Before the Beginning
Much has already been said about how premieres are blown out of proportion. But many musicians and venues, as well as music critics and their editors, still lend premieres a cachet that the second to nth performances of works, no matter how worthy, can never muster up unless it’s some standard repertoire warhorse. Ironic, since those warhorses didn’t grow their saddles overnight.
What’s probably even more ironic, however, is the very notion of a premiere, as if a piece of music somehow sprang whole ex nihilo, revealed to the selected assembly all at once for the first time. The notion of a premiere occuring on a specific date in history and in a specific geographical venue is comforting to musicologists and folks who compile best of the year or best of the nation lists. But it presents a somewhat incomplete picture of how creative works evolve and manifest themselves. Luckily, when and where a premiere occurs is starting to become as publicly imprecise as it is in reality.
With consortium commissions involving multiple cities, everyone wants the premiere. Programs are sometimes worded very carefully to keep everyone happy. Joan Tower’s Made in America has been “premiering” all over the country since October, but I heard two run-throughs of the piece at a workshop for young conductors over the summer. One of the performances was even conducted by Joan herself. If that wasn’t the premiere, what was?
Yes, I know, workshops are now commonplace before “official” performances of new works, especially operas. This gives composers the opportunity to change things up to the last minute in preparation for a subsequent, definitive presentation that is fair game for the pundits and tastemakers. These workshops function like the previews and out-of-town tryouts before opening night on Broadway that are traditionally off-limits to critics. But, in reality, works frequently continue to be revised after the premiere. (The revisions to Michael Harrison’s Revelation led his publicists to label several performances of the work a premiere.) Of course, if there are people in the audience in advance of the premiere, they will have opinions and probably express them somehow. And in the age of blogging, anyone can be a published music critic.
Last season, La Monte Young offered several “avant-premiere” performances of his three-hour plus solo cello composition for Charles Curtis, in advance of the official premiere in Europe, but was the music played in his TriBeCa performance space any less sincere than what the European audiences subsequently heard? Given that precise acoustical mapping in a space is such an important part of La Monte’s music, chances are that hearing a work in the space he works in most frequently is probably the most definitive way to hear it.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a fascinating “avant-premiere” of John Harbison’s Milosz Songs featuring Dawn Upshaw with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Robert Spano. Prior to the official performances where the new Harbison piece was surrounded by more usual orchestral fare, the Phil offered listeners a chance to hear this new work as part of a program that also included a talk with the composer, the conductor, and soprano soloist. Audiences were given an opportunity to hear an alternate version in piano reduction of part of a movement subsequently revised by Harbison, as well as another movement in its entirety prior to hearing the whole piece from start to finish. Was I hearing the premiere when they played it? Was I hearing the second performance of the movement they had premiered minutes earlier? Does it matter? Probably not.