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


A new consensus seems to be forming around the potential empowerment of musicians through a more active role in decision-making about programming new works. Barbara's excellent idea from yesterday - instituting an ongoing selection process for new works that charges the players themselves with making decisions well in advance, thereby engaging them in a way that makes them feel proprietary about the pieces in a wonderfully positive way - might be more or less possible with different conductors. However, in some cases, this scenario could have multiple benefits. I am guessing there are cases, as things stand now, in which musicians are grappling with a whole host of frustrations and 'the new piece' ends up bearing the brunt of these combined frustrations, because of circumstance. But if their experience with 'the new piece' is one that empowers them and serves as an antidote to more general frustrations, there could be incredible energy created by such a system.

I also want to highlight Robert's comment that, in fact, not all composers take advantage of the opportunity to have "face time" with musicians. Last night I had a lengthy discussion with a fellow composer about this very issue: do composers have this extra-musical "face time" responsibility as well? Is it actually extra-musical or is it part of the composer's required skill set to be workably articulate or even a charismatic advocate for his/her own work? Doesn't this expectation handicap certain personality types? I know there are various educational offerings in the field that target The Socially & Politically Unskilled Composer. It has always been my opinion that, although one should never discourage a composer who wants to refine these skills, it is incumbent on those of us who have the personal and verbal skills to be advocates for new music to advocate not just for ourselves but for others who might not have these skills. I'd rather catch a lot of fish and have everyone over for dinner than teach a man to fish. Maybe someone else is a better cook than I am, but if I'm good at catching it, I should catch as much as I can and share.

But at the minimum, composers are well advised to be able to function effectively, if not charismatically, at that crucial first rehearsal. I've seen conductors roll their eyes when they remember that the composer is coming to the rehearsal. In the rehearsal process, composers are more or less on their own, with a wide variety of levels of direct access to musicians. There is incredible pressure to form cohesive impressions quickly and articulate them concisely. A good conductor (who arguably does need to have the aforementioned charismatic/communication skills as part of his/her primary skill set) will be able to glean a composer's relative skill in this area, and complement the process with less or more involvement. My opinion is that it would be unfortunate for the field for us to develop uniform personality requirements/expectations of composers, beyond this basic function. I'd love to hear comments on this issue.

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Robert Levine's Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Principal Violist, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

I haven't seen any serious disagreement with the idea that what orchestra musicians think about new music matters less than what conductors, or artistic administrators, or audiences think, Nonetheless it does matter. So it's worth exploring what about the music itself affects orchestra musicians' perceptions. What distinguishes new music that musicians like to play from music that musicians don't like to play?

In no particular order:

Are the parts easy to decipher?

This covers a lot of territory, from legibility to the degree of "normalness" of the notation. For a model of legibility, go to an orchestra's library and borrow any parts to a Mozart symphony from Barenreiter. The farther your parts diverge from the clarity of that layout, the harder they'll be for the orchestra to read. (For an example of what not to do, check out anything written by a 19th century French composer published in France; French music publishers are charter members of the Axis of Evil.)

This might seem like an argument for computer-printed parts, but music notation programs do not (at least in my experience) automatically produce parts that help the musicians, especially in terms of how much space is given to beats. Ideally the physical spacing of the notes on the page bears a relationship to the rhythmic value of the notes. It also seems that music notation programs are prone to counterintuitive "spellings."

I understand that sometimes composers need to depart from conventional notation. But I find that, the more time I have to spend deciphering what a composer wants from text directions, the more annoyed I get. I spent years learning how to read music (and more time figuring out how to read alto clef); I don't want to have to re-learn all that just to play one piece that may or may not be worth the effort.

Is there a balance between hard stuff and easy stuff?

Musicians expect to be challenged by what they play. But a part that contains nothing but complex material requiring hours of practice will either discourage musicians right off the bat or make them assume that most of it can be faked ("what is this; a f*ucking viola concerto?"). Contrariwise, a part that is only rests and goose eggs will cause musicians to assume that the composer doesn't have a clue about how to write for their instrument; also not a recipe for musician involvement.

Is there physical pain involved?

The first thing I look for in our season schedule are concerts of Strauss waltzes and performances of Italian opera (Puccini excepted), so I can be first in line to request that period of time off. I love Strauss waltzes, but playing them is, quite literally, torture for violists. Verdi also assumed that all violists and second violinists are good for are off-beats. If you decide, like Ives in "The Unanswered Question," that string players make great Druids, fit for nothing more than continuous droning, don't be surprised when they put a curse on you.

Does stuff come together in rehearsal?

