Orchestra Summit 2006

Orchestra Summit 2006

Orchestra Summit 2006

No one denies that we all want performances of new orchestral work that composers, musicians, and their audiences will look to with pride and satisfaction. Six key industry players discuss ways of reaching that goal and the hurdles that remain in our path.

Written By

NewMusicBox Staff

April 7, 2006—1:00 p.m.

Edited and transcribed by
Molly Sheridan and Lyn Liston

Video presentations by
Randy Nordschow

A special thank you to Julia Kirchhausen and the American Symphony Orchestra League for the use of their conference space.

Get a few people from the new music world in a room together, toss out the word “orchestra,” and the talk will quickly take a turn towards eye rolling, deep sighs, and “I wish” statements. Funny thing is, try doing the same thing with a room full of orchestra managers and the phrase “new music,” and things will pretty much go the same way. So wait a minute—composers want successful performances of new work; orchestras want the same thing. What is the big problem?

Well, of course, real life isn’t quite as neat as congenial cocktail-party conversations at music industry conferences and post-concert receptions might sometimes suggest. Sure, we all want to hear great performances, but what’s the best way to foster them? How should a composer and new work fit into the ecology of the orchestra these days? You only need to utter the phrase “promotional recording” to see just how far apart we are on some key issues. But has anyone ever looked closely at what the real barriers between the various constituencies are so we can drag them off the road already?

With such a goal in mind, NewMusicBox asked representatives of the major players in the equation to sit down together and lay their cards on the table. In the course of a two-hour debate, the conversation delved into a number of areas spanning a wide range of issues that impact orchestras presenting new work by living composers. Our hope is that we can learn from the successes and the challenges outlined during this lively discussion and find ways we can work together to solve common concerns. In the end, no one denies that we want performances of new work that composers, musicians, and their audiences will look towards with pride and satisfaction. Hopefully, this conversation arms us with an understanding of the perspectives in play and prepares us to reach out to one another so that together we can do just that.


Drew McManus: Welcome to the latest in the evolution of NewMusicBox’s multi-media conversations. This particular installment features a distinguished panel of six individuals representing every segment of the business involved in bringing new music to the American orchestral stage.

Today’s panel includes:

  • Christopher Theofanidis, an award-winning composer and professor of composition at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Juilliard School in New York City;
  • David Lennon, president of New York City’s Local 802 AFM;
  • Jennifer Bilfield, president of Boosey & Hawkes Inc., one of the larger publishers of music in today’s orchestral environment;
  • Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League and former president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra;
  • Robert Levine, principal violist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and also president of the Milwaukee Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians; and
  • Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony and principal conductor for the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina.
Inside Pages:

I’m Drew McManus, the moderator for this discussion. I’m the author of the weblog Adaptistration, which covers orchestra issues, and I am also an orchestra industry consultant. The discussion today is going to examine how new music is incorporated into the orchestra landscape, where the problems are, and how we might work together to solve them.


Starting Points: Or, hey…how did we get here?

McManus: Before we really dive in to what the specific issues are, we’re going to do just a quick overview of what the actual process is—how a piece of music gets from the composer’s pen to the music director and the musicians presenting it as a piece of art. Chris, could you walk us through that process?

Theofanidis: Sure. Part of it depends on when you’re talking about in a composer’s career—if they’re just starting out or are a little bit further down the road. Typically, now, I receive a phone call from an artistic director or from an administrator who says they would like to commission a piece, and they want it to be of a certain length and also approximately the size of the group, with some flexibility to add a couple of players here and there, depending on what the occasion is. I come up with a concept for the form and shape of it based on what the orchestra is looking for. Every once in a while it happens that a group will say, “What would you like to do?” When you get to that stage, where you can really do what you want to do, it’s a wonderful thing, but for a long time it’s not quite like that, and getting to that point has been a kind of interesting process.

