First Words: A Panel Discussion About Reviewing Premieres

Covering Music as News

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to respond to something that Bill Littler said a little while ago that got left hanging: If you’re covering one thing, then you’re not covering something else. And this session’s called “How to cover a premiere,” but one of the interesting things in the new music world that I see from the several hats that I wear is that a premiere is somehow journalistically sexy, whereas the second or third or fourth performance isn’t. So an organization will commission a new piece knowing that they will get the coverage, whereas if they play a piece that is really good that was done 2 seasons ago, they might not get covered at all. There’s very interesting music group that was formed in New York City that’s sort of teetering, their concert attendance hasn’t been great and they haven’t been reviewed at all yet. American Accent… There’s also, Second Helpings… Anyway, the goal of American Accent was to do only pieces that were already performed. Nobody covered their opening concert. Nobody did advances or reviews. They asked me to give a talk at this thing and I did this Q & A with Ned Rorem and he got up there and said, “Why am I even here?” That’s Ned, but there was hardly anybody there. A great concert, with fantastic performances… It begs the question: Is our obligation to new music beyond the premiere? How do we engender that in our writing and in our coverage and how do we determine what kinds of pieces get covered when they are premiered? What kind of pieces get covered the second time around, the third time around? Where do we make that judgment call?

WILLIAM LITTLER: Well, we have two problems here. First of all, a newspaper is a news paper. What’s new immediately is what gets attention and so the premiere is what is new and that’s what we have to deal with, so I don’t–I think that’s a reality that has to be faced and it might be an unfortunate one but it’s there. But the other thing I’m thinking about is the title of Erich Leinsdorf‘s book The Composer’s Advocate. Now he’s speaking from the point of view of a conductor as being a composer’s advocate, but historically, music critics have been advocates for the composers they care for and they’ve been a kind of champion. It’s not so fashionable today. Most of our publications want us to be fair-minded. This is an objective that is hanging up there without anyway of being tangibly performed. But nonetheless we have largely given up this advocate’s role of standing behind a composer and saying: “Pay attention to this person and these are the reasons why…,” because it’s a kind of polemical exercise and some of us are afraid of being polemicists. We want to be fair-minded judges of the situation, but look through musical history and commentary and you’ll find that it’s full of the polemic and that the polemic is very exciting. Once again, passion, the word that was mentioned earlier today… Shaw said, “A review that is written without passion isn’t worth reading.” And we have to write from a point of view of belief. And the trouble is in our fair-mindedness, we’ll go to concert after concert of contemporary music and give a little attention to everybody in this democratic way and so we don’t stand behind a few and ignore the others, we try to distribute our attention. And the consequence is there isn’t a critical mass of attention given those who really stand out that perhaps ought to be given.

BARBARA JEPSON: May I speak to that?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes.

BARBARA JEPSON: I agree with you that we should write with passion. I’m very frustrated with reading reviews that describe new music without evaluating it. I think that’s a must. I think there’s a little distinction. I think one can be fair and still be passionate or one can be fair and still say it stinks or it’s wonderful and I think the fairness comes in, for me, it comes in in not prejudging works according to their style but being open to the idea that there is good and bad in every style, whether it’s our favorite style or our least favorite. There are people who are writing in an excellent way in a style that may not be my favorite. And I actually had an example of that a year ago when I was asked to do something on a composer and the things that I had heard by that composer I thought were rather bland but I agreed to do the piece and I ended up really liking the premiere. So in the review, I mentioned that X, Y, and Z were accomplished but bland, but the piece that I heard I thought was really, really excellent. I discussed why I thought it was good even though it wasn’t my preferred harmonic language and, Frank, just to go back to your original question of how do you engender assignments or space for things that have already been performed and are being given a second hearing? One of the ways I do it is if a recording comes out which is often two years after a premiere, that gives an opportunity to revisit the piece, and what I try to do is define something current that is going on and then in the same piece, not only talk about the current piece but also talk about the previous piece which I may or may not have covered. You can also do that if there is no recording. In the context of a piece on a particular composer–just give the context and single out, you know, these are so-and-so’s strongest works or just discuss the works that you have been taken by that have been performed once and never heard of again and at least you’re letting people know about it, whether or not it leads to anything.

