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Programming the Contemporary

In the spirit of experimentation, I'm trying my hand at that blog standby, the reader poll, to explore a question I raised in yesterday's review.

When I started this blog, several people posted in the comments section to ask if I could devote more coverage to contemporary music. Now, the Crosscurrents festival has put the subject in the spotlight - as well as giving a de facto answer to the commenter who wrote, “And do let's talk about why we need to have our modern music given to us in non-lethal doses of ten-minute token pieces. Cannot we have entire concerts of the stuff?”

“Entire concerts of the stuff” were certainly provided over the last ten days. And as I said in yesterday’s review, I came away from Crosscurrents thinking that putting contemporary music on a separate but equal program may in fact be a better strategy than trying to mix it in with core classical works. I was struck, at the NSO concert on Thursday, by the audience: it wasn’t a full house by any means, but those who were there knew what they were getting, and stayed until the end. It was certainly a contrast to the restlessness that can creep into a hall during those “non-lethal doses of ten-minute token pieces.”

At least a couple of audience members concur. One NSO subscriber commented on my review:

An entire program of contemporary music works much better than sprinkling contemporary music among Brahms, Schumann, or Tchaikovsky. Listening to, say, the Knussen violin concerto between a Rossini overture and a Schubert symphony would be jarring. They are appreciated on different levels. We might be as likely to enjoy a Guns N’ Roses riff.
Another listener’s thoughtful comment on today’s review backs up the argument for what one might call segregation.

I imagine this line of thinking will occasion protest from people who would like to see contemporary music emerge as part of the regular concert-going diet. The problem is that the core orchestra audience has basically signed on for music of the past rather than music of the present. (I got a letter last fall from a college student who said he was just starting to love classical music and whose view was that orchestras simply should not play any music written after the 20th century; that wasn’t their purpose. This letter, incidentally, also challenges the kneejerk conventional wisdom that young audiences want contemporary things, but that’s material for another post.)

Classical music is perhaps the only field that thinks it's OK routinely to give audiences something they don't actually want. As my husband says, when you go to the multiplex to see a blockbuster, you don't expect to have to sit through a European art house film first. When I go to a Bang on a Can event, I might be taken aback if someone started playing a Haydn quartet (even though I like Haydn quartets). And someone who's bought tickets for Bob Dylan wouldn't necessarily want to hear Lou Reed instead (a point effectively raised by one disgruntled WPAS ticket-buyer who wrote me to express her unhappiness at receiving no advance warning that she was going to hear Marc-André Hamelin rather than Krystian Zimerman, who canceled his DC concert in April).

By Anne Midgette  |  May 13, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  from readers , polls , random musings  
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I did not vote because I couldn't just select one option. I think orchestras should definitely play new music; whether EVERY concert should include a contemporary work, well, my answer is no.

The reason why I think new music should figure in subscription programs is that, as Oliver Knussen pointed out in the post-concert discussion, it comes from somewhere. Composer build on hundreds of years of tradition. Mr. Knussen argued for intelligent programming, puting music in context and criticized conductors who simply put contemporary works in program just to say that they conduct the music of our times.

On the other hand I could well see the point of festivals. They certainly draw attention to new music. But, if they are put together, they should also include longer works.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 13, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree 100% with the "separate but equal" approach. Even if I had unlimited time to see concerts (which I don't) I would have very little interest in attending traditional concerts with a contemporary piece or two mixed in. I would much rather see an all-contemporary concert by a group that specializes in the music and has built a reputation performing it (e.g., Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Alarm Will Sound, Ethel, Eighth Blackbird, and so on).

I think this specialization is good; there are different audiences for different types of music, and people should have the opportunity to listen to what they want to hear. If orchestral musicians and conductors get tired of playing the traditional reportoire then they can do all-20th-century or all-contemporary programs, using smaller ensembles if appropriate.

Posted by: frankhecker | May 13, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

I agree--as my teacher Adele Marcus, at Juilliard, often told her students, a healthy diet of repertoire makes for an enjoyable program. It is like a good meal--something for everyone.

Posted by: JBiegel | May 13, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the first comment. Not every concert should include contemporary music. With that said, not every concert should include basic warhorses, either.

I am always interested in hearing contemporary music; I don't always like it, but I won't know if I do without hearing it. On the other hand, I wouldn't cross the street to hear Tchaikovsky in the concert hall (his stage music is something else entirely), so it's impossible to please everyone.

ALL music was new at one time, and much of it was poorly received. In 100 years, what music of the 21st century will be considered to be basic repertoire if it isn't programmed at one time or another to a wide audience?

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | May 13, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

While I did vote for the first option, I would also be happy with the second one as long as the program were carefully chosen. A random combination of a modern work with a classical or romantic one might well be disappointing. But, for example, combining pieces by a modern composer and earlier composers who have influenced him or her would likely be both entertaining and informative.

I do wonder how the definition of modern music will change over time. I think works from the interwar period are still treated as modern, even though they are now over seventy years old.

Posted by: JohnCD | May 13, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

One additional comment on the Zimerman/Hamelin switcheroo. Given the cancellation, I was pleased that they found a substitute and quite enjoyed the concert. But, like your other commenter, both my companion and I were disappointed that WPAS made so little effort to tell concertgoers of the cancellation.

