Drop the Feather Duster, Call a Composer
For performers and conductors, the master’s recital is sort of a strange ritual. Most of the graduate students I know are performing all the time anyway; the idea that their degrees would be staked on one brief-ish and probably ill-attended concert is a bit nonsensical. One manifestation of this nonsense seems to be the rep: The academically mandated recital is often the province of orphaned, mutant pieces that fulfill some arbitrary requirement rather than set the players’ imaginations afire. Pieces for unusual combinations of instruments emerge from the dustiest corners of the music library, flop and flounder under the stage lights for a bit, and are promptly escorted back to their cells. Often the programming impetus is something like “we needed a piece for tenor, bassoon, and piano, and this was the only one they had.”
If there were ever a situation that begged—begged!—for a composer, this is it. Not only will you get a piece that is calibrated to your very own technical and logistical needs as a performer, you’ll be fostering a relationship with a real live human being that’s likely to mean more to you than your off-the-shelf score. That’s my pitch to performers; now, here’s my pitch to administrators and faculty: You can mandate this kind of collaboration easily. At the University of Illinois, grad students in percussion are required to include a premiere on their recital programs. As far as I’m concerned, every performer on every instrument everywhere should have to meet this requirement to graduate. Think of how many new pieces would be played—and how many old, irrelevant pieces that nobody cares about would not be.
A graduate recital doesn’t have to be just a hoop to jump stressfully through. Although everyone agrees that working closely with composers is a skill that instrumentalists and singers should cultivate; it’s not one, unfortunately, that many working performers are regularly called upon to exercise. Bundling every graduate recital with a brand new piece would make for more interesting recitals, more thoroughly integrated music departments, and busier composers—win/win/win.