Musicians, like everyone else, like problems that are solvable. It's OK if the first read-through sounds like garbage. It's not OK if it's not possible to make progress during the course of rehearsals. It's definitely not OK if most of the rehearsal is spent, not rehearsing, but having to have the conductor explain the notation, or how he/she is having to subdivide every bar differently. Musicians became musicians in order to make music, not to listen to conductors explain things.

Does the piece make the orchestra sound good to the musicians?

This is really the bottom line. It's hard to feel good about a piece if it feels to the musicians as if the ensemble and pitch problems were unsolvable. (This is a good argument against reliance on aleatoric devices, which almost by definition sound lousy to the orchestra in light of how they define "lousy" - i.e., not together and/or in tune.)

These criteria apply equally well to non-new music, of course. They are also not descriptions of musical quality. Orchestra musicians are a little like infantry; what they care about is what's happening in their foxhole, not how the battle is going. There is great music that is no fun to play. If that's what you write, don't expect us to pretend otherwise.

The best example of putting this all together that I've seen comes from the pops world. Every single chart we've done by Tommy Newsom, Doc Severinsen's long-time arranger, has sounded great, been gratifying to play, and comes together quickly. I look forward to playing Newsom charts a lot more than I do Strauss waltzes, and I don't think I'm alone.

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Barbara Scowcroft's Statement (Click to Hide)

Barbara Scowcroft  

Barbara Scowcroft

Violin, Utah Symphony & Opera

Thank you for your responses. I completely agree that audiences should be and are an important element of this discussion. When an audience sees that a new composer will be featured on a program, the general response is fear, and the general interest in the concert diminishes. The gap between romantic music and contemporary music is already wide and continues to widen. The problem is that audiences have not adapted as fast as the music has evolved. Today's audience does not have the ability to understand, absorb, and appreciate the music to which they are being exposed.

Part of the answer to this problem is to "scroll back" and engage composers who are willing to incorporate a little more of the familiar elements of music into their own cutting edge creativity. People tend to go to concerts to be healed, soothed, and relieved from their work week. Only a small portion of the concert going population is interested in hearing music that has more "shock value" than traditional elements. We need composers to come to the table willing to have a little more patience and who not offended if the conductor wants to be more audience friendly in picking and playing pieces. Perhaps if composers are willing to take time to gradually introduce newer, contemporary elements into their music, the gap between audience taste and composer taste will lessen as audiences will be able to adjust, learn, and appreciate the newer music.

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Molly Sheridan's Statement (Click to Hide)

Molly Sheridan  

Molly Sheridan

Managing Editor, NewMusicBox

So, a funny thing happened when I, wondering what direction to go in with this next post, sat down to write--Angela Cordell, a French horn player with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, walks into my office trailing a line of composers behind her. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Not to turn this into a commercial, but they were all gathered for a pilot "Nuts and Bolts" workshop here at the American Music Center and needed to borrow some space to work in for an hour, so I welcomed them in and sat back to see what would happen. Some participants had scores in hand and asked for a try out of different aspects of their pieces, others just had more general questions about what the instrument could do and what preferences were when it came to part preparation. It might not sound like it, but it was exciting even just to eavesdrop on the conversation--it would not be melodramatic to say it was like watching a kid open a birthday gift. I took a stroll around the office and poked my head into some of the other musician-composer breakout sessions and stunningly (considering the hostility and frustration that's been mentioned here) everyone looked liked they were having a really good time. I don't mean to overkill the rah-rah factor, but having slogged through my share of orchestra rehearsals, the idea of fun and adventure when it comes to new orchestra music is not anywhere in my musician memory bank, even in college. Sad, perhaps, but also true. But here it was, what we've been talking about--composers and musicians sharing skills, both parties quite invested in the resulting music.

Part of what made Joan Tower's Made in America project work so well is that it was the orchestras themselves that conceived it, as opposed to it being just a program they were just taking part in offered by some outside organization. They knew better than anyone what they needed, of course. With that in mind, what can groups such as the American Federation of Musicians, American Symphony Orchestra League, American Music Center, Meet The Composer, and American Composers Forum do to help musicians and composers get where it sounds like they want to be? Where do they just need to stay out of the way?

