Making Inroads Through the Back Roads


Delta David Gier
Photo by Mark Pollard

As music director of a regional American orchestra, assistant conductor for a major symphony orchestra, and as a guest conductor across this continent and in Europe, I have persistently pondered the role of contemporary music in orchestral programming. Theoretically, I have always believed that new music should have a more prominent place in the concert hall, but how to implement this idea has been a perennial question. Facing the real fears of audience reaction and taking some real steps toward innovation with a solid philosophy to back up programming choices has yielded fruit beyond expectation.

What I have found is that audiences are much more open-minded than we believe. They are willing to give a piece of music a fair listening if they understand why it is being programmed. Communication of the purpose for our programming is key. Most orchestras and other “classical” ensembles and artists are putting a lot of effort into finding new ways to educate listeners and to reach out to people who are unfamiliar with the music we perform. What should be obvious is that contemporary music must be considered a vital part of our connection with both existing and potential audiences. That potential audience of the future is one whose listening tastes are very diverse—the iPod generation, or call it what you will—they have access to a range of music not even dreamt of by most of us presently engaged in “classical” music-making. And they listen to all of it. What this gives us, in my view, is a colossal opportunity to connect with them on many levels. We may be much more successful in reaching younger audiences through newer sounds than by trying to get them to “appreciate” the standard repertoire first. They will learn to love Mendelssohn and Berlioz when they are hooked on the experience of the live performance of art music.

What occurs to me now, with one foot in both worlds, is that rethinking the programming philosophy of a symphony orchestra might actually be easier to do in a regional setting than in larger metropolitan orchestras. Any community that is home to a professional orchestra will usually have a subscriber base that is quite sophisticated. And most of these communities are home to a college or a university, full of intellectually curious listeners who are eager for new experiences, intrigued by what is on the cutting edge, and who tend to pride themselves on being in the know.

When an orchestra is the only act in town, possibly in the entire region, that ensemble is responsible for presenting the entire spectrum of repertoire. There might not be many opportunities to see or hear something new, so innovation may be expected, or at least more easily accepted, by its patrons. By contrast, large metropolitan orchestras could be seen by some as guardians of the standard repertoire simply because there are other outlets for new repertoire. If a listener in a large metropolitan area wants to hear new music, there are new music ensembles and touring groups to hear, so the pressure may be off of the larger symphony orchestras to fulfill that role.

Underlying the programming of contemporary music in many orchestras today is a philosophy that relegates it to the realm of obligation. The players in the ensemble sense this, and, ultimately, the audience receives the same message. The point should not be simply to play a contemporary piece in order to get to the standard rep on the program. The real sense of duty should be to present the best of what we have discovered, passionately and with excellence, the same way we approach Beethoven, Debussy, or Mahler. But this requires a shift in the programming paradigm for most of us. A few more questions may be helpful in arriving at that juncture: Do we really believe that our Western musical culture peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries? What could happen if we made a real commitment to exploring the music of our time? A revolt? Is that what we are afraid of, and if so, how could we program in order to make sure that doesn’t happen? Or…might we experience a musical renaissance? Is that only a dream? Do we have the courage to take steps in order to make it a possibility? And lastly, if we want to build audiences, broadening our reach to include a younger and more diverse demographic, and if we intend to reach children in order to ensure audiences for the future, where does contemporary music fit in? Are these future audiences just for the 150 years of standard repertoire which is the bulk of what is now played?

The music director of a symphony orchestra has a responsibility to adapt to the environment in which music is being made and to be sensitive to the community the ensemble serves. Programming requires a creative approach that is to some extent demographically based. What works in one location may or may not transfer to another.

I serve as the music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. We recently performed a rather extensive production of Peer Gynt, including the complete incidental music of Grieg and a substantial portion of Ibsen’s text, with actors, dancers, singers, chorus, etc. In the area we serve, a substantial percentage of the population is of Norwegian heritage. This year also happens to be the 100th anniversary of Norwegian independence, so this project made sense in this place at this time. There are not many other areas of this country where the kind of effort that went into mounting such a production would be warranted.

