For Orchestras New Works Fall into a Black Hole

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For Orchestras New Works Fall into a Black Hole

Post by Ralph » Wed Aug 17, 2005 6:00 am

From The New York Times:

August 15, 2005
The New, Exciting and Soon Forgotten

Last week, as the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood was gliding to a close, the large student orchestra of the Tanglewood Music Center lit into Steven Stucky's Second Concerto for Orchestra. It is an electrifying piece: three movements that explore an orchestra's potential in much the way Bartok's and Lutoslawski's concertos for orchestra do, but in ways that sound fresh and exciting. It alludes to works by other composers without losing its own focus, and like many of the festival works it stands apart from academic disputes about style and language, and strives for direct communication.

My previous encounter with the work was from a distance. Mr. Stucky composed it for Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to play last year, and it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April. I wrote a brief description of it, based on Mr. Stucky's program note, for The New York Times roundup of prize winners.

But although Mr. Stucky's description of the score and his method of composing it piqued my interest, there wasn't much to be done: it became one of those works you read about but have no access to. The best you can do is file away the impression and hope that the piece turns up, either in the concert hall or on disc.

When I finally did hear the work, at Tanglewood, the exhilaration of discovering a vivid new score was tempered by a nagging question. While intending no disrespect to the Tanglewood Music Center or its superb young musicians, who produced a fantastic performance, I wondered why I had had to drive 150 miles to hear a student orchestra play it, some 17 months after a premiere that, by all accounts, was a success and four months after its Pulitzer?

Where, to put it differently, were the New York Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, the American Symphony Orchestra and all the other orchestras that while away the musical season in a city that regards itself as the center of the musical universe? And what about orchestras elsewhere that might have picked up on the work , then brought it to New York on tour?

If you are an orchestra administrator, and you've just clucked your tongue and muttered, "He knows perfectly well that it doesn't work that way," maybe it's time to think again about how it can work, or should.

The issue is not the Stucky work itself. Pieces with its energy and appeal turn up all the time, as do works that find their way into the news. (The Pulitzer is by no means the only important composition prize awarded these days.) The issue is whether orchestras can find the will and the flexibility to tap into hot works when they turn up, or whether their idea of exciting programming is simply to group repertory favorites under facile thematic banners, with the occasional premiere thrown in dutifully and the word "exciting" splashed across the brochure.

Yes, there are structural hurdles in the current programming model that make it difficult for orchestras to turn on a dime and seize on works that were hits elsewhere. Orchestral programming is typically done two to three seasons in advance, a lead time necessary for securing guest performers and drawing up budgets. And once the programs are settled, they are advertised and offered in subscription series, so that swapping Dvorak's "New World" Symphony for a work that didn't exist when the brochure was printed might give the appearance of bait-and-switch.

But those aren't good reasons. They are merely the reasons orchestras have become so sclerotic. Other corners of the music world are nimble enough to allow for the new or the newsworthy. Instrumental competitions, for example, arrange for recital and concerto appearances with their winners long before the winners are known: these are part of the prize, and they put winners before audiences immediately. In pop music, a band with a hit will turn up at your local arena within weeks: can you imagine someone touring a hot album three years after it's released because scheduling is rigid?

Now and then the symphonic world stirs itself, but usually when no heavy lifting is involved. When a work purporting to be a youthful Mozart symphony was discovered in the early 1980's, Lincoln Center got it onto a Mostly Mozart program while the headlines were still fresh. But that doesn't happen often.

If orchestras want to make their programming exciting and part of a vibrant cultural dialogue, they might consider ways to boost their metabolism, and one way to do that would be to build scouting and rapid-reaction mechanisms into their operations. When an orchestra is giving a potentially interesting or important premiere, other orchestras should have representatives on the scene. And if the music does prove exciting, their programming departments should kick into action, obtaining the scores and scheduling them quickly - not three years from now but next month. Find a repertory staple and play the new piece instead.

Forget the potential bait-and-switch complaints: programs are changed all the time, for reasons far less interesting than the sudden appearance of an exciting new score. And forget the outmoded notion that where new music is concerned, only premieres are important. Audiences and composers don't think that way.

There is no real prestige in giving the premiere of a work that no one else plays, and there is no loss of prestige in giving the second, third or fourth performance of a worthy new score. Less adventurous listeners, in fact, may feel better about new works that have been vetted than about the shots in the dark that premieres generally are. And once an orchestra establishes a track record of finding works that resonate, audiences will come to trust these changes and look forward to them.

I'm not holding my breath. Orchestras seem content to be museums now, even as they wring their hands about dropping subscription sales and graying listeners. But maybe there's someone in a programming department somewhere who sees the percentage in shaking things up, in treating new works as if they not only matter but have the power to breathe life into this sleepy business. It takes only one: if it works, everyone else will follow suit.

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

Albert Einstein

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Post by karlhenning » Wed Aug 17, 2005 6:42 am

Thanks, Ralph; a good article, and important considerations (of course, as a composer myself, I would think them important :-)

Thanks, Ralph; a good article, and important considerations (of course, as a "semi-amateur" composer with a "mega-ego," I would think them important :-)
Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston, Massachusetts
Published by Lux Nova Press


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