Then of course they send a contract back and forth. I think the best way for a composer to deal with an orchestra is to be the artistic collaborator, so my brother, who is a lawyer, handles all the contractual things on my behalf. We have certain points that I try to express through him to the orchestra. Then when that’s all settled, a lot of it is just kind of technical back and forth. I do a short score, and then when I get to an orchestration phase, I usually am in touch with the librarian about specifics. Sometimes the librarians prefer now to have Finale or Sibelius files sent directly rather than having composers do all the parts themselves.

McManus: Jenny, how does the publisher work with this? He’s talking about moving the parts to the orchestra and back from his own computer. At what point does the publisher get involved?

Bilfield: I was very happy to hear that you do go through this agreement process with the orchestra with someone working between you. It is very, very difficult for composers to advocate on their own behalf when the business terms are being agreed. There are a number of wonderful advisors and attorneys who can make sure that what a composer is committing to and what the orchestra is requiring are really on the same page. I find a number of younger composers who are eager to have their first orchestral work performed will not completely take on board the commitments that they’re making and in their eagerness may have a rocky start at the beginning of a new relationship.

Where the publisher would begin to be involved in terms of the delivery of materials really does depend upon the requirements articulated in the agreement and the composer’s work habits. In many cases, of course, the composer isn’t necessarily able to render the piece exactly on schedule, and that’s when our editors work their hardest to make sure that they have the infrastructure and the team to deliver the materials as close to the delivery time as possible. Many orchestras have in their contracts an articulated requirement for materials—they need them 12 weeks in advance—and it is a very sensitive point when a composer might not sort of feel the muse on schedule. So that’s when we work very hard with the librarians, with the administrators, and with the orchestra managers to not lose a performance or to at least manage the awkwardness of having to learn a new piece as it’s put on the music stands.

McManus: Well, Henry, you have to be able to add something good here. From an administrator’s point of view, how do you deal with a situation where maybe there are some bumps in the road getting a piece that you’ve commissioned actually in the hall and on the stands?

Fogel: To some degree that will depend on the conductor. George Solti, one of the great conductors of the world, defined himself as a very slow learner, and if a score that he commissioned came in late, we would postpone it a year. I’ve always felt as an administrator that it’s more important to play the piece than it is to play the piece on the date you first said you were going to play the piece. If you have a composer who you know is habitually late—example, Notations by Pierre Boulez—late by periods of 10 or 12 years, you simply make an agreement with the composer to not publish a date for a performance until you have a score in your hands.

But you have to negotiate with the conductor and at a certain point with the players. And even that depends a little bit on how hard the piece is. Musical languages and grammars are all over the place, and some things are much harder for musicians to learn than others. And if the orchestra committee comes to the administration and says, look, we can’t do it, as a manager I would accept that. I accept that orchestra members are professionals, and if they say we’ve talked to our colleagues and we don’t think we can do this piece justice, we put it off. That’s not usually the end of the world.

McManus: What about the cost issue? Let’s say the music director comes to you and says it’s going to take more time than we originally thought, which means more rehearsals, which means higher expense. If you’ve got a budget you’ve got to stay in, do you shelve it, put it off for a while, or just find the money?

Fogel: That, too, depends a lot, frankly, on the size of the orchestra. An extra rehearsal or two for the Chicago Symphony is a much tinier percentage of the budget than an extra rehearsal or two for, say, the Omaha Symphony, which may only give ten concerts a year. We would find the money in Chicago. If the cost is manageable without threatening the orchestra, I think you try to undertake it. If the cost will have a significant impact on the budget, then I think you have to postpone it and plan for it a year later.

You also get pieces sometimes that are completely different from the requirement you set out. We asked once for a 20-minute piece from Ralph Shapey and got a 62-minute piece, and that means, of course, completely changing the concert, because the rest of the program was timed to go with a 20-minute commission.

Schwarz: But you did the 62-minute piece eventually?

