Built To Last: Ensuring That New Works Enter the Repertory

[Ed. Note: Alan Fletcher has a rather unusual combination of skills and credentials in our field. While perhaps most widely known as the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, he is also a composer whose music has been performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Fletcher is also a very articulate and persuasive writer whose prose is brimming with ideas for how to improve the cultural climate in this country, so when he offered to contribute an essay to NewMusicBox, we were delighted. While some of his observations might already sound familiar to other composers as well as to performers and programmers for whom the pursuit of new music is paramount, the clarity of his reasoning and his unique perspective as an administrator make his assessments a must-read for anyone interested in the larger musical ecology and the role that new music could and should have within it. – FJO]

Alan Fletcher
Photo by Jim Paussa
Courtesy Aspen Music Festival and School

If we accept the premise that music should grow and change, and should reflect its own times as well as help us remember a nostalgic past, then we need to confront a few key issues. Will an audience be able to hear a new work for itself? Will that work have enough time to make an impression in two senses: time in performance and time in rehearsal? Will the music have legs—will it get a chance to be heard repeatedly, a chance without which no work can enter the repertory?

The biggest challenge in presenting new music is to engage the listener’s attention in advance. Because such a significant number of devoted classical music listeners have an inbuilt distrust of the new, anything that persuades them truly to listen is an advantage.

Very often, this will be some kind of narrative, either within the piece or about its composition. But then the music itself must have real integrity and must fulfill the requirement of all great classical music—that it grows and changes and deepens its meaning on repeated hearings. This may be why we see the phenomenon of composers who advance a program for a work, and then withdraw it later, once the work is launched—Mahler comes to mind.

Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral, John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, and Christopher Rouse’s Gorgon are all examples of pieces that leaned at least a little on a program in their first outings. The notes or pre-concert talks basically say, “This is why this piece sounds the way it does.” And then the listener is happy, or moved, to follow along. In some cases, the pieces depend on the programs; in some the listener may well wish to leave the story behind. I recently presented some new work at the Aspen Institute with about half an hour of careful explanation. The audience seemed to go along fine, but afterwards one listener was quite concerned for anyone who would hear the piece without the explanation. It seemed unlikely to her that so much detailed preparation could be recouped by a listener remote from my description, and she felt she had needed the help.

This platform for listening to something for the first time, based on the story that can be told in advance, is also based on expectation. Audiences will give more attention to something given an aura by the composer’s reputation—Adams and Glass and, now, Golijov have an advantage here, though this can cut two ways. A listener can be influenced by a composer’s past work in both a good and a restricting way.

There’s also an important advantage in having a diverse new music culture. If audiences think they know in advance that new music is unmelodic or ugly or confusing, they won’t be able to hear anything. They’re very likely to find confirmation for whatever formulaic response they’ve decided on. The reverse side of this argument is important, too. If new music enters a conservative, derivative phase and everything new sounds as if it weren’t so new, the whole musical culture has an equally great problem. We should help audiences celebrate that the excitement is precisely in not knowing what a new piece will be like.

In commissioning a work, one inevitably worries about time. There’s a simple arithmetic to rehearsal time: if a new work is on the long side, it had better be easy. Michael Tippett remarked that a new piece needs to get by on sixty per cent of its notes, since that’s how many are likely to be in place for a first hearing. This is an exaggeration, but the playing field for a performance of a Bruckner symphony and a Wuorinen symphony is not level.

I think commissioners in the past 25 years or so may have done the art a disservice by asking for shorter orchestral works, designed to be squeezed in before a popular concerto and larger standard symphony. Some music needs a longer space in time to make a full effect, and we need to trust the music, and the audience, to achieve this.

