Orchestras and New Rep

NPR Posted a very interesting article on American orchestras and their relationship (or lack thereof) with new music.

Check it out here

I was pretty intrigued by it and the author raised a number of interesting points. Namely, that the idea has been passed down in modern composition departments that it’s a futile endeavor to write a large orchestral piece.  The argument is mainly from a practical standpoint; orchestras are big, unwieldy beasts, and the costs of rehearsal time and performances almost completely outweigh the opportunity of in-depth exploration for both the orchestra and the composer. It’s unfortunate we’ve arrived at this point, but there it is.

Honestly, I’m of the opinion that as long as orchestras continue to act like museums for the classics, then they’ll stagnate and go by the wayside. One could argue that people pay a ridiculous sum to hear something they specifically want to hear. People are paying good money to hear Beethoven 5 for the billionth time, why should they be bothered by what some unknown composer wants to say?

Well, because we live now, not in 18th century Vienna.

What are we afraid of? Dissonance? Angularity? The Avant-Garde?

Where would we be if all new music was tossed aside simply because people were hostile towards it at the time? Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a literal riot. If the riot were taken at face value, then it probably wouldn’t have become the 20th century masterpiece it’s currently thought of as.

One other issue with orchestral programming and new music is that often there is a clause in the commission contract that gives the premiering ensemble exclusive performance rights for a given time (usually about a year or so). Any newly commissioned work will only be able to live with one ensemble, despite the possibility of listeners getting excited and possibly wanting to perform it themselves (if they’re musicians). This amounts to a virtual shelf life for new music.

Here’s a possibly audacious thought – what if we eliminated those exclusive performance rights and replaced them with a clause that allowed the commissioning ensemble to delegate performances of the new work within their respective players? In other words, if a string quartet commissioned a new work and someone within that ensemble was in another quartet and wanted to play it, why couldn’t they? After all, this performer is part of a larger ensemble that this work was written for, but they are still a part of it as an individual.

I’ve went off on a bit of a tangent there.

The point to all of this is obvious; we shouldn’t fear the new simply because it’s new. Yes, lots of terrible music will be written in our time, and every few hundred or so a real diamond will shine through. But isn’t that part of the fun? I’d like to believe that modern audiences would enjoy the prospect of being part of such an invigorating journey.

They’re witnessing history in real time.


By Jay

Composer, guitarist, husband, father, pun enthusiast.

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