Fogel: We did, partly because it was a joint commission with the University of Chicago where Ralph was the composer for the joint centennials of the two organizations. I would say in another situation, if we asked for a 20-minute piece and got a 62-minute piece, we would probably say no.

McManus: Gerry, Henry had just mentioned the willingness of the music director to be willing to work in a situation like that. In a music director’s schedule, where you’re traveling and not always around and sometimes options are very limited, what do you do?

Schwarz: Well, I think Henry covered it very well. I’m not like George Solti, I’m a quick learner, and I digest lots of new music. The greater concern for me would be giving the players the opportunity to practice the parts. In our particular contract in Seattle, the players have to have the music two weeks in advance. That’s a requirement. There are weeks when you’re doing the Chamber Symphony of John Adams, which is very difficult, and that’s the time that they’re going to have to spend weeks in advance practicing. The great orchestral players understand that, so the weeks when they’re doing all Beethoven, they’re preparing for something else. And, as Henry said, what you end up doing as a music director is you try to program repertoire so that they have that opportunity.

My question to Henry about Ralph Shapey—that’s very problematic. You go to a great composer like Ralph Shapey and say [you want a] 20-minute piece, you pick 20 minutes for lots of reasons. Among them is the audience. Does the audience want to hear, are they capable of hearing, and digesting, and enjoying this 62-minute piece of Ralph Shapey’s. If I went to Henry and said this is going to be a 62-minute piece of Ralph’s, he would probably take a breath and wonder whether we should ever do it, at all. But once you get it, then the question is, if you don’t do it, think of the press that you would get—”Chicago Symphony refuses to do new work of Ralph Shapey because it’s too long.”

Fogel: Drew, you keep referring to music directors, but remember that in many orchestras more than half the concerts, especially at large orchestras, are done by guest conductors, and the whole set of problems can be very different. If it’s your music director, he can shift rehearsals around or change programming. If a guest conductor is the person doing the new piece, and that’s the only week he’s with you, that presents a completely different and more problematic situation, frankly, and it’s often the case.

McManus: Well, Robert, there are between 60 and 100 players in a symphony orchestra. A hundred people don’t show up at the manager’s door and say we’ve got problems. How does it work if the players have trouble with the music that they’re able to express a concern to a conductor, a music director, or an artistic manager?

Levine: Well, I have to say, I’ve personally never seen that happen, although I can believe it does. Most orchestras have not only an orchestra committee that does union-type stuff but [also] an artistic liaison committee. Presumably, if I had a concern about a piece that was coming up that looked like it was just flat-out impossible, I would take it to them. But the fact is I think it’s hard for musicians to know in advance, because they may know that their part is impossible—frankly there are a lot of parts that are pretty much impossible, including things in Wagner and Strauss—but they don’t really matter because in context they work. Without knowing what the context is, you don’t know whether this impossibility is something you need to drop dead over or something you’re just going to be able to fake your way through.

McManus: And along those lines, what happens when the entire ensemble gets together and you start to discover just physical mistakes in the part—just wrong notes or tempo changes are marked incorrectly?

Schwarz: The world’s changed a lot in that way. Nowadays, because of Finale and Sibelius and the meticulous work that composers do and that librarians do, we rarely find many mistakes. It’s really a lot different than it once was when composers were doing it by hand or getting their friends to help them. What’s interesting is that if the orchestra doesn’t like a piece—you do, say, a 10-minute piece, and they find three or four mistakes—they’ll complain to me. They’ll say, god, the piece is full of mistakes. If they like the piece, you’ll never hear a word about it.

McManus: What about that point you had made, Robert, about “I can go to the composer and ask him what he meant.” As a composer, how much contact do you get to have with the players?

