Run Toward Cover

Yesterday at the Metropolitan Opera’s 2006-07 season announcement—which, aside from the world premiere of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, does not contain any other work by a living or an American composer—I was struck by how excitedly the various stage directors were talking about their interpretations of such tried and true fare as Madame Butterfly and The Magic Flute.

The composer in me has always been stuck in the mode of asking, “Why are they doing this old warhorse yet again instead of doing something by one of us?” But recently I’ve started to wonder if those of us who harbor resentment toward the seemingly unending malleability of the standard repertoire might be better off rechannelling our energies. Instead, why not work toward making interpreters as desirous to own their performances of our music?

For fear of being burnt at the stake here, or at least being labeled a traitor or a hypocrite, might the composer-centric view we promulgate toward new work in someway hinder its ultimate life beyond the composer-attended premiere? While timbre and context are such an intrinsic component to so many contemporary compositions, how cemented in perpetuity are all the decisions regarding its subsequent dissemination?

Vivaldi and even Prokofiev’s music gets transcribed all the time, but how many composers would be willing to have their work tampered with that way nowadays? Last week, I was thrilled to hear several different recordings of Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Cello and Piano back to back. But, playing the heresy card again, what would happen if the cello part were played by a bassoonist? Carter has yet to write a sonata for bassoon and piano. He still might, but he probably won’t. Pianists who defend playing baroque keyboard music on their chosen instrument frequently defend their performance decisions by saying things like, “Why should I be deprived the opportunity of playing Bach—the greatest composer of all time—even if he didn’t write for the instrument?” Well, why should a bassoonist be denied a chance at the many aesthetic rewards playing Carter’s music offers?

Everyone seemed pleased that Julie Taymor and J.D. McClatchy were cutting The Magic Flute down to 90 minutes to make it more effective as a young people’s event, yet many of those same folks would probably shudder in horror if it were suggested that such a thing be done to say, Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun, which is based on a book that Salman Rushdie wrote with young readers in mind.

2 thoughts on “Run Toward Cover

  1. Tom Myron

    “…might the composer-centric view we promulgate toward new work in someway hinder its ultimate life beyond the composer-attended premiere?

    I think you might be on to something there. Many of the performers & filmmakers that I work with have commented un-bidden on what appears to them to be composers’ obsession with what other composers think, do and write. They find it puzzling- “Wouldn’t it be better if you knew lots of singers (or filmmakers or conductors)?” they ask.

    Admittedly these people are for the most part not “New Music Specialists” but they’re the folks I work with most often and I value their perspective.

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  2. jonrussell20

    Right on! I think you’re exactly right. Sometimes re-arranging things, even contemporary things, gives them great new life, and is a way for the performers to feel some ownership as well. Recently, I’ve heard Bang on a Can do Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths, and heard Gutbucket do a movement from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – both to fantastic effect! I think new music would benefit immensely from being open to being malleable and adaptable.

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