Two big concepts have been continually nudging me over the past few weeks. Such things are sometimes difficult to recognize and even when they’re obvious, we’re not always enthusiastic about letting others know about them. I happen to be in an enthusiastic mood, however, so here goes…
First: Things are looking up for new music these days, and chamber ensembles are leading the way.
Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve been pretty busy not only with my own work as an educator and teacher, but also traveling to several cities in the East and Midwest to interview composers for this big ol’ project I’ve been rattling about in this column. Whenever I’m in another location for such things, I try my utmost to make the most of my time and attend as many concerts as I can. In each city I’m only there for a few days and never get a chance to time my visit with any specific events, so it’s kinda like rolling the dice and hoping I’m lucky enough to catch something good.
Since April, I’ve had the good fortune of attending chamber concerts by Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion and Chicago Trombone Consort in Chicago, Brightmusic in Oklahoma City, Orchestra of the League of Composers and the Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City, as well as six new operas presented by The Figaro Project and Rhymes with Opera, two Baltimore-based groups that are both delving further into the traditions of opera while stretching its boundaries. Each one of these concerts were top-notch in quality and in programming–some balanced premieres with repertory works from the recent past, while others just focused on presenting newly minted music. Both models were well-received by the audiences (which were healthy in size throughout) and, in my humble composer/educator/new-music-guy opinion, were infinitely more interesting than those programs that most traditional concert ensembles present these days.
Are these organizations in need of funding? Of course they are. But while the major symphony orchestras and opera companies around the country demonstrate how best to shoot themselves in the feet, these and many other chamber ensembles are demonstrating that they can provide our society with a strong, vibrant, and entertaining repertoire even on shoestring budgets. The DIY model which Kronos Quartet planted the seeds for, Bang on a Can nurtured ten years later, and eighth blackbird and ICE made popular ten years after that seems to be spreading its roots pretty effectively in many parts of the country. As ensembles get more experience and busier, the new crop of management companies and PR professionals who are focusing on the new music scene are brought to bear, and the entire table upon which these ensembles reside slowly rises.
I taught a class on the Music of the 21st Century this past semester and spent the first ten class periods on chamber ensembles–even before I started talking about composers–because I felt that since the 1990s it has been the chamber ensembles that have been the driving force in pushing new music forward. As orchestras became organized as entities unto themselves almost 200 years ago, it will be interesting to see how the rise of the chamber group has an effect on the landscape of contemporary concert music in the decades to come.
Next week: Things are looking up for the future of new music these days too…