Theofanidis: That’s a big issue, actually. It really depends on the good will of the conductor in a lot of ways. There’s a definite psychology to the rapport that the orchestra has with the composer and the way that the information from the composer is transmitted to the orchestra. I would never assume that I was ever going to speak directly to an orchestra. I always defer to the conductor and wait until the maestro actually turns and says something to me, if they want me to engage the orchestra. If they don’t, I usually take notes and pass that on after the rehearsal if it’s of use and kind of stay out of the way until told otherwise, basically. The players sometimes will come out and ask a question on the break or something like that. It really depends. Oftentimes they just raise their hand, and if there’s a problem it can actually bring the rehearsal to a grinding halt over a small detail. And that goes to the issue of the importance of getting everything just right the first time around.

Fogel: Robert used a phrase in an earlier comment that I think relates here, too—that it’s not just a question of the conductor but the culture of organization, the culture of the orchestra. I know that in Chicago the culture was to try to encourage composers to speak to the members of the orchestra directly. So I think that sometimes it’s an institutional culture question and not even a conductor question.

McManus: Have a composer/musician play date.

Bilfield: When we’re talking about a brand new score, there isn’t a lot of erroneous information running around in the world. When we start to talk about some of the difficulties of the new works in a rehearsal setting, it’s when there are a lot of sets of parts out in the world, there are errata sheets circulating around. The conductor has a score from two years ago when they first looked at it and marked it up. Then the publisher sends a set of parts that have been corrected. Making sure that whoever is taking care of the conductor’s library has the most recent set of corrections, if it’s not a premiere, I think, will ensure that subsequent performances don’t grind to a halt. And I think that’s where, more than the premiere, a lot of the challenges arise.

Schwarz: That’s so true. As a conductor you get the situation where you do a premiere of a piece. You’ve worked very hard on it. Lots of ideas, put the bowings in the string parts, I mean, whatever you do. And then the composer makes a few little changes and the publisher decides that they have to incorporate the changes, of course, and they send you all new material. And that’s happened to me so many times where I say, well, can I have the old material so we can put the bowings in. No, the old parts have been destroyed, and we have to redo everything again. It hasn’t happened once—that probably has happened to me 30 times.

Bilfield: And that’s because in everyone’s paranoia to just have things marry up, there is more of a willingness to sacrifice the details that the original orchestra puts in. But it is, it’s a huge loss when an orchestra and a conductor have invested that much time in it.

As a publisher running a rental library, you know, you can imagine that we have a large number of orchestras that want the bowings of the orchestras that have gone before them and will ask for the St. Louis Symphony’s parts or the Philharmonic’s parts or whatever, and an equal number want a completely clean slate. And then when the materials actually degrade and need to be replaced over time because they are falling apart, just regular library maintenance will mean that those are taken out of commission. I know that certain meticulous librarians will make a copy of the principals’ part so that they have the record if they do the work again.

Schwarz: I think there’s another issue here. There are some composers who you put the music on the stand—boom, it’s just the way they wanted it. And there are other composers who scratch out and change and make adjustments. I mean, it’s a living art form. If a composer, some of them can just imagine everything and that’s great. Some can’t, and that’s okay, too.

Bilfield: The worst thing in the world for a new piece is a composer and an orchestra to have a bad first experience with each other and to do a performance that everyone feels is compromised by whatever logistical or artistic disconnect there might be. A number of orchestras who haven’t worked with a composer before will either play an existing piece, or they’ll ask for the piece a year ahead of time so that they can actually run it and see if there are any issues that need to be addressed. Then the following year can be spent getting the materials in shape, re-editing the piece, and, in some cases, we’ve found that when this is done the composer completely re-writes the piece, it’s a completely new set of parts and it’s a brand new piece, but everyone is happier with it and they learned something in the process.

Fogel: That’s an interesting idea because opera does have the concept of workshopping, and we don’t have that in our world. And it’s too bad.

Theofanidis: The residency that I did in 1994 with the California Symphony in the Bay Area allowed me to do just that. I worked with the orchestra for three sessions prior to the actual performance—three times! It was the best possible training, and it’s something that most of the conservatories, if you’re lucky, in your entire graduate program you have one reading session that lasts 40 minutes. That’s it. And from that tape you have to convince conductors that it’s worth taking a chance on you in this orchestral arena, and then you get the appropriate-sized scale work, and you don’t have a lot of chances to do revisions.

