor evaluation process for new music and composers; that could provide a more balanced picture of the orchestra's collective opinion.

Barbara Scowcroft wrote :

"Should the composers throw into their contracts specific guidelines for spending creative personal time with the orchestra during rehearsals, such as: question and answer, human interaction, etc?"

A really good idea. But not all composers will be interested. We've run across a few that seem to regard orchestra musicians as little more than instrument operators. Obviously those composers won't be interested in personal interaction with factory workers, which doesn't bother me, as they don't deserve the benefits of such interactions.

One of the many reasons that Roberto's music has been so successful in Milwaukee is the fact that he engaged in a great deal of such interaction while he was composer-in-residence here in Milwaukee.

Christopher Theofanides wrote :

"It is incumbent upon the players to literally insist that the programming committees of their orchestras not be a joke, but something which is taken seriously."

Sadly, you're preaching to the choir. The people that need to hear you are on the other side of the table.

Lastly, boeu-sur-le-toit wrote : [Moderator's Note: Robert is responding to the original form of boeu-sur-le-toit's comment. Since then, boeu-sur-le-toit has revised his comment; as such, some of the quotations below may not match the revised version]

"What distresses me the most in this discussion is the disdain of many orchestral musicians for their work, particularly when it involves new music. Don't they 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?"

Where did this come from? I read no "disdain" from any of the orchestra musicians contributing to this discussion. Of course it's a privilege to be an orchestra musician. It's also a very frustrating line of work, at least some of the time. If Mr./Ms. boeu-sur-le-toit wishes to trash orchestra musicians, I'm sure there are other sites on the Internet more appropriate than this one.

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Barbara Scowcroft's Statement (Click to Hide)

Barbara Scowcroft  

Barbara Scowcroft

Violin, Utah Symphony & Opera

From reading the panelists' comments (which I thoroughly enjoyed and admired, by the way) I am willing to participate in radically shaking up our situation. Perhaps we need to decide who can realistically take the first move and be heard and taken seriously. I've served on committees where, prior to the meeting with management and/or conductor, the musicians are spewing and raging over issues, then are awkwardly silenced when the bosses come in.

Should the composers throw into their contracts specific guidelines for spending creative personal time with the orchestra during rehearsals, such as: question and answer, human interaction, etc? My other idea for today is, as a player, I would be willing and like to participate in something like choosing five or more ten- to twenty- minute works by composers selected by, for example, Utah Symphony musicians, voting the season before, so that we can live with the pieces, have more vested interest in the pieces, and so we will know that new works are and should be part of our ongoing life as musicians, and as the orchestra system. This would obviously mean that conductors would have to sign on with dedication to contemporary music, of which I am fully supportive. This is going to have to be consistent and fairly aggressive to change our old habits of separation.

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Comments for Barbara Scowcroft

I find Barbara's ideas here particularly compelling because they attack two important issues. The first is that with such an outlet, musicians would be able to access the control they currently feel they don't have in the artistic process. Having that ready outlet would help those already interested in new work to discover more of it and also perhaps motivate those who don't follow the field to dig in and get up to speed with what composers are writing today and why. The energy that builds among the musicians during this process is sure to spill over to the performances (and in my opinion, that's all you need for an audience to find music "accessible").

The second is that Barbara said she'd be on the lookout for pieces to study and live with, which means all those works that today get a premiere and then meet the filing cabinet would have an institutional path to follow to get many sets of post-premiere eyes and ears on them. That's good for everyone. And it also means that a player in City A excited about a piece could send the word out to pals in City B's orchestra. Wow, buzz in new orchestra music and it's not even a questionable PR campaign--it's real!
MSheridan on June 20, 2019 at 10:10 AM

Molly Sheridan's Statement (Click to Hide)

Molly Sheridan  

Molly Sheridan

Managing Editor, NewMusicBox

I'm intrigued by Chris' comments regarding the depth of understanding an orchestra musician has access to that a composer would do well to have the opportunity to absorb. [And this makes Robert's comments on the role (or non-role, perhaps) that orchestra musicians generally get to play in the artistic side of an operation in which they are specialists scary.]

But back to the value of first-hand experience within the orchestral realm, would you expect stellar reporting from a journalist sent to Iraq with no contacts and no language skills? A translator can only do so much to help in either situation. But that means that keeping composers locked up in their studios (or up in the balcony during rehearsals) is the worst place for them. This applies not only to the building of the composer/musician colleague bond and practical information exchange, but also to understanding the audience. The players receive feedback with every performance. When composers are invited to connect with an orchestra only on isolated occasions, they lack a vital grasp of the relationship between the players and their fans.

So, with composers often feeling like outsiders with their hands tied and musicians often feeling like they might as well have duct tape over their mouths, I have a question: When composers and musicians do find themselves in the same room, in your experiences, how often do you get to have candid conversations about ideas in orchestral writing that reach beyond the work on the table? How often and where is that vital information exchange going down? And if it's not happening, would you be willing and able to invest the time?