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Roberto Sierra's Statement (Click to Hide)

Roberto Sierra  

Roberto Sierra


When I think of how a strong relationship between a performer and a composer is established, I firmly believe that it is the strength of the piece that will and has to win her/him over. Orchestra players generally are open, but they wait until they rehearse the work to either react positively if the experience engages them, or to become indifferent or negative if they end up not liking what they play. I am rather skeptical about the type of networking and social interaction that aims at winning over the players as "friends". This can create the ambiance of "good old boys club" where works are favored by virtue of "amigo-ism" (to use Chris' term), and not by the intrinsic artistic merits of the music, a situation particularly true of certain conductors that tend to "marry" certain composers (or soloists), and whose choices are more a reflection of personal affection, and not necessarily of sound artistic judgment. Mind you, we are all human and have, as I mentioned before, certain biases which also include favoring people based on personality.

The conductor is a key factor in securing the attention and respect of the musicians. There is nothing worse for a composer than attending a first rehearsal where the conductor would be sight reading the work, learning it on the spot. On the other hand, when the conductor has full command of the new piece, and is truly supportive of the composer, from the beginning she or him can instill enthusiasm and respect in the player for the music in front of them. How sad is to see a conductor, who has been "sitting on the fence", react to the work with great enthusiasm after the clamorous applause from the audience or a great review. Namely, what I am trying to remark is that for a new work to penetrate and make a true impact, great leadership is needed at the podium.

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Christopher Theofanidis's Statement (Click to Hide)

Christopher Theofanidis  

Christopher Theofanidis


I think the person who has noted the overarching theme of communication has hit it on the head, and I would like to dedicate a little time to that issue.

Let's start with a biggie. "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?" asks Hausorob. I think the answer is clearly yes, but maybe not in the traditional way. Most of the orchestra residency programs developed in the 1980's were meant to be a three year program in which the composer might have written a piece a year for the ensemble and had that piece performed at some auspicious (or inauspicious!) moment in the season. That gave the composer exactly one real, sanctioned opportunity to interact in a musical way with the players- once per year, that is- not really enough time to develop a meaningful relationship, much less a dialogue.

I like some of the newer models out there today. Jennifer Higdon mentioned Pittsburgh, which throughout the course of one year, brings a composer in 5-6 times to have 4-5 works performed, with one premiere. This is a great model for many reasons- for one germain to our discussion here, it allows the players to get to know a composer a year quite well and allows the composer to really listen to the players. And the audience comes along with it all- having a point of reference in understanding a composer in a larger context.

Seattle, with Sam Jones, is another interesting example. He is a long-term fixture there- someone in whom both the conductor and the players trust enormously. There is, I think, a real dialogue, and as I understand it, Sam is actually on the board! What a concept!

And of course, Robert mentioned Roberto's involvement with Milwaukee, and with all of the innovative things happening out there with recordings and the internet, etc., we are all grateful for that.

Barbara asks, "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?" I think this is a great idea, but most composers are terrified to ask for anything until they get to a certain stature, and in my opinion this should come either as a suggestion from the composer, or better yet, as an offer from the players/administration directly.

And by the way, I think real social interaction would be great, too. We usually go to several social functions related to patrons, etc. How about getting to know some of the players on a personal level?
That has got to help the sense of goodwill. Would that be something that could come from the players?

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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

I am getting quite excited about the possibility of real player input into programming of new music. I guess this issue must mean a lot to my job happiness, and I never before realized how much. As each new strategy is offered, I immediately wonder how it could be made to work with my own band.

David Robertson exerts tremendous control over all repertoire decisions in St. Louis. In addition to his own subscription concerts, I believe he maintains almost total control over guest conductor programs (someone correct me), he even sets the educational concert repertoire, and of course, his favorite babies are two concert series in local venues (a contemporary art museum and a university's new recital hall) that feature nothing but contemporary music. These are mostly a continuation of his role in Lyon with small conducted new music ensembles.

In St. Louis, the events are put on through the SLSO, but outside the normal weekly service count. There is considerable buzz created, and a number of musicians love playing them, despite the extremely hard and challenging work on top of a heavy orchestra week. (I consider the triple and quadruple service days as too dangerous for a 54 year old viola player, and so have declined to participate. This would probably change instantly if one of my works were to magically and miraculously appear on a program.)

There is an outlet, Symphony-sponsored, in which SLSO musicians have not only repertoire input, but often total control of programming. This is in the Community Partnership Program of the SLSO, in which smaller ensembles are sent out to play in various places with no admission charge (the musicians are compensated with vacation credit). I consider myself very skilled at programming. If there is even a single boring minute in one of my programs, I want to know about it. My friends and I jump into these concerts with glee, and invariably the audience response is terrific. Yet often there is not a single person from our overworked staff / administration to witness these wonderful events, so the net result in terms of programming input or influence with the Symphony's artistic administration is zero.

But I am thinking there is an opportunity here, and I wonder how to run with it! Thanks for bearing with such a personal digression.

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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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