New music in Toronto

Or, rather, no new music in Toronto. I’m talking about the amazing news yesterday about the Toronto Symphony — they’re going to banish new music from their regular season, at least for this year, and stick it off by itself in a few concerts next spring.

I imagine many people will be outraged. If you’re a serious classical music person,  you’re supposed to support new music, and demand that orchestras play it whether their audience likes it or not.

But I’d like to take another view. Maybe the Toronto Symphony’s management is right. If some large part of the regular audience hates new music, why force them to hear it? Maybe we’re better off segregating new works in special concerts. Suppose the mainstream classical audience and the new music audience just aren’t the same people. Then new music might do better by itself, where it could draw the audience that wanted it.

Of course, some people will say that there really are members of the regular audience who want to hear new music. Maybe some of these audience members will angrily e-mail me. I met an audience member like that just the other day — someone who goes to normal orchestra concerts, and who you’d swear was a straightahead Beethoven listener, and yet told me she loved hearing new sounds.

But how many people like her are there, in the standard orchestra audience? I’d love to see some studies. Does anyone actually know how many people in the orchestra audience like to hear new music? Some orchestra professionals I know, perhaps with better data than I have, think the number is very, very small.

Some people, of course, will tell me success stories — about concerts on which mainstream orchestras played new music, and the audience loved it. I can tell those stories myself. But does this prove that the audience wants to hear more new music — that they’ll be happy when they see new pieces on an orchestra’s schedule? It might not. People might find that they like an occasional new piece, but still, on the whole, might cringe at the thought of hearing lots of new music.

And even if I’m wrong, the moral to draw might not be that the Toronto Symphony is walking away from its duty. Instead, maybe the moral is that, in the past, they didn’t do their duty the right way. Along, I might add, with most other orchestras. What have they done to get their audience interested in new stuff? Do they talk to their audience? Do they present new works with passion and commitment? Are they in constant communication with their audience — using every form of communication they can think of — to make sure their audience knows why new works are performed? Do they let the audience talk back, and do they take seriously what it says? Maybe, just maybe, the audience feels new works are an affront to it because, in actual fact, that’s exactly what they are — pieces that the orchestra knows the audience won’t like, which it goes out and programs anyway, without caring enough to reach out and explain why.

In the end, I wonder if the Toronto Symphony isn’t giving the classical music world exactly what it deserves. For so many years — generations — the situation of new music has been a disgrace. I’m not blaming anybody: not the institutions, not the audience, certainly not the composers. But an art form that can’t handle new work — in which new work is a problem — can’t be in good shape.

But hardly anyone addresses this. Hardly anybody says, “This is an outrage! We have to find out how things got this way, and address the causes right at the root.” Instead, nearly everybody limps along, trying to have it both ways. We play new music, because we think it’s the right thing to do, but we don’t play too much of it, because we’d scare our audience. Does this make sense? Is there any real conviction behind it? Shouldn’t the people who don’t want to hear new music rise up and say, “That’s enough! Don’t torture our ears with this junk!” And shouldn’t the people who support new music rise up just as strongly, and yell, “We’re not putting up with this either! We’re going out to find ways to do all the new music we want!”

I know — I’m being unfair. I’m imagining the aggrieved faces of many fine people I know in this business, people who really love new music, but who work inside the mainstream, and need to be practical. If it weren’t for them, the mainstream would be worse than it is, and composers might get their works played a lot less often. (As a composer myself, I wouldn’t like that.)

And yet it’s refreshing to see someone (like the Toronto Symphony) take a radical stand, on either side of the question. It’s refreshing to see someone get up and say, “Look, there’s a huge elephant in the room, and nobody dares to talk about it. So we’re going to find a way to get the elephant out of here.”

Will someone now say, “We love the elephant! And we’re going to find a way to show everyone just how fabulous their lives are going to be when the elephant really cuts loose”?

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