New Music: It’s Not Just for Your Classical Series

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Photo by Sandy Lankford

As a staff conductor at a major American symphony orchestra, I’m called upon to conduct a wide variety of concerts, not only on our classical series, but also on our education, family, community outreach, and pops series. Programming for concerts outside an orchestra’s classical series typically consists of a mixture of the tried-and-true (i.e., the instantly recognizable) and easily digestible pops arrangements. I’ve been trying a somewhat different approach over the past several seasons with the Houston Symphony—and with great success, I’m happy to say: On every program I conduct, I try to incorporate at least one contemporary American orchestral work.

As a new-music lover, finding ways to introduce audiences to great new orchestral works has always been important to me. I became a conductor because I love to share music with people, and sharing contemporary music in particular has always been at the top of my list of artistic priorities. I have a degree in composition, and I conducted a new music ensemble for five seasons, so incorporating new music into any concert I lead—no matter the genre or venue—is not only important to me, but is an organic, integral part of who I am as an artist.

It may seem that incorporating new works into an orchestra’s concert season might be accomplished most logically through inclusion on its classical series. I propose, however, that the classical series is but one of many in which new music might find a viable, sustainable home. In some cases, it may actually be easier to include contemporary works outside the typical classical concert. Oftentimes, traditional classical audiences may view contemporary works as something to be “gotten through” on the way to the evening’s main course; uninitiated audiences tend to have fewer preconceived notions of what music their orchestra should (and should not) play, and are generally more open-minded and receptive to a broader swath of music.

In my experience, I’ve found that there are three keys to the successful incorporation of new music on pops programs: 1) accessibility of the work itself; 2) a solid rationale for the work’s inclusion on the program; and 3) an effective, concise verbal introduction of the work to the audience.

“Accessibility” has come to be a dirty word in some circles, so let me first define what I do not mean when using this word: mindless, one-dimensional works that are nothing more than ear candy. That said, denying the influence that 20th-century pop music has had on many of today’s composers is counterproductive, especially when an audience is coming to see one of those very acts on the second half of a pops program. The contemporary music I have found to be most successful on such concerts is by composers who take the best attributes of pop music (e.g., rhythmic regularity, simpler harmonic language, and sometimes even a melody or two) and skillfully, artfully incorporate them into their music. Whether one categorizes these composers as neoclassical, neo-romantic, post-minimalist, or something else is secondary to finding music that works well—both musically and programmatically—on a particular program.

A guest artist on the second half of a pops program presents an ideal opportunity to program a new work. With a little imagination, ingenuity, and background research on the artist, one can almost always find a programmatic link between that artist and a contemporary orchestral work. When the Houston Symphony presented Peter Cetera (former lead singer of the band Chicago) in January 2009, the orchestra and I presented an orchestral first half before Cetera and his band performed after intermission. Knowing that Cetera had been a founding member of a band named after one of America’s great big cities, I thought it would be interesting to present different aspects of big-city life on the first half. I wanted to find a contemporary work that captured the bustle, sounds, electric excitement, and fast-paced nature of a city like Chicago, and I found exactly that in a piece by Kevin Puts called Network. This work is around six minutes long and is of the post-minimalist school, which has several advantages: it lives in relatively simple harmonies and has just a handful of ideas that audiences can easily remember while listening through the piece. Before playing the piece, I explained to the audience a bit about the composer, the work, and our reasons for including it on the program; I pointed out what to listen for as we went through it, describing big-city scenes and how that related to the work they were about to hear. We found it to be a perfect complement to the rest of our first half, and, having the right context, the audience enjoyed it immensely.

Even on programs without a guest artist, opportunities may present themselves through an extra-musical theme you’re exploring. Our New Year’s Eve concerts in Houston typically consist of classical/”light classical” fare on the first half, followed by a more pops-oriented second half. On our New Year’s Eve concert in 2007 (my first with the orchestra), I decided to focus on the concept of time and how that relates to New Year’s celebrations. We performed the overture to Rossini’s La cenerentola (Cinderella), a movement from Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony, and selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. I needed a fourth piece to complete our first half, and found it in a work for string orchestra by Michael Torke called December. As with much of Torke’s music, the work is post-minimalist and quite tonal, and thus quite accessible. The great thing about including this work on the program, however, was that it fit in perfectly with my “time” theme for the first half. Torke provides program notes for his work, and I shared a portion of these with our audience from the stage before we played the piece. These notes are wonderfully descriptive, and explain the narrative of the work and what Torke was envisioning as he composed it. Every audience loves going behind the scenes, and getting a composer’s perspective on his work before hearing it lets an audience feel that they’ve got the inside scoop.

A conductor really can help enormously in regard to a work’s accessibility simply by priming the audience well; even a “tough” work can be rendered more accessible by a few well-chosen, articulate words of introduction. An example from my work that I often cite comes not from a pops program but a series of education concerts I led several seasons ago. This program was all about composers who came to America, one of whom was Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg is not an easy “sell” to any audience, but finding a way to relate your audience to a composer and his methods can work wonders for an audience’s reaction to a piece. After introducing Schoenberg the man, I briefly introduced the concept of his twelve-tone method by relating it to the similar “unrepeatability” of Sudoku. As most of the young people already knew, in Sudoku, you cannot repeat a number within a given box, row, or column; I then explained that, in Schoenberg’s music, you cannot repeat a note until you have used the other eleven. They then understood (to some degree, at least) why there was less regularity to Schoenberg’s melodies than to those of Dvorák, whose music we had played earlier on the program. Again, with the right context and good explanation, even children can listen to and enjoy something as complex as Schoenberg with new ears.

A quick word to those concerned that composers might be “insulted” by having their works included on something other than a strictly classical program. No composer I’ve ever personally known has ever expressed any feeling of being “relegated” to a pops or educational program. The composers I know create their works out of a genuine desire to communicate, and having one’s music heard by thousands of people over the course of a weekend—whatever the venue—is an opportunity I can’t imagine many composers turning down.

There are myriad reasons to program new works outside the traditional classical series. For one thing, orchestras love the chance to sink their teeth into “real” music on concerts that are typically less engaging and less artistically rewarding for them. I must say, though, that I never program contemporary works on pops programs with the aim of converting our audiences to new music devotees. Will audiences go out and buy a 10-CD retrospective of John Adams’s work after hearing Short Ride in a Fast Machine at a pops concert? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t heard something new, something that they might have genuinely enjoyed, something that might stick with them.

For me, sharing new music with any audience demands finding a piece in which you believe, which works organically with the rest of your program, and which you are willing and able to “sell” to your audience. A well-programmed, well-introduced, well-performed piece of contemporary music can have an impact on any audience like nothing else.

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Brett Mitchell
Photo by Sandy Lankford

Brett Mitchell is currently Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony. He served as Assistant Conductor of the Orchestre National de France from 2006 to 2009, and as Associate Conductor of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble from 2002 to 2006. He has led the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; and the Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Oregon, National, Memphis, and Frankfurt Radio symphonies. A finalist for multiple music directorships during the 2009-10 season, Mr. Mitchell will also conduct the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and cover several performances for the Cleveland Orchestra in the upcoming season.”