Hitting the “Reset” Button

We have an MFA program in conducting, and I teach a course for it in 20th-century Orchestral Repertoire. I used to start chronologically with Busoni, Reger, and Holst, and work my way through the decades, but the class always broke down at some point into a discussion of the problems of programming 20th-century music for orchestra. The usual objections would arise: 20th-century music is more complicated than most orchestra subscribers can understand. It’s more anxious and dissonant than they like. You have to have followed the course of 20th-century music to understand the recent stuff.

So now I teach the course backwards, 2005 to 1900, and I start with Sara’s Grace by San Francisco composer Belinda Reynolds, which you can hear here. The performance is by Dogs of Desire, an orchestra that is a subset of the Albany Symphony, and that doesn’t market itself as an orchestra. The piece sets the whole discussion on a different footing. Turns out, some 20th-century music is difficult to figure out. Some of it depends on a familiarity with old styles. And some orchestra subscribers will reject Sara’s Grace just because the composer has the effrontery to not be dead yet – but then it becomes the audience’s problem, not the music’s. After all, anybody who can’t “get” what’s going on in Sara’s Grace might as well realize that music isn’t their thing.

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