Long overdue

No, not my next book riff, though that’s coming very soon.

What’s long overdue are two things — first, major classical music institutions seriously acknowledging alt-classical composers, and, second, a little celebration, here in my blog, for the Chicago Symphony doing just that. A month ago! I should have posted this much sooner.

So what happened? The Chicago Symphony appointed Mason Bates and Anna Clyne as its two composers in residence next season. Here’s their press release. In it, they say:

Both Mason Bates and Anna Clyne are artists who write from the heart, who defy categorization and who reach across all barriers and boundaries” commented CSO Music Director Designate Riccardo Muti. “Their compositions are meant to be played by great musicians and listened to by enthusiastic audiences no matter what their background.”

That’s exactly right. These aren’t typical classical composers. Mason, for instance (when he was at Juilliard, he took my course on the future of classical music), doubles as an electronica DJ, under the name Masonic. So he’s one of the new generation of composers who mingle classical music and  pop. You can listen to his music on his website, but maybe the best place to start is with his performance with the YouTube Symphony, which maybe was the best moment in their big Carnegie Hall concert. They played his piece Warehouse Medicine from B-Sides, with him as DJ soloist. (Playing a keyboard, and, I’d guess, doing some live programming of electronic sounds.) Feel the beat, hear the cheers. That’s something you normally can’t say when new classical music is played.

Anna Clynes, too,  isn’t a standard-issue classical composer. There’s less beat in her music, less obvious crossover into pop culture, but her music has immediate break-out-of-the-classical-concert hall appeal, as you can hear if you follow the link I just gave, and listen to a few moments of anything she offers. Or for a longer immersion, go to Carnegie Hall’s page about the piece they commissioned from her, where you can hear it at full length. For anyone who doesn’t normally like new classical music, bear with it a while, something I don’t think I need to say about the pieces on her own website (which is where the “her music” link above takes you).

So let me get contentious here. For years, the BIg Five orchestras — New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Philly, Boston — featured modernist new music. Boulez, Matthias Pintscher, Birtwistle (a Cleveland favorite), Magnus Lindberg currently in New York, Carter and Babbitt currently in Boston. Along with a welcome dose of John Adams, but the emphasis was modernist. Or, in other words, on music that hardly anyone likes (whatever its virtues might be), music the normal audience can’t respond to, and which also has no base (for instance among artists in other fields, or younger people) outside the classical audience. It’s music like this, I think, which leads orchestras to conclude that new music doesn’t — no matter what many people might expect — attract a young audience.

But of course there’s another kind of new music that a young audience really does like, and that’s what Mason Bates writes, and I’d think also what Anna Clyne writes. I’ve called that style alt-classical in endless posts here, pointed out that it has an audience (in New York, quite a large one), and challenged mainstream classical music institutions to wake up and start programming it. There are many, many, many composers who write in this style — and now (in a clear break from the past) they’re embraced by the Chicago Symphony. And evidently by Riccardo Muti himself, a music director I wouldn’t have guessed would go in this direction.

This is a good thing. A great sign for the future. Or better still, another piece of the future, here with us now. Let’s see where they go with it!

(Footnote: Many thanks to Carnegie Hall, for putting the music they’ve commissioned on the web. Complete with links to hear it!)

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  1. says

    Mason’s a terrific young composer. His “White Lies for Lomax” was one of the high-points of the Van Cliburn Competition this year. This is a wonderful move on the CSO’s part.

  2. says


    I do not know if you have been following what has been going on in the “blogs” at WQXR. Just try and program anyone like an “alt-Classical” composer, maybe somethng from BOAC, Ethel, whatever, and the WQXR folk go up the stack, attacks on any non-traditional Classical music, personal attacks on the hosts from WNYC.

    And, the WNYC audience is not helping, to the greatest extent they are not coming on these “blogs”.

    I feel like a lone Indian.

    The WQXR audience is really showing its colors.

    This is a really big issue, which I haven’t commented on here. WNYC, our public radio station in NY — which broadcast wonderfully advanced, varied music (much by living composers) — on its regular classical broadcasts, bought the commercial classical station in NY, WQXR. And switched its broadcast classical programming to fit WQXR’s conservative audience. Quite a shock, though financially understandable from WNYC’s point of view. The QXR audience is a lot larger than the audience they had for music.