Posted by: JohnCD | May 13, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I'm afraid I don't like any of the options in this survey. I want orchestras to program plenty of contemporary music, but I don't think the people who aren't interested should have it forced on them. Option 1 means force it on people who don't want it. Option 2 assumes that the people who want it segregated want to be able to avoid it sometimes. I would say program new music regularly on many different concerts, but don't insist on having it everywhere, and also do plenty of really good all-contemporary concerts. I'm closest to Option 2, but I'd be more inclined to say "I love the classics, but I don't want to have to sit through or pay for some mediocre piece dragged from Schubert's back-catalog in order to hear some interesting new music."

Posted by: GalenHBrown | May 13, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I love "contemporary" music and attend the Bang on a Can festival every year, but I agree completely with the sentiments of your last paragraph and love your husband's analogy of going to the movies to see a blockbuster and being forced to sit through a European Art House film. And while I love new music, it frustrates me that it seems like we can't move past contemporary meaning experimental. Movie scores are also contemporary, and they're usually very melodic and not particularly aurally challenging for your typical audience. Why can't contemporary include audience pleasing music?

I understand the challenge for selling tickets to a concert that is billed as "contemporary," but perhaps having a separate concert that includes music that is easy for audiences to grasp onto and *might* even contain a melody that they themselves can hum after the concert, (which by the way, is why mass audiences like music - it's familiar and pleasing) as well as the more edgy stuff that might require a more musically educated audience, could go a long way in re-branding contemporary to something that has mass appeal, which would take away the financial concerns that orchestras understandably have in performing what is currently branded as contemporary music.

Posted by: ewarner1 | May 13, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Oops--got my options confused in my comment. I would prefer having a modern piece in many, if not all, concerts, as long as it were chosen to fit with some other part of the program in some way.

Posted by: JohnCD | May 13, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

I agree with JohnCD. The fact that modern music on orchestral programs often doesn't fit with the rest of the program reflects lazy program construction more than anything. You see it routinely in concerts that don't feature modern music, only it's not quite so jarring to some folks because the harmonic language doesn't pass some tipping point of dissonance (among other stylistic markers of difference. But I think that's the main one).

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 13, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the first poster about Mr. Knussen's comments -- any music for orchestra informed by the classical tradition should be programmed by orchestras.

Even within standard repertoire, nobody's going to be pleased by everything -- you may love Haydn and hate Mahler, or vice-versa (I happen to love both), but they are often programmed together.

Also, exposure is important. I had never heard of Ligeti when I attended a Philadelphia Orchestra concert at which Muti conducted "Lontano," along with Beethoven and Weber. It made me want to hear more Ligeti, and I became a fan.

Finally, festivals do pose the problem in that most of us have family responsibilities, jobs, etc., that preclude going to all the operas and concerts we would like(I assume your job has bad days, Anne, but it seems like heaven to a lot of us). My wife and I only had time for two of the contemporary music concerts, out of the six or seven that were given within a short time period. Perhaps a series which brought in artists for contemporary music spread out over a season would result in fewer empty seats per concert.

Sam Soopper

Posted by: geranuk | May 13, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

When it comes to programming classical music I think it's going to be hard to please everyone. Some people will go to a concert to hear the new pieces and endure the old ones, while others will go to hear the old pieces and endure the new. Some will appreciate the diversity, while others will prefer a program that conforms to a certain niche.

All I would like is to hear the NSO play more contemporary music, whether it is as a festival or as part of a subscription combined with older works. There are so many composers out there doing so many different things, it would be a shame to deny audiences the chance to hear what they're doing.

As for the Crosscurrents festival, I have to agree with what another reviewer said in that I would have probably gone to every one of the concerts had they not been all packed into one week. As it was, I had enough time to attend only two, one at the beginning of the festival and one at the end.

Posted by: robertcostic | May 14, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

"I agree with the first poster about Mr. Knussen's comments -- any music for orchestra informed by the classical tradition should be programmed by orchestras." (Sam Soopper)

Mr. Soopper, your comment is a bit problematic, in that who is it that will be defining the classical tradition, in the shorter run. (The longer run will take care of the dross, I believe.)

I hope that you do not have problems with the prelude to Wagner’s "Tristan und Isolde", Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”, Harrison Birtwistle’s “Earth Dances”, Iannis Xenakis’s Piano Concerto “Keqrops”, or Gloria Coates’s “Symphony #15”, do you?

Similarly where would such a stance in regards to the “classical” tradition leave such so-called “alt-classical” works as Steve Mackey’s “Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra” (performed by the NSO a couple Junes ago) or Mason Bates “The B-Sides” (to be premiered next week by Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS)?

Posted by: snaketime | May 14, 2009 9:03 AM | Report abuse

In response to the last post, Mr. Knussen didn't say "defining" the classical tradition, but "informed" by it.

All of the composers mentioned by Mr. Snaketime were or are consciously working in the Western classical tradition, if nothing else because they compose(d) for orchestra or smaller combinations of Western instruments, but also because they all are responding to previous music within that tradition (e.g., Wagner influenced by Bellini, Birtwhistle by the Second Viennese School).

Their goal, of course, was and is to add something new to the tradition. Thus, Xenakis studied with Messiaen, who influenced him to use his knowledge of mathematics to explore uncharted waters and expand the tradition.

Posted by: geranuk | May 14, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

I stand by my use of the word "define" in my previous post. Definitions are important here in that the Washington Post's classical music blogger has proposed the category "alt classical."

Additionally, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, while informed to some degree by the music of Anton Webern, was much more deeply influenced by the Western classical music of Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varese, and Olivier Messiaen. (He is not a 12-tone composer.)

Posted by: snaketime | May 14, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

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