My start in the classical musical business was as an undergraduate math major who rounded out my nerdiness by taking bassoon lessons (from Wendal Jones and Gordon Solie) and playing bassoon in the University of Arizona orchestra. I had arrived at the University in a state of musical illiteracy, not having been exposed to much classical music in high school beyond the repertoire of the Tucson Youth Symphony.
My college experience exposed me to much more. At the expense of neglecting the standard repertoire, my college conductor, Henry Johnson, led us through works by Alan Hovhaness, Howard Hanson, Carl Nielsen, William Grant Still, and even Dimitri Shostakovich. This was the late 1960s, and this music seemed pretty avant-garde to kids going to college in the middle of the Sonoran desert.
My daily doses of classical music outside of the orchestra were confined to a few short selections, “Classics in Miniature,” that one of the local commercial radio stations played at odd hours. These selections were occasionally censored by my roommate, also a bassoonist, who could not abide listening to anything “modern,” and would turn the radio dial back to the sports report rather than risk listening to something written after 1920.
Luckily for me, one of the guys down the hall in my dorm had a wonderful LP collection and an evangelical fervor to go along with it. He’d often call us to his room to hear his latest Hindemith and Shostakovitch recordings. What a revelation it was to hear the New York Philharmonic playing Shostakovich 9th Symphony with its great bassoon solos!
After my undergraduate years, I took a shot at grad school in math, but was promptly drafted into the Army. I was lucky enough to get into a couple of bands (in San Francisco and Heidelberg) where I was surrounded by excellent colleagues who introduced me to challenging wind chamber music. That, together with commuting every few weeks to Los Angeles for lessons with Norman Herzberg, got me interested in playing in a professional orchestra.
I took advantage of excess free time in the typical Army bandsman’s day to make myself practice enough so that, upon my discharge in 1971, an audition committee got the impression that I was ready to play in the San Francisco Symphony. What a shock it was for a player like me, really somebody without the right background, to be thrown into the symphony orchestra scene!
First, I was astounded at how well everyone played, how supportive everyone was, and, in particular, how distinctions based on age, race, or sex, seemed not to exist.
But getting to the point of this article, I was surprised that performing new music never generated much excitement, even though many people seemed to be weary of much of the standard repertoire. Despite heroic efforts by Seiji Ozawa, a new work by Xenakis seemed to be something to be played through on our way to a Brahms symphony. Even a visit by Olivier Messiaen for a performance of the Turangalila Symphony (a work more than 20 years old by that time) didn’t seem to inspire many of my colleagues. At least it seemed that way to me as an orchestra neophyte.
My subsequent years with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra have involved lots of contemporary music, especially under Dennis Russell Davies and Hugh Wolff; but even Christopher Hogwood and Pinchas Zukerman made attempts to keep us up to date.
Still, enthusiasm for new music, while intense within a small segment of our audience, doesn’t seem to be widespread. Even my colleagues and I are sometimes less enthusiastic than we could be about tackling a new work.
What follows is my list of some things I think could be done to promote new music and make it more rewarding for audiences and colleagues alike. These certainly are not original ideas, but are ideas that I believe we could be putting into practice more vigorously. Furthermore, given the creative talent found in each orchestra, realizing distinct ways to adapt some or all of these ideals should produce positive results unique to each ensemble.
1. If you can’t talk about it, don’t perform it.
I like to think of my ideal audience member as someone who reluctantly left work early, at the urging of a spouse, partner, or friend, to attend my concert. This person is very intelligent, highly skilled in his own profession, open to new things, but not very knowledgeable about new music in particular or about classical music in general. Such a person has more motivation to buy into a performance when they are presented with an oral, thoughtful, non-condescending briefing on why you are playing the piece. Remember that your audience usually hasn’t lived with the piece as long as you have. No matter how sophisticated you think your audience is or how obviously accessible you think the piece is, the listener can always benefit from hearing a few well chosen words regarding what you are about to play. Also, audiences may respond better to listening to a player’s talk rather than conductor’s. Keep it short and interesting!
I had a wonderful experience last season talking to an audience about the Berg Chamber Concerto for solo piano, solo violin, and small orchestra. Our conductor that week was Reinbert De Leeuw, a wonderful interpreter of contemporary music, but someone who does not like to speak to audiences right before he performs. I volunteered to do the job, Reinbert gave me a crash course on Berg, and I was able to convey some of his excitement about the piece to an audience that was hearing the piece for the first time.
