Good idea

Linked on ArtsJournal today is a fabulous “critic’s notebook” by New York Times music critic Allan Kozinn, about the way orchestras program new music. Or, rather, about one way that they don’t program it.

 Allan had heard a piece at Tanglewood that knocked him out—Stephen Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, which was premiered a year or so ago by the LA Philharmonic, and won the Pulitzer Prize this year. And so Allan asked why he had to wait this long to hear it:

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? He concedes, of course, that orchestra programming is done long in advance, and — or so orchestras insist — can’t easily be changed. But why not?

He’s right to ask. In fact, I’ve asked the same question myself. Back when Gorecki’s Third Symphony was such a smash popular success, I wondered why American orchestras didn’t rush to program it. One answer, back then, might of course have been, “Because we don’t like the piece” (since many people seemed to disapprove of its apparent simplicity, not to mention its popularity).

But think of what orchestras would gain — and what the cause of new music would gain — if successful new pieces were widely performed. First, orchestras would look like they really cared. “Look! Here’s a new piece that’s a raving success, and we thought [speaking now to their audience] that you just had to hear it! So we tore up our schedule to bring it to you.” Wouldn’t the audience sit up and take notice?

And, taking this further, wouldn’t the entire city where the orchestra plays? This is the second advantage. One problem orchestras have (especially large ones) is that most of their concerts don’t really register as events. “What’s the New York Philharmonic doing this week?” “Playing classical music, as usual.” Of course, the Philharmonic would annoyedly point out that they’re doing Mahler’s Sixth, or whatever, and that there are good reasons for people to care about the piece. But that doesn’t register with any large number of people. It speaks only to those who already know the repertoire. For others, it’s just about meaningless.

But how about this? What’s the Philharmonic doing this week? Sweeping everything aside to play a new piece that really matters. That’s news. That would get attention. People who don’t usually go to orchestra concerts might show up out of sheer curiosity. And who knows? Do this often enough, and you might build a new audience, full of people who like the new music you program, and really care that you’re playing it.

Plus there’s something else. New music, in the classical music world, lives in an insane kind of limbo. We all know that, but I don’t think we pinch ourselves often enough, and realize quite how insane it is. We think we’re art, we think we’re thoughtful, we think we’re serious, we think we represent some kind of pinnacle of thought and reflection. But go to the most serious, committed subscribers at any major orchestra — or, for that matter, go to most members of the orchestra’s staff or board, or even to the musicians, or even to leading music critics — and ask them to name the five best new pieces premiered by any orchestra in the last few years.

They won’t be able to do it. They won’t, in almost all cases, even be able to name five candidates. And why? For exactly the reasons Allan says. The works aren’t recorded, and aren’t widely performed. A successful, even tumultuously successful premiere isn’t followed by other performances. Eventually a piece might get around (that’s happening to two Jennifer Higdon works right now, Blue Cathedral and her Concerto for Orchestra), but it’s a slow process, which misses far more cities than it hits.

So what’s the problem? Let me quickly note one way for critics, at least, to fill in these gaps. If I wanted to hear Stephen Stucky’s piece, quite possibly I could go to its publisher, and ask for a private recording. I’ve heard a good many new pieces this way. Performances are sometimes (though not always) recorded, and CDs are available, if you’re in the business and ask the right people.

And also it’s probably not necessary for orchestras to send, as Allan suggests, representatives to important premieres. The artistic administrators of every major orchestra know far more about these premieres than anybody else in the business. If a new piece is a success, they all hear about it. They can easily get recordings, if they exist, and in fact may even have recordings showing up in their mail, unrequested.

So the information is there, inside every major orchestra. Why can’t the orchestras change their programs? Well, first, they all probably think that as it is, they’re doing all the new music their audiences can stand. They can’t very well cancel some new piece they’d programmed, to substitute something that was a smash hit elsewhere. That would be an insult, to say the least, to whoever composed the piece they originally planned to play.