    WQXR’s programming is a little less stuff than it used to be, but the main musical action, for fans of the old WNYC (I’m one of them), has switched to Q2, their new Internet stream. Good listening! Google it and see. A very sad development, overall, but in the larger picture, not a surprise. The biggest benefit for WNYC — considering that talk and news listeners are the biggest part of the public radio audience — was going to a talk/news format almost all day long.

  3. says


    Thank you for alerting us to this wonderful development. Like you I have long felt that composers such as myself and my own generation and younger, who write music that while certainly classically influenced speaks more to today’s aesthetic of “not-quite-classical-not-quite-pop-not-quite-jazz-not-quite-?”, were ignored or at least unacknowledged at the middle and upper reaches of the classical music establishment. Of course, as you point out many listeners who live here in New York and Brooklyn (and many other places it might be added) already know about and love some of the many wonderful composers ‘out there’ in that alt-universe that the classical music institutions seem to not to care much about. That classical music can speak to more than the standard canon or modernist types, and is accepted as such in an institution as august as the CSO, can only be good and I’m sure bring in some more and different folks into the concert halls.

    I don’t know Mason Bates but I do know Anna Clyne and I think this announcement and this development speaks beautifully and hopefully to the future. Perhaps we’ll see many more young or young-ish composers, working in that alt-classical, cross-genre style which seems ubiquitous (at least here in the musical trenches of NYC), featured more and given more cultural and financial cachet and exposure by these organizations. Which I think is only good for classical music (or whatever it will be called when we get done with moving the bar!).

    Thank you Chicago Symphony, you have one new fan, although I’m in NY and can’t check things out in person, I’ll be reading more about your developments now and in the future!

    What organization is next?…

    Hi, Joe. The New York Philharmonic would be the achingly obvious candidate to go this route, at least in New York. Because the audience is definitely there. But with their new composer in residence, they’ve chosen a different road. Maybe Carnegie Hall would want to try this. They could do well with it. If only they wanted to.

  4. says

    Another thought after reading the press release from the CSO is that I’m happy to see that this doesn’t seem like a one-off; not some version of alt-classical tokenism but a real commitment by the executives, the marketing department, and most importantly the musicians and Muti, to broaden the CSO reach in the Chicago community and the legacy of the CSO in it. The program for at-risk youth seems well intentioned and sincere. I think if the CSO continues down this road with more composers who are cognizant and fluent in all the music of today (pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, classical, etc.), who are younger or at least young in spirit, as well as continuing to leave the door open to more women composers and composers of different races and cultures (and styles), this commitment by the CSO could really be something.

  5. says

    Hi Greg

    I agree with you in saluting the CSO for using a different variety of composers.

    At the West Australian Symphony Orchestra we have just finished a three year term with a composer called James Ledger. James has written some fantastic music which is being played all around Australia and New Zealand and hopefully further afield soon.

    Each year we try to include a decent serving of new music, check out the WASO website for 2010’s program. We present it in the standard way with a popular favourite to keep the overly conservative Western Australian audiences in their seats. It seems to work and we have been including more and more contemporary works by alt-classical composers. We are lauded by the other orchestras in Australia for our creative programming.

    This isnt really a plug for WASO but I thought you might like to know what is going on in the most isolated city in the world!

    Personally, I am journeying to New York in January to get a taste for what it is like in such a vibrant cultural hub – something I am very much looking forward to!

    All the best, I always enjoy reading your blogs.



    Thanks for the headsup! And no problem promoting your orchestra, if you’re doing something so genuinely interesting.

  6. says

    Hi Greg,

    excellent news, to continue Callum’s thoughts: in the Festspielhaus St.Pölten, lower Austria, we just performed the Viola/Rock/Tango concerto by Benjamin Yusupov and are about the schedule a new piece by Fabrizio Cassol – a piece on Brahms 4th Symphony for cello, DJ and orchestra. Fabrizio did incredible work together with choreographer Alain Platel, for example an extraordinary reImagination of Bach’s St.Matthew’s Passion, called “pitié”.

    Great to hear about these developments overseas!


  7. Ian says

    I’m always thrilled to see a major institution appointing any composer in residence, but I have to admit I find the ‘alt-classical’ adjective makes my eyes bleed. It just feels a little too “let’s be phat with the yoof, dawg foshizzle”. What’s wrong with just ‘composer’?