When it comes to contemporary music one’s ear must be even more closely connected to the ground. This process is aided by actively researching the region and its demographics. One of the principal projects on the table for our orchestra presently is how to make music with and for the American Indian population. There are nine reservations in South Dakota. The state has even officially renamed Columbus Day “Native American Day.”

Insight comes just as frequently (and often more importantly) in serendipitous encounters with people who share your vision. Last Spring I had a very interesting series of conversations with a remarkable woman of diverse interests with a passion for all things South Dakotan. She is particularly interested in what the symphony can do to build cultural bridges in the state. We spoke at length about all kinds of possibilities: making music on the reservations, Native American Day concerts, commissioning new works based on Native music and instruments, creating public forums for cultural connection, playing music together and for each other, talking about the music, whether sacred, secular, dance, on and on. We spoke of the recent concerts we had performed with music of contemporary jazz composers, one of whom (Jeff Raheb) had actually already written a piece with a Lakota Indian connection. (We subsequently performed that piece, on a reservation, and on the same program featured a Lakota Indian flutist playing the Lakota flute tune on which Raheb’s music was based.) We explored my idea of putting together concerts of music by composers with significant rock influence, whether Chris Rouse, Steve Mackey, Derek Bermel, or the more obvious Zappa and Elvis Costello, always with a view towards connecting with new audiences. This South Dakotan woman even asked about country music which, I confessed, I had not even begun to explore—or so I thought. What had occurred to me was the feasibility of incorporating American “roots” music into symphonic pieces. At one point during all of this brainstorming I thought to myself, “We’re right back to Dvorak!”

There are different planes of programming for a symphony orchestra. Artistically, we think carefully about what the orchestra needs to play for its own growth, taking into consideration what repertoire has been programmed in its history, where the strengths and weaknesses lay, and from there how to play to the strengths and shore up the weaknesses. What the audience needs to hear is of utmost importance, again looking at a long stretch of programming to find holes in the repertoire in order to provide a balanced offering.

We do well by the standard repertoire in this respect, but what is missing is an active exploration of the “best” of contemporary music. By no means do I intend to belittle the performance of local composers—I have already stated the importance of connecting to the local community—but typically, when a symphony orchestra programs contemporary music they will rarely do more than an occasional piece by a locally-based composer. In so doing, they neglect the most internationally-known and respected composers of today. If this is the only pattern of programming, it is not a fair representation of contemporary music. An audience whose only impression of contemporary music is the work of local composers has an incomplete picture. The orchestra itself is not fully engaged in the contemporary music-making process either and does not have the opportunity of making contact with the great composers of our time.

A comprehensive and progressive programming philosophy should incorporate a serious exploration of the music of our own time. I acknowledge that the foundation of our programming is, and must remain, the standard literature that we all acknowledge and revere. But the responsible extension of this idea is an active, systematic presentation of leading contemporary composers. Part of our concert offerings should a laboratory, an experiment in the establishment of composers for the future. It is exciting to be a part of this process and our audiences, if given that perspective, can be quite interested in it as well. Indeed, they can and do take a certain pride in their participation.

We now have a canon of composers whose works are considered standard repertoire from the first half of the 20th century (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Bartok, etc.). That is not to say others will not be recognized and added to that canon, but we at least have come to appreciate several monumental contributions to the repertoire from that time period. For the second half of the 20th century however, at least in most people’s minds and ears, the jury is still out. There are surely major contenders (Messiaen, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, along with many Americans), but most audiences are not familiar with these names, let alone their work. How do we go about establishing these composers? Do we leave it to the major ensembles and artists alone, or is there a part for all of us to play?

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Delta David Gier has previously written for NewMusicBox about programming music by Pulitzer-winning composers in South Dakota. This weekend, he will conduct Steven Stucky’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 with the South Dakota Symphony.