Schwarz: But it’s interesting, it’s not only young composers. For our 100th anniversary in Seattle we did a new piece of John Harbison’s, a new symphony. A fabulous piece, and I’ve known John for many years and I initiated the commission. So the contract came and he wanted a rehearsal six months in advance, and then he wanted five rehearsals before the performance, including one the prior week. And so I called him and said, “John, you know we’ve worked together a lot. Have I ever not given a great performance of a piece?” And what was he going to say? Of course he says no. I said, “Well, you have to trust me. I guarantee that this will be a great performance in our normal schedule. It’s an easy program other than your symphony, and we know your language. We’ve played a piece of yours every year. It will be great.” He said, “I’ve had so many bad experiences with orchestras that even though I trust you, Gerry, and I think you’re great, this is my deal. You want my symphony? This is what you have to do.” We did it. I loved it. I mean, the fact is when we did the premiere it didn’t feel like a premiere, it felt like a piece we’d been playing a lot, so one could say you lost the edge of the premiere or one can say you represented the piece in an even better way. But he was successful in getting it done. If I had asked for that as a music director, I go to the manager and say I need an extra rehearsal and I want to pre-rehearse it in September and we’re doing it in May, the manager would say you’re out if your mind.

Fogel: He got that in part because he was John Harbison and not a young, unknown composer. Ironically, it might be the young unknown composer who needed it more.

Lennon: Well, one of the things I’m struck by is this separation that exists between the players and the composers. As a union president, I do hear from composers, and I hear from them individually. And of course the complaints I get or the concerns that are expressed to me is that our involvement, our piece of the puzzle here, kind of happens separate and outside the whole process you’re talking about, but certainly will impact them. I’m already thinking as we’re having this discussion that these kinds of discussions should not be absent from the bargaining table. I think that composers, they come to us and basically the main thing they want [to understand] is how can I have more opportunities to have my work heard and what exists currently in the agreements that may be prohibitive to that? How can the union help? And quite frankly it’s a little late hearing it at the endgame. On the front end of that conversation is when we should be having these discussions. And I think that that’s something all of us should look toward.

Levine: But I think it’s important to recognize that the primary obstacle to getting new music in orchestras, played by orchestras, recorded by orchestras, is not the orchestra, is not the musicians. That’s not to say I know what the primary obstacle is and that’s not to say that there aren’t obstacles there, but that’s not the major problem.

Fogel: I think if you look at programming of orchestras, particularly in the last 15 or 20 years, I don’t know that it’s fair to say that getting new music programmed is a universal problem. There are some orchestras that program a great deal of it. For me, one of the biggest problems is getting a wider range of new music programmed or more new music programmed is something I said a little bit earlier—this enormous difference in vocabulary. We’re just coming out of a era now—and I think you’re going to agree with this Gerry, because I know where your tastes lie, and they’re very similar to mine—composers are writing who actually say I want the audience to like this and I’m writing for an audience that is a traditional symphony audience. Those composers for a long period of time where demeaned by a major part of the music establishment. And there was a very strong emphasis, underlined by a constituency that I wish where in this discussion but isn’t—the music critic constituency— where it seemed to me the general thrust was I, the critic, have to show that I’m smarter than my readers, so I like this music, whatever style, even if most of the audience didn’t. And I can tell you, when that kind of music was programmed, as an administrator I knew what my mail was going to be. I had in my computer file at the Chicago Symphony a pre-written letter on the importance of us continuing to do new music by living composers, but I think that distance that developed between composers and public not only made it harder, but, frankly, I have to say, legitimately made it harder for the music to be programmed. Prior to World War I, no composer wrote not caring what the public thought. Even those who had a problem, like Mahler, resented that problem; they never would have said I’m writing for myself and I don’t care what the public thinks. And I think that was a very unhealthy period, frankly, and I do think we’re coming out of it now.