    In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need labels. But when something genuinely new shows up, we have to call it something. If we said Mason and Anna Clyne were just “composers,” in this context, we’d miss the entire meaning of their appointment at the CSO. If you can think of a better name than alt-classical, go for it.

  8. John Montanari says

    Regarding Richard Mitnick’s comments: If some WQXR listeners react negatively to a piece of music on a blog, it doesn’t mean that all, or even most, listeners feel the same way. After all, the station has thousands of listeners tuned in at any one time, only the tiniest percentage of whom are moved to comment, usually the angriest. Lack of response should not be interpreted as acceptance, apathy, or anything else. On the other hand, if listeners do make the effort to respond to a piece, positively or negatively, it’s a sign that they care, and that music is worth arguing over for them. Isn’t that a good thing?

  9. says

    A few random thoughts come to mind…

    1) bravo to CSO. Always good to promote good younger composers, of diverse styles.

    2) weird press release from CSO. What composer WOULDN’T believe their music is “meant to be played by great musicians and listened to by enthusiastic audiences no matter what their background.” And BTW, Riccardo, the audiences themselves will decide after the fact whether or not to be “enthusiastic.” Bit premature, dont’cha think?

    3) Ian–in a marketing age, no way to avoid composers getting labeled to sell ’em…Greg uses “alt-classical,” others say “post-classical,” whether or not the composers themselves would self-apply these monikers. Comes with the territory…Debussy didn’t like being called “Impressionist” nor did Reich and Glass like the “minimalism” label all that much, I don’t think.

    4) Greg keeps saying these are not “standard-issue classical composers”, or “not typical” etc. At the orchestra-programming level that may still be true, but is it really true at the small-ensemble level in the USA, especially for any composer under 35? It’s getting harder to find prominent mention of young composers who don’t follow a certain brand of “mingling classical music and pop” to use Greg’s phrase. At what point do the Mason Bates-es and Anna Clynes-es of the world become “standard issue”? What does a young composer do who has something important to say but writes music that is less “au courant” let’s say. He/she still needs champions.

    I still refuse to believe that it’s impossible for a “normal audience” member (whatever that means) to “like” (again, whatever that means) Boulez, for example. The world is a richer, more amazing and fantastical place for the existence of some of his music, that’s all I know. I hope orchestras, and chamber ensembles, and individual performers never give up on giving audiences the chance to be taken to places to which they otherwise would not necessarily think to go.

    Thanks, Philip. I don’t think Mason and Anna Clynes would be “standard issue” at some music schools I’ve visited it, or in the programming of mainstream classical institutions. But you’re certainly right — more and more younger composers are writing in this general way. So I should retire the phrase.

    As for Boulez, what you and I might like and what the classical audience likes are different things. I did a focus group with subscribers at a large orchestra that played a lot of Boulez, and once the people in the group realized I’d accept anything they said, they expressed major puzzlement and even anger about the new music — almost exclusively modernist — that the orchestra programmed.

    When Barenboim left the Chicago Symphony, and they stopped programming so much Boulez, subscribers actually telephoned to say “thank you.” I think it’s the normal passivity of the audience — note that the Chicago audience never protested when the modernist pieces were being programmed — that prevents us from seeing how much the good people who go to classical concerts don’t like this music.

  10. says

    Great post, Greg. Anna and Mason are superb choices from every standpoint – they’re accomplished, engaging, imaginative, and speak in authentically original voices. Kudos to the CSO!

  11. Ian says

    Philip- I particularly like your fourth point. Indeed, I’d like to see one under 35 composer at the moment who is not described as some kind of “-alt” or “ohmigod, he liks hip hop too!” sort of terminology. I’d hazard a guess that what was considered alt-classical is now very much mainstream, no matter how many times Poisson Rouge is namechecked.

  12. Brant Taylor says

    As a member of the CSO, I have a couple of points to add:

    Our orchestra has been acknowledging composers outside of Boulez’s influence for some time, if acknowledging them means playing their music and, in cases like Osvaldo Golijov, giving them titled positions in our organization. Boulez certainly enjoyed some influence in the past in terms of which composers we commissioned, but it is mainly because Daniel Barenboim was a particular fan of Boulez and other modernists. However, (1) Barenboim never seemed to mind guest conductors coming and doing the music he wasn’t interested in, and (2) it is no longer news that Barenboim is long gone from Chicago. Boulez exists primarily in a conducting role these days, though we will be celebrating his 85th birthday in early 2010 with some special tributes.