FRANK J. OTERI: Once again this question of advocacy for specific composers, I would argue that there are composers that are on the radar of everyone in this room who have risen above this area–you know, certainly a John Adams or an Elliott Carter or a John Harbison. These are people whose every work gets covered. They have reached a certain level of critical mass where that coverage happens. I guess the question for everybody at the table, and I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say the people who are at this table who are composers, the two who are primarily known as composers, neither of you are at that level of national critical mass where anything you write will get covered and I guess I’d like to have you speak to that question of what you feel when you write a piece. What do you feel you should be getting in terms journalistic coverage for what you’re doing and why?

DAVID STOCK: Again it depends on what you mean by journalistic coverage. The only time that anything I had written didn’t get written about, it got bumped–an important New York premiere–it got bumped by a pop review or something. I never had the chutzpah to write to the critic, “Look, not for me, but for the soloist, could you please just send me a copy of what you wrote?” Because this was an important soloist who was really looking forward to this and it then disappeared. But I guess what I would really like would be–it has nothing to do with me personally–but what I said before, critical studies. They don’t have to be complex. They don’t have to go into every note the composer ever wrote or what she had for breakfast last Thursday, but just something that puts things in some larger context. We have wonderful composers out there who aren’t quite so well-known and somehow some of them rise above that level of “Well, we’ve sort of heard of him or her…” to the next level. And nobody quite knows how these things happen. One thing for example, one project I’ve been threatening to do for years and years and probably someday I actually will get around to, which is a much more important question and it’s the long-range one, or at least the medium-range one: I want to write to a lot of composers and I’d probably write to some of you as well and say, “Look, I want you to pretend we’re doing a time capsule and I want you to write, give me the names of 10 pieces or 10 composers or something that you are reasonably sure, that you’re willing to bet are gonna stick around for the next 50 years.” You know, when all is said and done, if we’re looking beyond tomorrow. That’s all that counts. If we’re not, if there’s no ongoing repertoire, then what’s it all about? All the composers might as well pack up and go home. I believe it is, you see, but I mean to ask people to sort of stake their reputations on it, I think might…We just went through an exercise like this in Pittsburgh which unfortunately I triggered because of overhearing a conversation with a friend in a restaurant. We were going to the symphony and I happened to hear my friend who was not even sitting at my table say to his friend, “I think that the Shostakovich 8th Symphony is the greatest post-modern symphony.” And I turned around and said, “What are you talking about? It isn’t!” And he said, “Well, name some.” I started naming–bing, bing, bing, bing, bing! And then I started thinking about it. So anyway, that led to a whole bunch of lists, which then led to one of your colleagues, Andrew Druckenbrod, asking all of us composers in Pittsburgh, just to pick out our favorite three pieces, whatever they were, of the last ten years which was many, many too few. It was hell! It was also very interesting to see how many correspondences there were that we all sort of agreed on some of the people who were, you know, the real thing. When…you’re talking about two different things. One is the immediate. What I really want, of course, is my work becomes well-enough known that it gets played all over and everything I write is a commission. Now, close to everything–does somebody want to commission my 5th Symphony out there that I finished a year and two weeks ago and I’m just waiting… [laughter] Anyway, so in the short run, that’s what we want, but in the long run, true critical judgment would be really nice and, of course, a lot of them are going to be wrong! Who cares? But to say this is what I think is going to make it and what’s worth sticking around. That’s what’s really interesting.