Schwarz: I know we’re coming out of it. You’re absolutely right.

Fogel: And I think that’s also what’s going to make it easier to program new music when people who support our orchestras by going to them hear a new piece and say, I kind of like that.

McManus: Jenny, you’ve been wanting to jump in.

Bilfield: Yeah, you know, I think it’s true and it’s not, and it doesn’t apply only to composers, but when you make one piece of the equation invisible by not having it part of the community, visible from the stage, then it’s off the radar, and it’s a signal that’s sent, it’s a tacit assumption that this is not important to us—we’re not going to show it to you—so it can be marginalized and compartmentalized. The other thing that is so important and as a publisher, we see all the different ways orchestras involve and celebrate composers and torture composers around the world, when there’s a music director and an administration that is sincerely and transparently passionate about any sort of programming they’re doing, whether it’s a Mozart festival or a brand new piece—and Gerry is this personified—if the audience trusts the music director, and they trust the institution as artistic leaders in the community, then they will go to all those gnarly places simply because they rely and trust the artistic leaders in their community. And when someone is saying, as you have with so many composers, not only am I going to do this one symphony, I’m going to do all the symphonies of David Diamond. And I’m going to record them, and I’m going to bring them back. And the audience understands that this isn’t just a marginal piece that’s sort of a bon-bon, but this is part of the ecology of an orchestra. Then you can’t compartmentalize it, you can’t put it away because it’s an organic piece of the institution. And that’s where it works. When it’s presented simply because it’s an important composer, it’s an anniversary—we insert it, we get a grant—that’s where it’s easy to dismiss it; it’s a new music fly-by and that isn’t what’s going to strengthen the relationship. It’s going to reinforce all of the bad will and the distance.

My perception is that it takes a great deal of institutional time and institutional commitment to create these meaningful integrations and relationships. But where it’s been done, having just been back from the LA Philharmonic, where every single concert was sold out for the minimalism festival and James Levine speaking from the stage about a new commission of Elliott Carter’s and how he put the program together—even some of the most difficult music, when there’s excitement and context, people will trust. They’ll go along for the ride, and they’ll have a strong opinion.

Fogel: You have just added an important element which is what I fear doesn’t always happen, and to be perfectly candid, I couldn’t always make it happen in Chicago. I think the institution, including the conductor, have to understand and accept that some music needs help. When you mentioned James Levine speaking about Elliott Carter. There’s no question for the bulk of people who are normal symphony subscribers—now we’re not talking about putting Carter on a new music festival but in front of an audience that is a traditional audience—that music does need to be explained whether we or Elliott or anybody likes to admit that. And when that’s done, and when a conductor says here’s what I love about this piece and why I’m doing it—and preferably they don’t talk about the resolution on the harmonic 7th and the retrograde inversion of the secondary fugue theme, but they actually talk from the heart about why this piece is on this program—it can make an enormous difference. When they don’t, and you just put it in there, to an audience that thinks of Bartók as modern music, and they don’t have a grounding in that grammar, you can actually hurt.

Levine: Pieces that the audience doesn’t know are always a hard sell. How often have you heard the Vaughn Williams Ninth in concert? The answer is basically never, or maybe once. It’s a great piece, but the audience doesn’t know it. And even people that like Vaughn Williams aren’t going to get it the first time around, no matter what the conductor says.

Schwarz: You can talk to the audience and they can be polite enough to stick around, but we do a piece of yours [gestures to Chris], the audience doesn’t know who you are, let’s say. They’ve never heard your music before, they don’t know your language. It takes them a while to even get into what you’re thinking musically. I think the key really is trust and consistency. It means you can’t do everybody; it means you have to pick three or four and work with those people. Then you do a festival, and you include everybody.