    It may not be known to some people outside Chicago, but for years our orchestra has presented an extremely popular comtemporary music series here called MusicNOW. The concerts are curated by different composers, and although moderinists have been featured at times, so has a very diverse array of other new music. I have participated in many memorable performances on the series, the most recent being a work by Jeremy Flower, who might well fit the “alt-classical” description above. (Jeremy played laptop in the piece.)

    Make no mistake: I am very enthusiastic about Anna and Mason’s appointments. I simply want to point out that our organization’s image as terminally old-school and “crusty” in matters such as this is not entirely deserved, and that these appointments don’t feel like a complete about-face so much as the next chapter in a new direction begun here years ago.

    Muti’s comments from the press release may have been taken a bit out of context, and there was nothing strange about them at the time he made the statements in front of the orchestra. He has no prior connection with either of these young composers, and seemed to have met them both for the first time only last month. The fact that their scores spoke to him AND that he went with his gut instincts in appointing them speaks well for both them and him.

    Thanks, Brant. Good to have more information.

    And I know it’s been a while since the Barenboim days. But, in a larger picture, modernist composers still seem to take the lead when new music is done at the Big Five orchestras (outside Chicago). And the history of their dominance, too, is clear. Chicago may have moved forward, but other orchestras, despite gestures toward Golijov and others, may not have.

    But then I might ask, quite seriously, how far forward Chicago has moved. And, even more to the point, what moving forward means. Brant, I don’t know what kind of new music community Chicago has, but in New York it’s thriving — and has been able, some of the time, to attract a really large audience. The normal new music moves that orchestras make, no matter how admirable they might seem inside the classical music world, don’t have the astounding force and freshness of some of the stuff I’ve been seeing. And so they remain strangely circumspect, in a world that’s exploding with new music and new ideas.

    One story I remember, from the Chicago Symphony the season after Barenboim left, were subscribers (as I was told by someone in a position to know about this) calling up to express thanks that there was less modernist music being programmed. Whether anyone disagrees or not with the audience’s taste, here, it’s clear that these calls wouldn’t have happened if the amount of modernist music being programmed hadn’t been strongly noticeable.

    What happens, often enough, when orchestras take a more balanced view of the new music repertoire, is that they program many styles. Contact, for instance, the NY Philharmonic new music group (new this year) is playing Lindberg and other modernists, and also a piece by Nico Muhly, maybe the leading younger alt-classical composer in New York.

    But the overall effect of such programming can be fairly blah. Some of this, some of that, but on the whole, maybe not much of anything. If you’re only thinking of attracting the usual kinds of people who come out for new music, then this won’t be a problem. But, again, I’ve seen such large audiences for a generation now for music of particular kinds, minimalist, first, and later alt-classical. I had an interesting experience, talking a couple of weeks ago to someone involved in marketing (not a classical music person) who worked with the LA Phil’s new music series. She went to a concert with great anticipation, and found the music totally inaccessible. She’s smart — I don’t think this was entirely her fault. Take her to a Steve Reich or Bang on a Can Performance, and her reaction very likely would have been totally different. I’m guessing this because I spent enough time with this person to suss her out a little, and also because I’ve seen people from various non-classical — or, within the classical world, non-new music (or even anti-new music) perspectives — just love this vast chunk of music I’m calling alt-classical when they’ve heard it.

    So when I want mainstream organizations to pay more attention to it, it’s not just because I want something more flexible than a focus on modernism. I want concrete attention paid to trends that for more than a generation now have been in the forefront both artistically and in generating a large and enthusiastic audience. Classical music, including its new music branch, just has to get out of its bubble, and open the doors to the rest of the world. Which in some cases — new music, for instance — can mean opening the doors to part of its own world as well.

  13. Eric L says

    Hey Steven, good to see you here!

    In any case, I think the CSO desperately needed something like this. The east and west coasts have been celebrating 2 (relatively, in NY’s case) young music directors, and the CSO sure felt left out. With that said, this tact still isn’t generating as much press as the music director fever…

    I’m very happy about all of this, as I’m sort of knee deep in the NY ‘alt-classical’ (or whatever your favorite name) scene and it’s great to see some institutional involvement/recognition. The scene is active, but it’s also a bit isolated from the so-called mainstream of Classical Music. The scene would LOVE to be more engaged with the institutions, but engagement ultimately has to begin from the powers-to-be at the said institutions, since they wield much power–monetary and otherwise.

