Getting Music Out of Purgatory

Save for the ubiquitous concern about achieving the premiere of a new work (or the commission of a work not yet written), the issue that seems to garner the most attention from composers is the generating of repeat performances of their existing works. This topic was recently touched upon in a Chorus America article (“What Happens After the Premiere?”), written by former NPR producer and amateur choralist Don Lee and approaching the subject from several points of view. It is heartening to see the topic covered by such a high-profile organization and to know that, at least in sections of the choral community, there is some traction towards the encouragement of performing works beyond their inception.

In Lee’s article, several choral conductors, composers, and arts administrators express their views on the benefits and difficulties of re-programming a new work once it has received its attention-grabbing world premiere. These views range from American Composers Forum president John Nuechterlein relaying the frustration he has heard from composers about second performances and Los Angeles Master Choral director Grant Gershon explaining the importance of collaboration between composer and conductor to the practically opposite programming concepts between Philadelphia’s The Crossing, which focuses on the generation and promotion of premieres, and Jersey City’s Schola Cantorum on Hudson, whose Project Encore initiative provides the opportunity for composers to submit their once-performed works for inclusion to a database with the hopes that other choirs will seize the opportunity to program them.

The reality of how large ensembles, be they choral, orchestral, or wind-based, program their seasons is an important concept to understand when considering repeat performances. It is easy for a composer to forget that, from an ensemble’s perspective, the premiere of a new work will be used as a marketing tool to generate attention and entice curious audiences to buy tickets. Without that valuable cachet, it is much harder to convince large ensembles to program new music, since they usually have a limited number of slots in their season for works outside of the established repertoire. This mindset puts once-performed works into an odd position—a purgatory of sorts—where they lack the excitement that comes with the experience of a first hearing as well as the comfort that well-known works offer.

It is this purgatory that needs to be addressed, not so much for the individual creators (who I’m sure would appreciate the additional performances) but for the health and well being of the very established repertoire with which composers find themselves in competition. Conductors and artistic directors would do well to see themselves as much as gardeners as caretakers when it comes to the repertoire/canon/whatever-you-want-to-call-it; by actively considering newly premiered works, over time the standard repertoire will grow to allow the inclusion of these works if they become popular—which, of course, they will not become if they are only performed once. Repeating premiered works in subsequent seasons, performing works that other ensembles have recently premiered, even repeating a work on the same concert—all are useful “gardening” tools to allow audiences and performers to more fully understand and enjoy a piece.

Composers, however, should not be left off the hook here; in the same way that conductors prefer to premiere new works because of the “excitement” factor (which offsets the “hard work” factor that comes with bringing a new work to life), composers, being the creators they are, can easily neglect their already-composed pieces as they tend to composing new works. Grant Gershon brings up a good point in the Chorus America article when he suggests to composers that they not write works that could only be performed by his ensemble; by keeping repeat performances in mind during the creative process, composers can help “prime the pump” and make the conductors’ decision-making process easier. This concept could be nurtured early on as composer concerts at universities could encourage repeat performances of student works, both to allow for revisions and to cement the mindset of future performances in both student composer and performer.

As has been shown in the past week’s discussions on women composers, the concept of programming is a most important one for all composers for two reasons: Not only are we impacted so much by these programming decisions, but we, in many ways, are powerless to affect those decisions (in the same way that performers and conductors are powerless to affect what notes and rhythms we write). With articles such as Don Lee’s to help remind us all about the importance of performing works multiple times, the future of the established repertoire—and our own place within it—will strengthen.

4 thoughts on “Getting Music Out of Purgatory

  1. Matthew Saunders

    Let’s not forget the power of a consortium commission… the piece that has caused Osvlado Golijov so much notoriety lately was commissioned by 35 different orchestras and was presumably slated to be performed that many times. Gunther Schuller’s best-known piece, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, was a consortium commission that made his reputation when it was played by a dozen or so orchestras–it was really his “breakout” composition. This is a very common technique in the band/wind ensemble world–in graduate school, I played on early performances of several pieces with Russell Mikkelson and the Ohio State Wind Symphony, and as a band director, I’ve been involved in several consortium commissions–for relatively short pieces, the consortium brings the excitement of a new work down to something very close to the oost of purchasing a published piece. As a composer, I’m in the midst of fulfilling my first consortium commission, organized by me, for a string orchestra piece. Knowing that the piece will get multiple performances in the first year of its life has really focused my efforts!

    Reply
    1. Rob Deemer

      Great point, Matthew – I’m just embarking on my own first consortium (for a classical guitar concerto with wind ensemble, of all things) and they really do give a piece a leg up – once word of mouth spreads, then purgatory may be avoided :)

      Reply
  2. Sean Hickey

    Great post, Rob. All too many of us have enjoyed (or endured) first performances of works, only to have the piece sit for ages. I hosted a couple of events with Ned Rorem over the past few years who commented on refusing commissions for major works, such as symphonies. His response: “Symphonies? I have three and they’re hardly ever played. You’re free to perform any one you like at any time.”

    Reply

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