The Toxic Tyranny of the World Premiere


Andrew Druckenbrod

Is the hype of the world premiere actually more trouble than it’s worth?

For some time I have been thinking about the way the music industry handles world premieres. Composers need to have their music performed, of course, but a first performance of a work is actually a different beast than the alluring concept of the “world premiere.” While the latter seems a boon to a composer, it poses some serious problems.

Patrons and consumers’ perception of what constitutes “classical music” is tied to the specious belief that the past effortlessly created masterpieces, which the present has failed to match. It has been bolstered by the 20th-century veneration of performers rather than composers, leading to the present situation in which audiences think classical music means old music. Since orchestras and opera companies have ridden that perception to phenomenal growth in the last century, they are understandably sluggish when it comes to forcibly re-connecting audiences with contemporary composers in a meaningful way. In short, there are daunting obstacles in the path of programming new music today, even if a group is genuinely interested.

The only concept that has successfully cut through this quagmire has been the world premiere. If an audience is going to subject itself to music other than the great masters then, by God, it better be something special. Not special in the musical sense, but in the social sense, with an added layer of exclusivity more akin to the society page than a music review. The unique claim of a concert being the only one of its kind because it contains the first hearing of a piece of music is the one hook that has proven to grab the attention of orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music presenters. With that label firmly affixed, contemporary music can be tolerated. Whether the new work flops is now hardly the matter. The assembled audience can at least say to an acquaintance that they heard the world premiere of such and such piece, even if they didn’t like it.

Thus perceived, the world premiere is economically viable. While it doesn’t sell like the three B’s or Rossini, it has a better chance of breaking even than just any new-ish music. There’s a currency with being first that extends beyond the actual piece. The concept itself is a more known commodity than the composer who wrote the piece, making it easier to market. Amazingly, American orchestras have even managed to sell the notion of a world premiere to three or four concerts over a given concert weekend. Those patrons attending Saturday or Sunday never seem to feel ripped off. Orchestras, opera companies and presenting societies even go so far as to keep their audiences meticulously abreast of what pieces are receiving United States or even city premieres! I am surprised we don’t get announcements that such and such piece is a neighborhood premiere, such is the power of the word.

While at first this appears to be an acceptable trade-off for the composer (who at least gets to break into the ranks of the subscription season), long-term deleterious effects have been creeping up. The most damaging to contemporary composers is that few works receive performances beyond that first one. While this is sometimes due to a poor composition, it’s largely because later performances lack the allure of that world premiere aura. Any doubts on the potency of the premiere drug get cast aside when you consider that most orchestras would rather commission a composer for a new work than play any of those already in his or her catalogue, even though the latter outstrips the former in cost.

The argument could be made that an orchestra’s promotion of a new work stems from its good-natured interest in advancing the career of the composer. Is that why orchestras usually run through a new piece in the standard few rehearsals, with the composer maybe whisked in once before to “discuss” it with the music director? Not until every orchestra has a composer in residence (not a composer-of-the-year, as my local orchestra has copped-out with) will I believe that the preponderance of world premieres is anything other than throwing a bone to the few new-music lovers (and sometimes the local critic). That the world-premiere tag at least shields the new composition from destroying the box office seals the deal.

The lack of subsequent hearings of works not only depresses composers, but it robs them of one of the great tools of composition: revising. Countless masterpieces only got that way because of tough revisions made after first performances. Reworking is one of the best ways to absorb constructive criticism and grow as a composer. Composers working today deserve that same opportunity. Instead, they must put freshly debuted work on the shelf and move on, likely to make the same mistakes in their next piece. This not only potentially slows a composer’s stylistic evolution, but the evolution of the composer’s voice also is less integrated with the public. This is only part of the reason composers and audiences are at odds. Surely if a composer had more time to weigh the just criticism of his audience and critics and—just as important—performers and conductors, the distance might someday disappear.

But the insistence on the world premiere and its attendant marketing strategy can have other negative effects. With so much hype surrounding a world premiere commission these days, it can be difficult for any new piece to meet with success.

For a world premiere, the composer is flown in, interviewed in the press, paraded in front of the audience, asked to speak, and given hearty applause. The program notes, conductor, or spokesperson claim the piece is fantastic and the composer the Beethoven of our time (he had better be if the audience is going to be turned away from Beethoven himself for half of a concert). The piece inevitably isn’t an instant Fifth Symphony and it is disliked or even disdained by the audience. You could see it coming a mile a way. I have seen it, countless times.

It’s not that marketing itself is harmful but the type and tone of the promotion that is problematic. That kind of pressure would be too much even for the past masters. Art music thrives best not under the hot light of hype but in the soft reflection of one’s mind. Likewise, new music needs time and space to unfurl, without the heightened expectations of a world premiere. I wonder how many audience members would actually enjoy something new if they weren’t expecting it (with defenses already up) and didn’t have it shoved down their throats (and ears) as great music. One thing is certain: the hype surrounding world premieres isn’t helping composers. Even with the shift away from serialism into supposedly more audience-friendly styles and neo-tonality, the world premiere label has hardly lifted contemporary composers into the canon, even if you count a few success stories.

So, what’s a solution to this dilemma? Obviously, deeply ingrained cultural concepts aren’t easily shifted, but hype is the province of promotion and that can be amended. If orchestras simply avoided the whole concept in advertisements and didn’t mention a “World Premiere Performance” prominently in their programs; if they instead referred to a new piece as receiving a “first performance,” that alone might go a long way to alleviating the problem. Critics and radio hosts also should drop the often-prideful emphasis on the premiere in favor of actually examining the piece. Sure, the composition would still be getting its premiere, but with less hubbub.

We could then focus on the composer and the merits or faults of the piece, not the fact that it has the musical version of new-car smell. Classical music is badly in need of more contemporary composer stars, ones recognizable to the average concert-goer, who could be equated to, if not judged against, the past masters. Focusing on the new compositions and not the vehicle that brings them to the hall may be a small but crucial step to bringing some balance back to classical music.

***

Andrew Druckenbrod, classical music critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has written for SYMPHONY, Opera, Strings, andante.com, the Star Tribune and one of the first HyperHistories on NewMusicBox, but mostly wishes he could just have more time to listen to music.