    With that said, I think it’s dangerous to dismiss modernist music per se; there’s a lot fo great modernist stuff from Europe (both the UK and continental) and it’s dangerous for composers, programmers and performers to just ignore it. Yes, some of it is thorny, but there are gems. And really great music with drama, intensity etc. that CAN grab hold of the audience. I also disagree with Greg that Lindberg is not a composer on the forefront; I think he’s very good. Greg, if you get a chance, listen to the Clarinet Concerto and especially Related Rocks. You might change your mind :) I think what we need most are conductors/artistic directors with very broad (but good) artistic tastes, as not to dismiss one stylistic school over another.

    I also think we need to temper the enthusiasm with ‘alt-classical.’ Certainly, most of the people I’ve met in the scene are incredibly gifted and are doing great things. But not everything with a beat and poppy-sounding harmonies is good. I think it’s potentially dangerous to champion a style over substance–whatever the style. I’ve certainly heard my fair share of bad ‘alt-classical,’ including a terrible concerto for turntable by a composer who shall remain nameless.

    I will agree with Greg that though ‘alt-classical’–or pop-influence composers are increasing in numbers, they are still far from mainstream. I had to still through a dreadful Master’s composition recital at a rather prominent conservatory earlier this year that included a rather dull chamber piece that had an atonal fugue as a movement. Let’s just say it sounded vaguely Hindemith-ish. Forget electronica and hiphop…some composers haven’t even arrived at Boulez.

    Well, actually I like a lot of modernist music. Webern, especially. He’s very close to my heart. Boulez, while overrated, is at the very least pretty, and has quite a wonderful precision, a sense of every note being in the right place. Stockhausen is wonderful, for me. Too bad he took control of his many recordings, and priced them out of general reach. Berio, again for me, is breathtaking. A model artist of his time, even reaching to a certain extent beyond music, comparable, in a way, to Godard (an impressionistic association I make), though he never reached into popular culture the way artists of the time outside classical music did. And Ligeti, of course, though he’s elusive from the category standpoint.

    I think, in fact, that all that music is due for a revival, outside the classical concert hall, maybe in a museum setting. It needs to be heard by people who might like it. Which doesn’t, unfortunately, mean the classical music audience.

    I’ve heard Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto, and it’s fine. As part of a healthy musical diet, there’s nothing wrong with it. The question might be what should be at the center of a healthy musical diet, and there I’d say Lindberg, even at his best, isn’t nourishing enough.

  14. says

    To John-

    Thanks for your comment. The problem – I don’t know if you are looking at any of this stuff – the problem is the vitriol, like downing Aaron Copland for being from Brooklyn, Jewish and gay; like Terrance cannot read or speak proper English; like Helga Davis is a Jive Momma idiot; like David Garlandf should go back to his friend John Schaefer at 93.9. I mean, it is just nasty. And, as I said, where are the WNYC fans? I am being as polite as I can in answering some of the stuff.

    To Greg-

    Q2 is the successor to and unchanged from wnyc2. I had literally hours of email back and forth with George Preston, and a bit with Brad Cresswell, in getting wnyc2 up and running. We got the “What’s Playing”, we got good music, which then influenced Evening Music. I think we did “real good”. While Q2 is still at 128kbit and stereo, the 105.9 web stream is at 32 kbit and mono. They kept the 128kbit stream they had used for 93.9 for Evening Music and Overnight Music for 93.9 and talk radio. What sense does that make?


  15. Steve Soderberg says

    Greg, I’m sure your silence means you’re preparing a thoughtful reply to Brant Taylor’s comment. From his position inside the CSO — and as a professional musician — he appears to have a view that’s a bit different from yours — and one that challenges a few of the assumptions you are pushing about CSO.

  16. Eric L says

    In response to both Steve S. and Brant, I just wanted to clarify a few of my thoughts regarding the CSO. I spent a year in Chicago a few years back, and I always felt that it was comparatively more progressive than the NYPhil, my hometown(ish) orchestra. MusicNOW was indeed quite a good contemporary music complement to the regular season, and its programming was very diverse. Now the NYPhil has added Contact, essentially just copying the LAPhil’s Green Umbrella and the CSO’s MusicNOW series. So in comparison to American orchestras in general, the CSO was/is rather progressive. It’s had the Mead composer-in-residence when the NYPhil, Philly and Boston all but eliminated the position. But from a broader point of view, I’m not sure that that’s good enough.

