Many years ago I remember John Corigliano giving a speech in which he decried classical music’s constant recycling of standard repertoire warhorses and the classical music cognoscenti who catalog the minutiae of interpretive deviations. He compared such people to wine snobs who spent all their time contrasting various vintages of high-end bottlings of the same wine grapes year after year.
Over the past few years I’ve gotten very serious about wine drinking, but I’ve taken it from a slightly different angle. Rather than compare first growth Bordeaux or Burgundy (which I can’t afford to do anyway), I set myself a goal of trying as many different wine grapes as possible. I’m always on the lookout for something I’ve never tried before, whether I ultimately like it or not. It’s basically a new music approach to wine, and it’s been a fascinating ride.
Last week, my wife Trudy and I trudged through the snow storm to a wine tasting at City Winery where we managed to sample about 40 of the wines being offered that night. (There were over 100 in all.) Though sadly there were no new grapes for us, there were many new wineries. And there was a ton of Syrah. A great grape, but it was like going to hear a bunch of fabulous chamber musicians we’d never heard before play through our favorite pieces of Debussy and Ravel—admittedly wonderful music, but ultimately nothing new. Don’t get me wrong. We had a fabulous time and tried some really excellent wines. I was particularly thrilled that among the participants were wineries from Virginia, a great wine producing region that deserves to be better-known, and New York State, whose wines are surprisingly not so easy to come by even for folks who live here. And we did have one somewhat unusual encounter: a 100% Counoise made by Tablas Creek from Paso Robles. It was only the second all-Counoise I’d ever tried, and the first one made in the United States. It was wonderful in the same way as listening to, say, pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin play the music of Abel Decaux—something you don’t get to hear very often.
On Friday, the League of American Orchestras issued its 2012-2013 Premieres List. Every year for the past 30 years, the League has sent out a query to its member orchestras requesting information about repertoire being performed that is either a world or national premiere. (The membership encompasses both the United States and Canada.) Though only 68 orchestras responded to the League’s survey (which is only approximately 9% percent of their total membership) and undoubtedly some of the orchestras who did not report have also scheduled premieres, the list still offers much to ponder. It is thrilling to learn that 165 pieces will be played in North America for the first time this season from the pens (or laptops) of 150 different composers. Only 17 composers are represented more than once. Mason Bates has the distinction of receiving four orchestral premieres this season! And the premieres are spread around pretty broadly, though the Toronto Symphony puts the rest of North America to shame with its 13 premieres this season. (The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the American Composers Orchestra are tied for second place with 9 each.)
But that’s where the thrill ends. Remember that premieres account for only a small amount of the music that is programmed by orchestras. Not knowing what the numbers are for the other 92% of the League’s membership it’s hard to pass a judgment, but its doubtful that anyone not on the list is trumping Toronto. While its 13 premieres are laudable, they still account for a very small percentage of music played by the orchestra. On top of that, the list highlighted the fact that 14% of the works being premiered at orchestras this season are by women composers. While that might be cause for celebration in some quarters (it’s a higher number than I expected), that means that 86% of the premieres are not by women composers and it’s doubtful that the rest of the repertoire being performed beyond those premieres includes much if any music by women composers or very many other living composers, male or female for that matter.
Ultimately, to paraphrase Corigliano, it’s just a lot of syrah—really wonderful, but it would be more exciting to have a greater variety.