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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?

By Anne Midgette  |  May 19, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  from readers , random musings  
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Comments

On Writing about Contemporary Music:

“Last week, four members of the [National Symphony Orchestra] horn section, playing natural [valve-less] horns with deliberately approximate-sounding, microtonal pitches, were featured in [British composer, and former Harvard University visiting lecturer] Julian Anderson's "Imagin'd Corners."” …

-- Anne Midgette ‘From the NSO and Märkl, Schumann With Verve’ Washington Post May 15, 2009

This sentence, in a leading American newspaper, has stuck in my mind for the past several days.

The natural horns played by four members of the NSO horn section [which consisted of five members, in total, for the work] were not, in fact, producing “deliberately approximate-sounding, microtonal pitches” in the Julian Anderson American premiere. Rather, they were producing deliberate pitches which were based upon the natural overtone series, rather than upon one of the various ‘tempered’ Western scale tunings developed and propagated by J.S. Bach and other European Enlightenment-era music theorists and practitioners beginning in the early 18th century CE.

There was nothing deliberately approximate-sounding about these pitches, and to imply such, in my opinion, is to completely misrepresent the intentions of the composer, the musicians of the NSO, and the visiting British composer-conductor-curator, Oliver Knussen.

Posted by: snaketime | May 19, 2009 11:30 AM | Report abuse

The issue is of course, on who does those "value judgements"; it is of course possible that a piece could be deemed unworthy, be left witout performance for some time, only to be re-discovered later. It did happen before.

One thing though about guest conductors bringing a contemporary piece is that it is already pre-screened, otherwise a conductor will not risk a bad review. Such was the case with the Ades piece or with Osmo Vanska championing the music of Kalevi Aho.

I would like to add two more things on the general discussion about programming contemporary music. First one: how others do it. For example the Bavarian Radio Orchestra has a contemporary music series called Musica Viva. The conductors are usually specialists in new music such as Roland Kluttig or Johannes Kalitzke. For me the draw-back is pigeonholing these artists. Indeed, such greats as Hermann Scherchen, Hans Rosbaud, Bruno Maderna, and Michael Gielen were long considered such specialists but turned out to be wonderful in standard repertoire as well. How would Kluttig or Kalitzke handle Beethoven or Brahms? (I think I should also point out that specialization has another effect: today, almost the only time when one can hear the music of Bach or Handel - save Messiah - played by an orchestra is when a conductor such as Nicholas McGegan is invited to conduct; it happened recently with the New York Philharmonic for example.)

Second point is about classical music "presenting people knowingly with things they don't want and aren't expected to like." Sometimes this mix of familiar and unfamiliar is exactly what attracts me. I am currently listening to one of the sets in the "Anthology of the Concertgebouw Orchestra" series and it was precisely this mix a factor in deciding to purchase the set (other factors were the possibility of listening to the above-mentioned Maderna and Rosbaud in works by Mendelssohn and Schubert and the ability to listen to a great orchestra under different conductors.) The set contains a great deal of contemporary Dutch music, well selected - I liked in particular Otto Ketting's first symphony. But I don't think that I would have bought the set if it ONLY had these contemporary works.

But, speaking of Dutch music, I do plan to eventually buy two CDs: an all-Johan Wagenaar by the Concertgebouw Orchestra
under Chailly and an anthology by the same orchestra under Mengelberg.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 19, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

So if an organization does not impose value judgments on the works it commissions, this allows the composer complete artistic liberty. This can be good insofar as the composer isn't constrained by other people's (possibly poor/conservative/narrow) tastes, but the consequence is that the composer isn't held as accountable (although one could argue that a composer would want to write a good piece for the sake of his reputation, if nothing else). Presumably, imposing value judgment would create the opposite issues.

However, I think it's a fallacy to say that it's possible to ever withhold value judgments. As soon as an organization commissions a particular composer to write a piece the organization is implicitly making the claim that the composer is legitimate enough to receive such a commission. There's a whole world of classical music that isn't being heard because certain composers aren't getting these commissions.

So I think rather than posing the issue as a question of "Should we impose value judgments?" the question should be "HOW should we impose value judgments?" My feeling on the issue is that, in order to encourage a diversity of music, we should also encourage a diversity of methods of imposing value judgments.

Currently, classical music has a top-down approach of imposing value judgments. In order to be considered legitimate, one generally has to go to a prestigious school and study with famous musicians and composers, and then various institutions and personalities will recognize you and commission you to write works for them. The audience is the absolutely last place for a composer to go to find legitimacy.

It would be interesting if we could somehow experiment with finding ways to empower audiences more. Maybe have a music competition in which audiences vote for the best new work, with the winning composer getting a prize (as just a thought). I certainly wouldn't recommend this as replacing the top-down approach, as it might tend to favor simpler, more crowd-pleasing works, but it could be a nice complement that would give audiences some role.

Posted by: robertcostic | May 20, 2009 12:17 AM | Report abuse

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