    In any case, the orchestra that needs to really play catch up has been Philly. Out of the big five (+LA PHIL/and Baltimore), they are probably the most regressive in attitude. provincial.

    I can’t speak about the Chicago Symphony and Chicago composers, but the New York Philharmonic — despite its new composer in residence, and despite its new Contact series — stands apart from the thriving, even surging new music community in New York. Which is really a shame. You’d think the Philharmonic would want to make contact (didn’t mean to make that pun, but it’s entirely appropriate), rather than invent a new path in a town that doesn’t really need one. Among much else, they’re missing out on a potentially large new audience.

  17. Brant Taylor says

    Modernists have undoubtedly had pretty good exposure at some major orchestras in years past. But (I freely admit I am speculating here) I suspect that modernists are heard either infrequently or not at all at most orchestras below the top tier. So, one might ask, if orchestras like mine aren’t going to put it in the mix, who will? And should anyone ever bother with it? If some of the most gifted musical minds in the classical world (people like Barenboim and Levine, for example) see something of value in this stuff, should the rest of us give it a close look as well? Or is it just complicated entertainment for them in some perverse way?

    Would the Omaha Symphony, for example, program Boulez’s Notations? I bet not. Why? Perhaps for the same reason their museum likely wouldn’t fill its walls with new and/or controversial art the same way a New York City gallery could. “Big” orchestras (with few exceptions) are in big cities, and big cities can more easily attract audiences to art which is considered inaccessible or even offensive to large segments of the population. A mid-tier orchestra usually won’t take the risk. Patrons’ desires might carry more weight in a financially-precarious orchestra’s programming choices. You could argue that most people at a CSO concert which includes Boulez’s music might be there for the Brahms on the second half, but I can report that concerts we did which consisted only of Boulez’s “Le Visage Nuptial” were reasonably well attended.

    Greg, as relieved as some of our audience members and donors (and orchestra members!) might have been when we took a rest from so much Boulez-ism, there is no guarantee that these same people (or others) would rather we have someone with an electric guitar or a laptop stand in front of the orchestra. Our relationship to our patrons is multifaceted and fluid. What do we owe them? And they us? Should the opinions of the board member who gives us $2 million a year be afforded the same consideration as that of the 22-year-old who came to the concert on his skateboard? I don’t have definitive answers, but am trying to point out that the issues underlying this discussion are extremely complicated in terms of how an organzation like mine best addresses them.

    Is it the job of the CSO to jump wholeheartedly to the leading edge of what’s happening in the New York City new music scene? Frankly, no. Some of that music may be visionary and fresh and age-worthy, and some is surely not. If the trends are lasting, then trust me, they will have their moment on our stage. (Remember that we have our new music series, which already regularly explores these things in front of a large and devoted audience.) The major orchestras are trendsetters in many senses, but that idea, and the expectations that come with it, can probably be carried too far. I certainly share a high level of enthusiasm for new trends in alt-classical music — but one must still leap a rhetorical chasm to arrive at a mindset where alt-classical should immediately emerge as the predominant new music heard on our stage.

    We’ve been adhering to the “some of this, some of that” idea for decades in symphonic programming, and perhaps for good reason: in addition to giving attention to modern trends, whatever they may be, we have a responsibility to an enormous and already-varied repertoire from the past 300 years. Maybe sometime we will program a festival of two weeks entirely devoted to “alt-classical” music. But not yet. If we are to be scolded for that in certain circles, then so be it.

    This is a good discussion, Brant. Thanks for engaging me.

    I don’t think — and I know my views here surprise some people — that orchestras should be playing modernist music or alt-classical new music for their regular audience. I find it amazing, as I’ve often said before, that orchestras force their regular audience to hear music that audience doesn’t like. Where else — in any presentation where people pay money for tickets — would we find anything like that? I think it’s crazy. I think orchestras should find an audience that likes new music, and play new music for that audience.