After hearing a magnificent performance led by James Levine, a friend of mine and I identified the “Parsifal Paradox”: if it’s taken sublimely slow, Parsifal‘s five hours fly by, but if it’s too fast, it seems to last forever. There’s a curious corollary with new music. Some pieces need real length to make an immediate effect. Some of the most successful new works of recent years—Gorecki, Adams, Harbison—are surely in this category. Restricted to ten minutes, they would not develop the connection with the listener that makes them apprehensible. Some music is just born difficult, and some music is just born long, and we need a performance culture that gives time where it’s needed. The Boston Symphony is seeking a special endowment to cover as much as $1.5 million in revenue lost and in substantial extra rehearsal time for its ambitious new music schedule.

This then returns us to the problem of rehearsal. Most orchestras can present credible performances of difficult Beethoven or Mahler with very short rehearsal periods because the whole musical culture—from conservatories to the recording industry to the audition process—has prepared them for it. This doesn’t mean that these are optimal performances: Celibidache’s famous experiment at Curtis in 1984, with extreme amounts of rehearsal, showed that there are results available only from intense study. But new pieces, especially if there is anything really and truly new about them, don’t have this head start. It can easily happen that a challenging new piece is never heard for its true self because the rehearsal period has not permitted that real face to show. Among many examples, this was the fate of Milton Babbitt’s Transfigured Notes in a notoriously difficult series of attempts in Philadelphia in the 1980s. Maybe the piece is genuinely too difficult, but it was impossible to tell since it had no chance. This is why Levine and the BSO have agreed to rehearse some works over many weeks, a little at a time, instead of the usual 90 minutes and out. (Actually, 90 minutes is unrealistically generous. I had a premiere with the Nashua Symphony in March 2007—beautifully given—with 40 minutes total rehearsal, including the dress. I was delighted with the commission, but naturally I needed to write with this extreme constraint in mind.) The Rite of Spring was too difficult for the orchestra that first played it, and part of the riotous nature of its premiere was that there was virtual chaos on stage and in the pit; now children can play it. They need to be talented children, but they can be children nevertheless. Works like this have literally changed the way we teach and practice music.

The healthy diversity we seek in a vital musical culture demands different degrees of difficulty—audiences want to relax and yet they also want to be challenged. The best artistic teams know that this is equally as true of commissioned works as of standard repertoire.

Finally comes the question of repetition. One of the mysterious qualities of a great piece is how it changes with our growing knowledge of it. One might arguably understand everything about The Nutcracker on a first hearing, but who could feel the same about the Pathétique? If a subscriber to a major orchestra hears ten consecutive premieres, each only once, how can she be sure she’s heard any one of those pieces all the way to its most profound depth? Thus Koussevitsky presented some of his commissions repeatedly, most famously Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. This can only be done selectively, but conductors and artistic teams need to be alert for the works that will repay this investment. James Levine, and especially his group in Boston, are not only leading exemplars of this kind of commitment, but will surely enter history as among the leading creators of style in our time thereby.

Repetition within the programming of one presenter is one crucial kind of horizontal emphasis in time for a new piece. Equally important may be the vertical repetition offered by multiple commissioners. The Made in America project is a great example. Not only does engagement with a wide array of different performers help refine a new work—through multiple rehearsal experiences that will assist the later performers, and through the possibility of revision—taken for granted by all the greatest composers throughout history!—but the knowledge that a piece is being received by many different audiences is likely to provide exactly the kind of push that we opened this essay describing: audiences begin listening with some assurance that there is real value to be had in giving their attention, not worrying that the next 10, or 20, or 40 minutes are a throwaway offered to some onerous responsibility.

So how do we—composers, performers, listeners, administrators—know whether a commission has been a success? If the first audience is standing and cheering, that can’t be a bad sign. But some works that make a quick impression don’t make a lasting one, and some that start slow end up with the greatest staying power. We’ll need to have at least two dimensions to the success question: not only asking whether a work is worthy of entering the repertoire, which will be a quality only a very few works can have, but asking whether we’re supporting a healthy practice of experimentation with style, extended technique, freshness of listening, and willingness to take risks. An ensemble whose performers embrace this, and whose organization encourages an audience to respond in kind, is likely also to have a fresh and important approach to the great canon.

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