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.

5 thoughts on “Before the Beginning

  1. noisewatermeat

    And why call them just “world premieres”? Why not “universe premieres”? Or at least “galaxy premieres”.

    If most new pieces only get one performance anyway, maybe composers could accept that and not even frame these events as premieres, but rather as special, unique, once-in-a-lifetime events. Wouldn’t an audience feel a heightened sense of awareness at a performance if they believed that they could never have this particular art experience again?

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  2. ian

    Wouldn’t an audience feel a heightened sense of awareness at a performance if they believed that they could never have this particular art experience again?

    What a fascinating idea. Although in fairness, this situation often already exists with pieces that require very unusual or extravagant forces and/or equipment setups. However, they might not necessarily be advertised that way.

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  3. coreydargel

    On the Other Hand
    The flipside of this is that when a “new” piece premieres, its subject matter can already seem stale. For example, a piece that deals with timely political or social issues can lose its edge after it spends several months on the backburner waiting for notification from a program at AMC, ACF, or MTC, or waiting for commitments from beaurocratic ensembles like orchestras.

    Even when a piece does not require the listener to make connections to current events, the composer may have moved on to other projects and feel less connected to the older “new” piece. And in the fast(er)-moving world of commercial music, it takes an album several months (if not longer) to hit the market even after the music has been recorded, mixed, and mastered.

    Perhaps this is a just a different angle of the same issue.

    Work-in-progress performances can be so inspiring for both audiences and composers – truly in-progress performances, not previews masquerading as in-progress performances. Giving audiences the opportunity to experience a developing work multiple times from its initial stages through various incarnations is a far-too-rare and underutilized technique that presenters, ensembles, composers, and audiences could benefit from immensely.

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  4. JohnClare

    When I lose enthusiasm for a new work, whether it be a world (universe or galaxy- I love those!) premiere or one I’ve not heard before – even a regional premiere (Joan Tower’s Made in America this weekend, or Jennifer Higdon’s String Quartet next month) I don’t want to live anymore.

    I’m for celebrating a new work and let the hype run…big deal…encourage orchestra and players to play new music, whether it’s the premiere of the piece or if it was played in the composer’s mind (thank you Amadeus, hahaha) before doesn’t make a difference. And give any reason, ANY reason for Joe Sixpack to give a hoot and come out to a new concert…make the new piece appealing for the public – definitely have the composer do an avant premiere – not only for the folks who love it or attend in the interest of new music or their business – but to the masses!!!! These pre-concert talks I go to because I adore creative people aren’t for me, but for the little old lady that the presenting organization is trying to convince to continue to attend concerts and not leave, or not support their organization.

    Sure there are ideal settings…those experiences are ones to savor, and kudos to catching a new piece when you can. The lines of definition of “premiere” are blurry at best…the NY Times, NY Phil et al certainly use NY premiere enough…

    Here’s my suggestion for “world/galaxy/universe premieres” – follow the lead of John Elliot Gardiner and others who are now offering a recording of the concert as you leave the hall. Not only can you savor and relive the experience, you can also catch those sounds again, in fact some you may have missed.

    I just caught the “world” premiere of Paul Moravec’s Oboe concerto, and would love to be able to hear it again – it opened the program – and would love to have another chance to hear the first movement – alas there aren’t more performances scheduled at the moment…but a concert cd would allow that.

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  5. larose

    Wouldn’t an audience feel a heightened sense of awareness at a performance if they believed that they could never have this particular art experience again?

    isn’t this what happens in improv?

    i agree that premieres are blown way out of proportion, especially because repeat performances are so rare. as a performer in Anti-Social Music, i have come to enjoy our ‘repertoire’ shows almost more than our ‘premieres’ shows, because it’s great to have a chance to explore that territory again and i think the audience responds to it differently, too, even though it might be a ‘premiere’ to their ears.

    Reply

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