    And that’s true even if modernist music isn’t heard at smaller orchestras. The big orchestras even so should find the audience that wants to hear it, and play the modernist music for that audience. And if there isn’t such an audience, or not enough of one to make concerts of large modernist orchestra pieces financially reasonable, then we have a problem. But that problem isn’t the fault of the audience. Here we get back to big historical questions about the position of modernist music, as compared to modernist work in other arts. For instance, when we think of Paris in the ’60s, we classical music types think of Boulez. For artistic and intellectual people actually there at the time, the big news in modernist art was Godard and Truffaut. Those films had enormous impact (on me at the time, too, along with other art films). And they eventually led to a revolution in Hollywood. (See Mark Harris’s essential book, “Pictures at a Revolution.”) Modernist music has no such history. Essentially it stays in its little corner, with virtually no audience (or large artistic influence) either inside classical music or outside it.

    And about museums vs. galleries. Large museums do far more contemporary work than orchestras do. In fact, while the permanent collection of a large museum may mostly include classic works, the special shows — which often draw the most people — are often of contemporary art. I’ve seen lines around the block at MOMA in New York for Jackson Pollock. We’d never see an equivalent audience at Avery Fisher Hall if the New York Philharmonic did a Milton Babbitt retrospective. But it’s also important to note that the art world has changed over time in ways that the classical music world hasn’t, with regard to contemporary work. As far as I know, there’s no prestigious constituency inside the art world that still holds up abstract painting as the norm and the ideal for current painters, the way modernist music is still — in some prestigious classical music circles — held up as the highest contemporary ideal. Everyone expects current visual art to include a lot of realism, a lot of conceptual work, and a lot of things that are heavily touched by popular culture, and in terms of classic forms of art, just about unclassifiable. Some time ago, I went to the Metropolitan Museum website to see what the museum was featuring, and got a wonderful demonstration of what I’m saying here. The three featured shows were Raphael, Jeff Koons (a contemporary artist whose work is highly erotic, if not outright soft porn (and of course intentionally so)), and a costume collection show demonstrating the influence of superhero costumes on fashion. Just imagine if the Chicago Symphony — or any orchestra — presented an equivalent mix of events. Imagine the crowds pouring in to see it all!

    So then we get to larger questions of what new music should be at mainstream classical music institutions. There’s something oddly pristine and remote about the offerings, as a rule. They don’t have a context, except in the taste of the particular people who plan them. You won’t, for instance, see orchestras rush to present something that was successful elsewhere. When the Gorecki Third Symphony was such a tremendous hit — even making the top 10 in the pop album chart in Britain — orchestras at least in the US didn’t program it, so their subscribers could hear what the fuss was about. Or when Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra created a sensation when it was premiered in Philadelphia, again we didn’t see many orchestras rush to program it (though of course she gets lots of performances these days).

    And then we’ve had — for a generation now — tremendous developments in contemporary music that engaged large numbers of people, and most notably artists in other fields. Minimalism would be an example. It even got a major part of its start in the visual art world. And more recently the melange of styles I’ve been calling alt-classical (though at least two generations of work are involved here, and many varied ways of writing music). The visual art world keeps up with these things, and in a way that would seem natural in any other setting, features the latest work that’s attracting the most attention, and moving the most strongly into new artistic ground. The classical music world doesn’t do this. We furrow our brows, scratch our heads, and keep putting on stuff that hasn’t found an audience since the early years of the past century. I’m not saying this means modernist music is bad — I’d love it if large numbers of people were listening to (let’s say) the Schoenberg Serenade, or the Webern Symphony (which I played in my Juilliard music criticism course yesterday, and feasted on with the greatest love, feeling I loved it even more yesterday than I had in the past). But this hasn’t happened. We need to figure out how to present that work to people who’ll care about it, but while we do that, we should be featuring the work that’s new, artistically challenging and original, and that does have a lot of people liking it — again meaning not a mass audience, but an educated, smart, critical, and artistic one, mostly specifically including artists in other fields. And in fact it’s among these people, the audience that alt-classical music attracts, that we’ll find the people most likely to listen eagerly to Webern.

    But all this really should be a separate blog post.

  18. Steve Soderberg says

    To Eric L and Brant Taylor: Thank you for your reasoned and quietly insistent defense of the need for an ecological approach to balance musics new and old.

  19. Steve Soderberg says

    Greg wrote: “I don’t think … that orchestras should be playing modernist music or alt-classical new music for their regular audience. I find it amazing, as I’ve often said before, that orchestras force their regular audience to hear music that audience doesn’t like.”