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Roberto Sierra's Statement (Click to Hide)

Roberto Sierra  

Roberto Sierra


After reading my colleagues comments, it is clear that the conductor is perceived as being keystone to the process of selecting what it is played. I have to agree with this, since, in my view and experience, it is the conductor who generally first proposes a program. Nevertheless, this is not a simple equation, since there are many filters at different levels that influence the decision making process. First there is the inevitable and natural filter of the aesthetic biases and limitations of the conductors themselves. Some do not like program anything that has any resemblance to music referential to tonality, while others do not like to program works that are more abstract and less reliable on tonality. Then there are the filters of the artistic administration and the marketing department. These two groups tend advocate for music that is palatable to the clientele: the subscribers. In most places (with the exception of those few orchestras that would never second guess the artistic view of their conductor) these filters play an important role in the decision making process.

Although I feel that there should be no biases, and that only the kind of music that is powerful and interesting should be programmed, I have come to accept this situation an inevitability. A wonderful work may happen anywhere within the wide spectrum of these biases, and I am convinced that if the piece has something to say, it will engage both the musicians (included under this term also the conductor) and the audience.

[Moderator's Note: The following is in response to Robert Levine's contribution from Day 1]

Robert, I believe that, as I have observed in all these years, conductors tend to be more appreciative of pieces that orchestra musicians appreciate and enjoy playing. I don't think that this could be anything that can be planned, since it always happens in spontaneous ways. In a way I feel that if we composers are given the chance, it really up to us to make it an experience that will bear fruit. What players can do, is to remind their music director about the importance of doing new works. While many orchestra musicians like playing new works, there are those who do not, and this last group tend to be usually more vocal about their opinions. So, the ones more positively inclined should assume a more proactive posture.

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Christopher Theofanidis's Statement (Click to Hide)

Christopher Theofanidis  

Christopher Theofanidis


[Moderator's Note: Chris was unavoidably delayed and therefore joins our discussion a day late. As such, today's contribution is also his opening statement]

Thanks, Drew [and everyone at], for including me in this discussion. I do indeed have many thoughts on the subject, a few of which I will outline below.

I will preface this with a little personal story, however. One week, a few years ago, there was a particular abundance of contemporary music performances in New York, ranging from the New York Phil to the usual suspects of contemporary ensembles. I was very interested in going, as several composers whose work was represented, I really loved.

My friend, Shafer Mahoney, and I went to a concert a day that week, and by the end of it, we were so disillusioned and disheartened by the lack of interest in the music we had heard (for reasons ranging from bad programming choices and bad pieces by good composers, to very mediocre performances) that we vowed over several glasses of German beer to do something about the situation. Shafer actually said at one point after a concert that he would have spent a much more fulfilling two hours staring at the brick wall in his apartment drinking cold coffee. It would have been funny if it weren't the same way I felt.

We struggled with the issue well into the night. Should we write the New York Times? Should we get a petition together soliciting better programming from ensembles? I mean, THIS WAS SERIOUS.

Ironically, in the end, we vowed to write the best, most engaging music we personally could write, deciding that if something was going to change it was going to have to come from the fact that people actually cared about the music- our music- and that was something we could control. I think that is the operative phrase here- something that I can control.

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure to be involved in the Masterprize competition, whose founder's motto I think follows Shafer's and my conclusion: Style doesn't necessarily matter; what matters is do people (ergo, me) care what comes next, care about what happens.

I want to put out an example of an institution that is doing something about Mr. Woehr's concern. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, of course being conductorless, has the decision-making process for new music built into the players' genes. They decide what gets performed and in whom to invest themselves. I could cite several chamber ensembles, of course, who decide for themselves too, but perhaps focusing on the orchestral model is what is needed here, as that is where the disconnect seems to be.

I tend to be somewhat optimistic (for the United States anyway) about a shift to include orchestral musicians in the decision-making process. The autocratic, dictatorial, omnipotent conductor is in my view, flagging. He/she is now having to be involved in very grass-roots kinds of interactions with the audience, from talking from the podium, to social benefits, to various other things which most European conductors will surely have a problem with for the next 50 years or so. This is bound to change the dynamic in the long haul, and I think, creates an important opening for action.

It is incumbent upon the players to literally insist that the programming committees of their orchestras not be a joke, but something which is taken seriously. At best, I think up until now, only principals of some enlightened orchestras were asked to help decide in a commissioned concerto for them, though the composer had to still be "approved." I would go as far to set a percentage of player chosen new music- this would be good for everyone, as I am still sure that most players are not actively even listening to the breadth of what's out there to be able to support composers they really, genuinely like.

I will end with a wonderful statement by the first violinist of the Kronos Quartet when asked why he continues to play only contemporary music instead of the great masterpieces of the past. He responded, "because I truly believe that the best piece for string quartet has yet to be written." Now that's a creative artist!

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

Christian Woehr, III  

Christian Woehr, III

Assistant Principal Viola, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

[Moderator's Note] As his contribution for today, Chris posted several response comments to Day 1's contributions (including his own):

Response Comment to Chris Woehr

Response Comment to Roberto Sierra

Response Comment to Molly Sheridan

Response Comment to Barbara Scowcroft

Response Comment to Robert Levine

Response Comment to Lisa Bielawa

Response Comment to Jennifer Higdon

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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 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 [].

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:

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.

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.]

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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