JOHN KENNEDY: I would just add that no matter what hat we wear or our profession in the field, we love music and we all have to be advocates of music at some level. I was thinking about this discussion of where we are in terms of writing about young composers. I forget what year John Rockwell‘s book All American Music came out, maybe late ’70s, early ’80s, but those were a collection of essays about contemporary composers. I think it did help the careers of some of those who were included. They became the BAM artists… And that kind of writing is more than just about music, it’s like cultural studies of where music fits into the way culture is changing and that kind of thinking is very, very valuable for performers and writers alike.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I want to throw this in because I’m in a privileged position to be exposed to new music on an ongoing basis, with what I do on a daily basis. I always had this chip on my shoulder about advocating for new music, even before I got to the American Music Center. I knew a lot about new music and I knew all these pieces that were recorded and I went to all of these premieres in New York City, which has all of this activity. But then I got to the Center and I was like, “Yikes!” you know, the flood gates opened. There is so much stuff, more than 5000 composers that I had never heard of, a lot of whom were as exciting as the big name composers who do get the coverage all the time, who are on the radar all the time and I guess the last question I want to throw out, because we are kind of running toward the end of this thing, is how do we seek out those people who might not normally be on our radar; who aren’t always getting presented at the equivalent of Heinz Hall or Verizon Hall in Philadelphia or Carnegie Hall in New York, the folks who are being performed in the small galleries somewhere a little bit out of the way? How do we stay open to that, when we’re so busy–if we’re covering that, we’re missing something else?

WILLIAM LITTLER: The first thing that has to be said is that the decision isn’t always ours. It’s an editor’s decision, quite often, as to what is covered. So help me–if Pavarotti comes to town and there’s a concert of new music in a small gallery, the choice is taken away from me.

FRANK J. OTERI: He’s retired now, apparently…

[laughter]

WILLIAM LITTLER: You know what I mean and that’s the difficult situation that we have. And if we are to discover the new and the young emerging talents it very often means that we are not sitting in front a major recital by Ashkenazy that night. Those are the ongoing choices we have to make, and depending on the nature of our publication, they may be difficult or easy choices. If we are an alternative publication and the editor doesn’t care about what we write about fine; we’ll go out and forget Ashkenazy. I don’t have to hear another performance by Ashkenazy, fine as he is. But the point is if we’re dealing with a newspaper that deals in mass circulation, then we have to be aware of the mass. The editors certainly are if we’re not. So there is going to be that constant tension. It’s a misunderstanding on the part of the public by and large. Most critics would rather be listening to something new. It’s more stimulating. And yet we have other responsibilities that we can’t ignore. We are agents of publications that address large numbers of people and large numbers of people are often not interested in those small concerts that interest us. We can be selfish, we can be enlightened–it depends on how you define that act–but from the newspaper’s point of view we have to be responsible to their objectives at the same time and that’s a constant balancing act that’s not easy.

PAUL HERTELENDY: I think that’s kind of a misconception. Some quarters of the public feel that if we feature a performance of, let’s say, graduate students’ composition class given in a small hall at the university, we will discover the next Igor Stravinsky or BartÛk or whoever we care to name, and this is generally not the case. So the critic with the limited amount of resources and time and space in the newspaper is very dependent on performing arts organizations for seeking out talents or organizations which give commissions, which may not even be performing groups at all, to recognize certain people. And then in a venue which is reasonably presentable and reasonably professional or has a reasonable audience, it’s a viable venue and there we can look–I mean, you’re asking us to go through a haystack and find the one needle in there. Well, there may be one needle, there may be none, and we need help finding a lead.

JOHN KENNEDY: And so do the performing organizations often. Most of them are not very proactive about really making the base broad, you know.

BARBARA JEPSON: It seems like somebody should do a big commercial for NewMusicBox because that’s one way to…

FRANK J. OTERI: I’ll let somebody else do it! Conflict of interest…

DAVID STOCK: It’s wonderful. Everybody needs to read it every month. Was that good enough?

JAMES REEL: It’s really great. And they pay on time!

[laughter]

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