    This is a reasonable-sounding, concrete idea. But where do you draw the line? Is Bartok a non-starter or can we find some stuff of his for general consumption? Concerto for Orch yes — violin concertos no? And Stravinsky? Debussy? Then go to the other end. I know many people who really don’t like baroque and even more who are ambivalent. So do orchestras take the Suites & Brandenburgs off the table & put them too in a specialist concert/series? There certainly is enough rep in the classical-romantic stretch to keep an orchestra busy (if you start rediscovering people like the Romberg boys). But that rep has its problems too. A lot of people will walk out on anything Wagner or Mahler or Bruckner; and Haydn? — too lightweight. Add to that the sad but true fact that the “average” concertgoer in this model (even if you add back in everything up to, say 1900) will be left with hardly a single woman’s voice to hear. Like that picture?

    And finally, your idea begs the question of continuity. There is no doubt there is an audience problem with “new music” of any kind. There always has been, just as there is a problem with anything new. But by ghettoizing new music, whether “modernist” or “alt.classical” you seal it off from showing its connections to a tradition (if that word is still ok to say aloud).

    My belief is that the programs mentioned such as MusicNOW or Contact serve two valuable functions at this point: first, they join a community of new music specialist groups in providing adventure to the adventure-minded (whether the adventure is to your Village Taste or not), and second and more to the point I’m making here, they provide a kind of lab for what might be folded into the regular series. (I forgot a third: they provide an outlet for orchestra members who aren’t particularly enamored of playing a steady diet of audience pleasers.)

    I don’t find such an approach to be “blah” as you have judged it — I tend to believe it is smart. It may morph into something else or even be tossed out eventually, but for now, given the economic situation and the difficulty with floating an organization a wee bit larger than a garage band, I think we should at least give the idea room to breath.

    Good abstract thinking, poor practical thinking. Of course people have various musical preferences. But that doesn’t mean orchestras need to be concerned about absolutely every preference out there. When I’ve been hired by orchestras to engage members of their audience in talks about concerts, nobody ever said, “Oh, I wish they wouldn’t put baroque music on my subscription series.” But they’ve certainly spoken angrily about new music. So an orchestra, wishing simply to note what matters to its audience, might conclude that although baroque music might not be a universal favorite, new music is, by many people, truly hated. So you act on that, rather than on baroque music.

    Though I note that in recent years orchestras regularly schedule purely baroque concerts. I think that’s in large part to take advantage of conductors like McGegan who can lead baroque music powerfully with a non-period orchestra, but still, it does lead to a certain segregation of programming. Which helps out people in the audience who love baroque music — this is one concert they won’t want to miss — and also people who don’t, who can avoid the performance, or exchange their tickets if they have it on their subscription.

    But about new music. Do we really have to map out every possible implication of anything we try, before we try it? If we thought like that in everyday life we’d never leave our homes. Programming of any sort is far from an exact science, and good programmers are forever learning from experience. So I’d say it’s safe enough to program the Barber Violin Concerto. I once heard an orchestra subscriber say he thought it was horribly dissonant, but he said it apologetically, and anyway it’s clear that many people like the piece. About Elliott Carter there’s no doubt at all. Don’t program the mature pieces for a regular audience. As a group of audience members at a major orchestra once said to me, they can’t follow pieces of that kind either musically or emotionally, and their response — even after hearing them for decades — is somewhere on a spectrum that starts with puzzlement and ends with rage.

    John Corigliano? Maybe he’s in the middle, and maybe you take a chance and see what the audience thinks. At WQXR — formerly NY’s commercial classical station, and now taken over by public radio — the programming has inched a bit to the left (so to speak). Listeners (median age 72) have been tuning in for decades to hear classical’s greatest hits, but now they’re being given a little bit of David Diamond. Seems like a reasonable experiment, and if doesn’t work, the station can always stop doing it.

  20. coetsee says

    WQXR’s programming is a little less stuff than it used to be, but the main musical action, for fans of the old WNYC (I’m one of them), has switched to Q2, their new Internet stream. Good listening! Google it and see. A very sad development, overall, but in the larger picture, not a surprise. The biggest benefit for WNYC — considering that talk and news listeners are the biggest part of the public radio audience — was going to a talk/news format almost all day long.

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