Valuing the Contemporary
And while I'm on the subject of contemporary music: I had an e-mail exchange with a reader several weeks that has stuck in my mind, and that I've been meaning to blog about for some time.
This reader wasn't opposed to contemporary music at all; he thought that excerpts from Thomas Adès's opera "Powder Her Face" were the highlight of an NSO program in February. But he was strongly opposed to indiscriminate presentation of contemporary music. He cited as an example the NSO's commissioning 24 composers to write new fanfares, one for each program on the 1995-96 season. He felt that "almost all of them were absurdly awful." And he added:
My point is that I have no problem with the NSO commissioning 24 composers to write new works. But I do have a problem with the NSO performing all 24 new works, not exercising any artistic judgment at all on behalf of the paying customers. If it takes 24 commissions to find two or three good new works, it is money well spent.
This raises an interesting point. On the one hand, in a field that encompasses so many different tastes and points of view, it can be hard to say what's "good": one person's favorite piece may be another person's trash, and you can make an argument for casting the net as wide as possible.
But on the other hand, the reader is right that once a commission is given, it's pretty much guaranteed to be played. There is no provision made for pieces that don't quite cut it. This is even more of a problem in the opera world, where a new production costs hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, and where by the time a turkey like "The Fly" is completed, it is evidently too late to do anything about pulling the plug on it.
I don't think it's the worst thing in the world to have to hear an orchestral or chamber piece that isn't very good; it can help develop one's ear, or, equally importantly, one's ability to articulate what one does and doesn't like. But I do think the experience could use a little more contextualizing, because the tacit implication at the moment is that with every world premiere we are in the presence of a potential masterpiece. The listener is not given a lot of latitude simply not to like it. (And, as I said before, classical music is the only field that presents people knowingly with things they don't want and aren't expected to like.)
I know that a number of arts organizations are working on better ways to present contemporary music so that the audience is encouraged to think about it, and so that some filtering goes on before work gets to the stage. I think of the Metropolitan Opera's new commissioning program, which remains a lot of smoke and no visible fire, but which did cut loose Rufus Wainwright's new opera "Prima Donna," allegedly because it was in French and they wanted opera in English. (The opera is being done in Manchester this summer.) And of course, a festival like Crosscurrents bypasses the problem by avoiding new commissions and instead having curators select contemporary works they already know and like.
What are your thoughts on presenters making value judgments about contemporary compositions?
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