The Guys on the Other Side of the Repertoire

I had coffee yesterday with a rising young orchestral conductor, one of the assistant conductors to the New York Philharmonic. He made the remark that he had never seen an orchestra that showed a strong commitment to new music run into financial trouble. When I mentioned the obvious counterexample of Louisville, he said that they had abandoned their interest in new music (or rather, lost funding for the program) ten years before folding. He also commented that conductors who cultivate new and adventurous repertoire (e.g., Salonen and my boss Paavo Jarvi) seem to last in their posts longer than the average six to ten years. He agrees with what I’ve been saying (and said it before I did): that for audience members born after 1975, post-Rite of Spring music is a much bigger draw than 18th- or 19th-century repertoire, and the orchestra needs to start pinning their hopes on it.

I love talking to conductors. They all tried their hands at composing, and they all (though I only meet relatively young ones) feel an idealistic commitment to extending the repertoire toward the present. It’s like living next to a mountain range and then hearing it described by someone who lives on the other side. Of course, the relationship isn’t symmetrical. The eyes of a composer who’s just met a conductor light up with a concupiscence otherwise reserved for scantily-clad statuesque blondes, but the conductors are always nice about it.* Their only collective fault is that they rely too credulously on the composing profession’s official award structures for validation of the music they select. I told the Maestro I thought that being a conductor was the most difficult career anyone could choose; he countered that he felt that dubious honor belonged to composition. He had seen several composer friends reinvent themselves over and over again trying to find a way to survive finanically. But, I replied, when I don’t have a commission, I can always amble into my studio and write another Disklavier piece; I don’t need a group of people to agree to work with me just to exercise my art. I’m sure that my road as a composer would have been easier had I possessed a little charisma, but being a conductor without it is unimaginable.

[*Footnote: Bard has a small MFA program for conductors. I always kid the students that, as they walk across stage to pick up their diplomas, Joan Tower, George Tsontakis, and I will be at the end of the line with stacks of our orchestral scores to give them.]


  1. says

    Yeah Kyle, I still want to grab a recording of your Transcendental Etudes.
    KG replies: It’s Transcendental Sonnets – you’ve confused me with Brian Ferneyhough again. I’m so tired of being mistaken for that guy.

  2. Christopher Culver says

    Salonen is no perfect supporter of modern repertoire. While it is true that he has done much to popularize Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Lindberg, and Saariaho, there’s a huge amount of 20th century music he has ignored outright, such as Boulez and other serialist composers, Carter, Rihm, and Schnittke, and many more. His choice of what to pitch seems entirely dependent on his tastes, which can only be expected, but his example alone is certainly not enough to bring orchestras out of overly conservative programming.

  3. XyloGuy says

    Not to be confused with P.D.Q. Bach’s composition: “Trance and Dental Etudes.”

  4. Derek Ho says

    Maybe the LA Phil and Cincy Symphony aren’t in financial trouble, but perhaps you might consider the Seattle Symphony (my hometown band) as another counterexample. Although Schwarz is a tireless advocate of living American composers (and American music of the 20th century), the orchestra is experiencing a small deficit, and as reported in the news, what appears to be a musician uprising against Schwarz (which, in my eyes at least, is understandable).