January has long been one of the biggest months for national service organizations involved with the music industry to hold their annual conferences, as well as for some big music organizations to hold press conferences. This year is no exception. This past weekend I juggled sessions of conferences given by The Conductors Guild and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. This morning I attended the New York Philharmonic’s 2009-2010 season announcement, and this weekend I camp out at the Chamber Music America conference. I’ve been attending stuff like this for about 15 years and continue to find it a great way to engage in dialog with folks who are either making music and/or making decisions about what music is being made all over the country. It’s also a great way to get a reading on the pulse of various music communities at large.
But before the various 2009 schmooze-fests got under way, I was sincerely worried that all the recent bad economic news would cast a shadow of gloom over these events. To my pleasant surprise, the overall mood was extremely positive-at times downright cheery. Plus composers were everywhere and discussions about new music had a very prominent role.
Richard Danielpour was speaker at the formal luncheon for the Conductors Guild, and Chen Yi was also invited to address conference attendees. A total of 31 pieces of contemporary music were championed during four “New Music Project” sessions—one session per day—both by the composer’s publishing representatives, as well as by guild-member conductors who had performed the works. Brief talks about each of the pieces were juxtaposed with excerpts from recorded performances. Of the 31 works, roughly one-third were by self-published composers, which showed that having an established publisher didn’t necessarily give the composer an edge. Also, one in four were works by women, which was the best gender ratio I have ever witnessed at any of these conference presentations.
New music was also a big part of the discussion at the New York Philharmonic press conference. Music Director Designate Alan Gilbert at one point shared the stage with NY Phil Composer-In-Residence Designate Magnus Lindberg, who will write two new pieces for the orchestra next season. He also announced a new music series titled “Contact,” which will feature seven world-premiere performances including newly commissioned works by five U.S.-based composers: Arthur Kampela, Lei Lang, Nico Muhly, Sean Shepherd, and Arlene Sierra. There will also be a new Christopher Rouse work and the orchestra will tour Europe with baritone Thomas Hampson, the newly appointed artist-in-residence, performing John Adams’s The Wound Dresser. And that’s not all! They’re also mounting a semi-staged performance of Ligeti’s over-the-top opera Le Grand Macabre, which is hardly belt-tightening fare.
At the Arts Presenters Conference, I participated in something that was called “Classical, New and Contemporary Music Forum: Innovative Strategies for Engaging Audiences.” While none of the ideas bandied about were anything I hadn’t heard before, the positive energy in the room was palpable. And people spoke really passionately about their success stories, like having an indie rock band on a double-bill with an orchestra rather than playing with the orchestra. Not only that, but also having the music the orchestra played on that double-bill be programmed by the members of that band which resulted in repertoire choices that were mostly contemporary. Admittedly there was an element of preaching to the already converted at this session—when the moderator asked the attendees if any of them had never performed or presented new music no one raised their hand. But I have to continue to hope that this much zealotry will prove infectious to anyone who encounters any of these folks.
However, before you begin thinking that my own starry-eyed optimism has clouded my ability to see past others’ self-congratulatory euphoria, all of these folks still seemed well-aware that the road ahead would not be easy. But when has it ever been easy for people creating or presenting new work? To be continued.