Making A Lasting Case For New Music (Part 3 of 3): Rinse and Repeat. And Repeat. And Repeat.
24 May 2011
Inside the Classics

This is the third post in a series on why orchestras find it so difficult to incorporate new music into our concerts, and why it’s important that we find a way to change that. For the first two parts, click here and here.

So, here’s where we’d gotten to by the end of my last post on this topic. 1) Most casual concertgoers aren’t buying their tickets because they want to spend an evening thinking really hard about something unfamiliar, and 2) Many of the truly loyal audience members orchestras rely on have brains which are growing more desirous of the familiar with each passing year.

This pretty much means that we should give up on new music as a core part of our programming, right? After all, you don’t see KQ92 suddenly interrupt the Stones and insist that its audience spend the better part of its commute listening to Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, do you? Orchestras aren’t some niche band playing the Cedar or the Southern and hoping that a few hundred people care enough to show up: we’re the KQ of classical, the big dog that plays 2500-seat halls and needs to fill them, night after night, week after week, to survive.

But to me, giving up on new music means, eventually, giving up on orchestras. There’s already been an entire generation of composers who have chosen to write primarily for non-orchestral ensembles, simply because of how few orchestras they can get to play their music. I get the sense from countless young composers I know that they like orchestras, and they certainly aren’t against them, but that whether or not orchestras continue to exist probably isn’t terribly relevant to their careers. They’ve moved on.

Meanwhile, audiences move on, too. With each passing generation, composers fall in and out of fashion, and the core orchestral canon shifts to accommodate changing tastes. But somewhere along the line, we stopped drafting new composers into the mix of regulars, and unless we change that, and soon, it means that when tastes change again, there may not be anything an orchestra can play that will sound remotely interesting to the next generation of listeners. So it’s pretty important for those of us who believe orchestral music to be worth preserving to be looking for the composers and works that will sound good to tomorrow’s mainstream audiences.

I promised a couple of concrete ideas on this front, so here they are, with a caveat: this isn’t meant to be a master plan, just some important things I think should be changed about the orchestral relationship with new music. If you have other ideas (or a master plan!), I’d love to hear them in the comments.

First, we need to stop being institutionally obsessed with world premieres. This isn’t to say we should stop commissioning new work or giving premieres, just that we cannot continue to pretend that paying for three or four new works per season is the same as having a commitment to new music. The problem with world premieres is that you, as an organization, have no idea whether the piece you’ll be playing will be any good or not until the concerts have been played. Oh, sure, you can guess, based on other works by your chosen composer, what it might sound like. But you won’t know that you’ve got a sure-fire hit on your hands, and with every premiere, you’re running a substantial risk that a good chunk of your audience won’t like the piece, and an even bigger chunk won’t care whether they ever hear it again.

Contrast that with the way we handle most of our programming. Sure, we try to do more than just play the 50 Greatest Orchestral Hits over and over again, but if you’re looking to program, say, a Dvorak symphony? Nine times out of ten, you’re going to write down either his 7th, 8th, or 9th. Maybe you throw the 4th out there some year, just to be cheeky, but you certainly don’t do it to sell tickets or because you think it’s one of Dvorak’s best works.

Some new music aficionados won’t like to hear this, but the only way we’re ever going to make contemporary music mainstream enough to get orchestra audiences to clamor to hear it is to do a much better and more efficient job of identifying the best and most crowd-pleasing examples of the genre, and then program them over and over the way we do with Brahms and Tchaikovsky. After every world premiere we play (remember, I didn’t say we should stop commissioning them,) there ought to be a group of top artistic personnel who sit down and assess a) whether the piece was any good, b) whether the audience visibly thought the piece was any good, and c) if a and b were yesses, how soon we can play it again. And again. And again, until an entire generation of concertgoers has gotten used to hearing and liking it. This is how orchestras have always popularized music, and it’s high time we got back to it. By refusing to judge the quality of the works we commission and simply insisting that all new music is important, we implicitly tell our audience that we care more about new than we do about good.

Secondly, if we’re looking for a way to incubate new works with a non-judgmental subset of our audience (and we should be,) might I suggest that we start with the subset whose brains are by far the most open to new ideas? The fact that most orchestras in 2011 are still relying on Peter and the Wolf and the like to fill out our schedule of children’s concerts is insane when you consider how difficult it is to get kids excited about stuff from 150 years ago as opposed to stuff happening right now. Kids are the ideal audience for new music, because their brains are not only open to it, but will actually hardwire themselves to like it if they hear it enough. Imagine – an entire generation raised on the very best of Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, and Judd Greenstein! Sure, some of their teachers (who grew up on Peter and the Wolf, just like their parents and grandparents did) will be a tough sell, but music is all about youthful rebellion, isn’t it? What other genre actually encourages the younger generation to gravitate to the exact same music as their parents?

There’s a lot more that orchestras need to do if we really want to get serious about making new music mainstream again. (As a matter of fact, commenter Joe Shelby laid out one of the most glaring problems at the end of my last post.) Like I said, I’m throwing out small ideas, not drafting a master plan. But master plans have a way of collapsing on themselves whenever there’s a changing of the guard, and I’ve found that the most efficient way to turn the orchestral ship is to sneak small changes into the corporate culture wherever and whenever you can. Both of the ideas I’ve presented here could be implemented in a matter of weeks by any orchestra in America, without a vote of the board or a variance from the musicians’ union. And they could, potentially, have a major impact on the way orchestras, composers, and audiences work together in the coming decades.

<April 2020>

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