So what else can they do? Take some beloved warhorse off the program, as Allan suggests? Probably not, for two reasons. First, the audience would screech. Subscribers and donors, even some major funders, might be outraged. Second, the two pieces, the warhorse and the new piece, wouldn’t require the same amount of rehearsal time. The new piece, presumably, would need more. So this means rejiggering not just the program, but the rehearsal schedule.

And then there are issues of instrumentation. Does the new smash hit require eight trumpets, or nine percussionists? Start smashing the piggy bank — now you have to hire extra players, and they might break your budget. So you’d find you had to adjust something else. Maybe you’d have to cancel the Janacek Sinfonietta, which you’d scheduled the same season, because it needs lots of extra trumpets, too.

But the odds are that any smash hit new piece won’t need extra musicians, because whoever commissioned it didn’t want to break the piggy bank, either. So this, in most cases, won’t be an issue. There is, of course, an extra cost for renting performance material. If you’re doing the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, and you’re a major orchestra, you already have the orchestra parts in your library. If you replace it with Stephen Stucky’s Second Concerto, you have to rent parts from the publisher, and pay a royalty, too. So there probably will be extra costs involved.

Beyond that, are there any issues. Unfortunately, yes. It’s not easy to arrange a full season of orchestra concerts. You have to balance more things than most people realize, including tricky questions of which musicians play on which days. I once programmed a season for an imaginary orchestra, for a panel discussion at the annual conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League. I thought I’d done a reasonably decent job, but then someone got up from the audience and told me I hadn’t given the tuba anything to play until half the season was over. I’d never thought of that.

And then there are problems with guest conductors and soloists. You can’t very well displace an expensive soloist you’ve hired, to accommodate your new burning need to play Stephen Stucky. And you can’t foist Stucky’s piece onto some guest conductor who might not want to conduct it. In most cases, you’ll have to ask your music director to conduct it, and what happens if he/she doesn’t want to, doesn’t like the piece, has no affinity for it, or (pardonably) really worked hard on the existing programs, and isn’t happy to see any of them changed?

 

And what if the new piece needed a soloist? Where would you find one — someone willing to learn the piece — in a hurry, if the soloist at the premiere was (as would hardly be surprising) not available?

But enough of this. The obstacles are real, but at the same time, they’re imaginary. If any orchestra really wanted to change a season in midstream, that could happen. The music director, of course, would have to support the idea 100%. If the music director (and this really happens) is too busy with other commitments to learn a new score in a hurry, then an assistant or associate or resident conductor can learn it. (Well, these people are probably even more overworked than the music director, but I think they’d jump at the chance for this kind of exposure.)

I’ve seen orchestras find imaginative solutions to problems, once they decided to look for them. When the LA Philharmonic did the three acts of Tristan on three successive days one weekend this year, they initially couldn’t see how they’d find enough rehearsal time. The musicians, since they’re not an opera orchestra, by and large didn’t know the score, which also is more than double the length of an average concert program.

But the LA Phil did find a solution. They made sure, in the weeks just before Tristan, to program some repertory pieces that the musicians had already played with their music director. These needed less rehearsal than other works might, and the time this saved was given to Tristan.

One marketing director I know wants his orchestra to consider playing special concerts for the 6% of its audience who say, in surveys, that they like new music. These concerts of course would have more new music than usual, but might be done only once in the course of a week, instead of the usual three or four times. If this plan were adopted, the programs might be left somewhat open, to accommodate new pieces that had just been successful somewhere else.

And there surely are other solutions, which I won’t try to anticipate, because orchestral programming is a specialized craft, one I don’t pretend to have mastered. But I think the artistic administrators I know could figure out a way to do what Allan Kozinn urges — if they really wanted to, if their music directors bought into the idea, and if the orchestra was willing to spring some change from the piggy bank. It would be worth the money, I think, for all the reasons I’ve said.  

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