2. Give commissioned works a chance.
Make sure your commissioning project is a serious one by committing to multiple performances in several venues and broadcasts. Have the players talk about the piece to audiences, with maybe a few words from the composer, or have the composer interviewed by a player. (See rule #1 above.)
I usually have trouble listening to composers talk about their own works, even when they are friends of mine. I have much better luck interviewing them. Audiences tend to be on the composer’s side from the beginning if you can get them to see the human side of the guy whose difficult piece they are about to hear. Instead of talking about when the piece modulates into C# minor, you can get the composers to talk about how they conducted the Russian Chorus at Yale (Dan Godfrey) or how they played piano in a rock band as a teen (Michael Daugherty).
3. Find ways to devote plenty of rehearsal time to new works.
Several short sessions with a work may help players appreciate a work better than a last-minute marathon cram session. Even a reading one or two months in advance would help enormously. Ideally, start early enough to give the composer a chance to make revisions. A lot of composers are eager for feedback and are looking not only for ways to improve the piece, but for ways to make it easier to perform. I know that I recently benefited greatly from a reading of the John Adams that we did a month in advance of the regular week of rehearsals. At least I was reminded how insane my part was.
4. Use composer-in-residence programs to make points 1, 2, and 3 happen more effectively.
Give up 10 minutes of a rehearsal once in a while to read through upcoming new works with the composer-in-residence present.
5. Find effective ways to do readings of works by young composers.
Don’t just go through the motions for the sake of a grant or to look like you are performing community service. Make sure that legible parts are available far ahead of the reading, use a competent conductor who takes the job seriously enough to study the scores, and make sure you record a run-through at the end of the rehearsal for the composer’s study.
The SPCO did exactly this with great success for doctoral composition students at the University of Chicago this year. Everyone seemed surprised at how well it worked, and so we’ll be doing it again next year.
We need to find ways for the players to give the composer plenty of feedback before and after an event like this regarding notation and instrumentation. Ideally, doing another reading of the same piece a few months later, incorporating the composer’s resulting revisions, would yield even better results.
6. If you run a composition competition, use the above method for three or four finalists before you announce a winner.
7. Read, and seriously consider, the ideas of Soong Fu-Yuan in his Harmony article Restoring the Ecosystem of American Classical Music through Audience Empowerment.
He has some wonderful ideas for audience involvement.
8. If you admire the work of a composer, especially a promising young composer, try to get that composer to write a chamber piece involving your instrument.
There are plenty of holes to be filled in the bassoon repertoire, and I’m sure that if you can’t think of any gaps in the repertoire for your instrument, you could ask for something involving the bassoon. I’d really appreciate that! I’ve had great success with bothering composers for pieces for the bassoon after I’ve heard their orchestral writing. I have ended up with good pieces and good friends, including Jay Reise, Dan Godfrey, and Michael Daugherty.
9. Ask composers for shorter works.
The reason novels are easy to read is that there are editors, and even the most skilled writers have their works subjected to the editor’s pencil before they are published. When does this happen for composers? We as performers must help them find ways to make good use of feedback, mentoring, and peer review. The greatest composers were usually the greatest and most merciless self-editors, and most others could benefit from competent outside help in trimming fat.
A short work by a young composer could also be the best way to introduce himself or herself to the public. Even with established composers, there is a reluctance to edit away any part of a new creation. I remember questioning a prominent composer-in-residence about the length of the middle movement of his five-movement symphony. He had a lot of reasons why it could not be shorter. Later that week my 12-year-old son, a fan of new music, heard the concert. I asked him how he liked the symphony. He replied, unprompted by me, “I liked it a lot, but the third movement was too long.”
10. Find ways to make it known to composers that we want to give their works a chance.
The more readable the parts, the more standard the notation, the better the cues, the better edited the score and parts, and the sooner the music is available, the better we will be able to present new music to the public; and the more likely it is that the work will be well received. I got a very supportive letter from Karel Husa a few years ago when I wrote an article for the Minnesota Composers Forum newsletter in which I urged composers to use conventional notation as much as possible and to resist the urge to invent new symbols.
11. Try to pass on healthy attitudes about new music to your students.
Help them find ways to explore new works and to make the effort to help find new treasures to add to our rich inheritance of classical music. Our business will be healthier as a result.
In conclusion, respecting new music involves respecting audiences, respecting composers, and respecting our needs as performers. Let’s work out the details!