Tag: repertoire

How Audition Requirements Exclude

Guitar near open window

“I guess no music schools will accept the repertoire that I’m playing for my graduation recital, right?” My student paused, and then gazed back into his webcam. “I can take a year off, I guess.” His voice, heavy with frustration and disappointment, trailed off.

“Yeah,” I replied, not really thinking about it. “Most schools require Bach and Sor, at least. You might have to take a year off to learn that repertoire—”

I stopped, suddenly considering my own reaction to my student’s question. We both sat silently for a moment, considering the personal, artistic, and financial implications of a gap year. We both knew this wasn’t a feasible option. Even over Zoom, his posture seemed to collapse under the weight of this potential setback. No—this couldn’t be the answer.

My student, Matthew Briehl, is currently working on repertoire for his graduation recital at Arizona State University, where I’m an assistant professor. He’s committed to learning and highlighting the music of Black composers, and—with my enthusiastic approval—he has made the decision to only program works by composers of color on his graduation recital. His dedication demonstrates a level of initiative that few students possess. As an educator, this is something that I seek to encourage and cultivate within my studio. Yet, by encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers—an initiative that most music schools would seem to support, at least based on their recent statements—I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged those who aspire to apply for graduate study, festivals, competitions, and other opportunities.

By encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers, I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged them.

In response to recent tragedies and the subsequent protests and public outcries, most major conservatories have made statements that condemn systemic racism and affirm allyship with individuals identifying as Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). These institutions have publicly declared intentions to create “a welcoming home for African American colleagues [and] all people of color” (Yale School of Music); to “tear down systemic racism and injustice” (The Juilliard School); to “embrace diversity, inclusion and equity” (Cleveland Institute of Music); and to “forge a new path of systemic inclusion” (San Francisco Conservatory of Music). There are many more I could include—I’m sure you’ve encountered similar language in statements issued by other leading performing arts organizations.

To be clear: These are admirable, worthy goals, and I’ve chosen these schools as examples because of their prominence. Many institutions have already detailed specific actions that will lead to measurable changes in both culture and curricula. But, in exploring these lists, I have yet to see any mention of audition repertoire. Institutional change is necessary, yes; but, if admissions requirements already exclude BIPOC, then institutional changes will remain surface-level and will do little to improve diversity and representation within our industry.

For auditioning classical guitarists, most music schools require: a piece by Bach; a major piece from the classical or romantic era; a 20th century work; and, occasionally, a contemporary piece. Among the programs I know of there isn’t one audition repertoire list that places emphasis on music by BIPOC and/or female composers. It is important to recognize that these lists often determine the repertoire that students select to learn during their most artistically formative years. Why take on additional repertoire that won’t contribute to educational and/or professional advancement?

I’ve been guilty of perpetuating this problem, too. I acknowledge that I have been complicit in this area of systemic exclusion, and I intend to create meaningful change within my own program. Previously, I have based my audition requirements on those of other US-based guitar programs without giving sufficient thought to the kind of program I seek to cultivate and the values I intend to uphold. But, my student’s recent comment forced me to recall my own days of learning and perfecting repertoire that I didn’t really relate to. As a Korean woman, it was exceedingly rare that my prepared audition repertoire could include music written by anyone I could identify with. As a performer, I’ve upheld a commitment to performing music by diverse composers. Further, I commission new works in an effort to expand the classical guitar’s contemporary repertoire so that it better reflects our current time and audience. As an educator, I strive to promote these values, and I intend to do better.

A zoom screenshot of a guitar lesson. Matt playing guitar and Jiji following along with the score.

One of Matthew Briehl’s guitar lessons with Jiji Kim over Zoom.

I’m proud of my students who seek out repertoire composed by BIPOC and women composers, and I’m grateful to my student who compelled me to confront a significant blind spot. I’m committed to making a change, and I want to show him that his voice and experience matter. We can—and must—become more inclusive.

You might argue: “Cool idea, but isn’t it a CLASSICAL guitar program?” Yes, it is a classical guitar program; however, in this context, the descriptor “classical” describes an instrument and specific style of playing. What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?

What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?

I often perform pieces that require live processing using Max/MSP and Ableton. Many wouldn’t define these works as strictly classical; however, these pieces make significant demands on the artistry and technique that I’ve only obtained through “classical” training. I teach my students the artistic and educational value of investing in contemporary works that represent the time in which we live, particularly works that incorporate technology. I also encourage my students to commission new works and engage in mindful programming—sometimes, you might have to exert a little more effort, but I assure you, BIPOC composers have contributed incredible, worthwhile works to the classical guitar repertoire. They’re there if you look for them.

Further, it’s important to recognize that classical works in the traditional canon often do not represent the background or experience of a student, particularly those who identify as BIPOC. This isn’t to say that the canon doesn’t hold educational or artistic value—I continue to teach these works, and I do not seek to condemn their validity or diminish their significance. Rather, I argue that we can and should expand opportunities for our students to engage with works that hold personal significance. We need to recognize that exclusive audition repertoire lists and recital requirements severely limit these opportunities.

How can I make requirements a better reflection of our current time?

Our industry and institutions have so much to gain if we truly open ourselves to the diverse voices that exist—and have existed for centuries!—within classical music. So, I challenge my colleagues across the country to examine their required repertoire lists for both auditions and graduation recitals. Ask yourselves—who do these lists exclude? Who do these lists benefit or advantage? How can I make these requirements a better reflection of our current time? How can these lists further institutional and/or industry goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

I pledge to make the following changes to my own audition requirements at Arizona State University:

Master of Music

  • Three solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). *It is strongly encouraged to play at least one composition by a BIPOC or a female composer (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
  • Applicants can also choose to demonstrate one (1) of their own compositions or an arrangement *optional
  • OR a curated (themed) recital program could be submitted directly to the guitar faculty

Doctor of Musical Arts

  • Four solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). The chosen works may all be by BIPOC or female composers. *It is strongly encouraged for a Doctoral applicant to include one piece by a BIPOC and a female composer. (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
  • As per the Master’s audition requirements, original compositions/curated (themed) programs would be accepted as well

Here are some examples of current audition requirements at major music schools within the United States:

Final Audition Requirements: A transcription of a work written before 1750; A classical or romantic work (including the Segovia repertoire) written for guitar; a 20th century work written for guitar.

Live audition repertoire: All compositions must be performed from memory; 1. two contrasting movements of a J.S. Bach suite, partita, or sonata (includes Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV998); 2. two etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos; 3. A complete work of any period; 4. Two contrasting works: one Renaissance, Classical (Sor, Giuliani, Regondi, Mertz, etc.) or 19th Century; one by a 20th century composer of any style.

I would like to mention that Manhattan School of Music includes a female composer Joan Tower and a Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu as examples of pieces to play for the auditions.

Graduate MM Audition - Choose any three of the following (or works of an equivalent level): A major work by Bach; Elegy or any two pieces from Bardenklange, op. 13#1-11 by Mertz, or two etudes by Regondi, or a sonata or fantasy by Sor, or a major work by Giuliani; Three etudes by Villa-Lobos, or a major work by de Falla, REspighi, Torroba, Martin, Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, José, Tansman, Rodrigo, Turina, Ohana, Britten, Walton, Bennett or Berkeley; A work written since 1975, e.g., Takemitsu, Henze, Carter, Nørgård, Petrassi, Tower, Ginastera, Sculthorpe.

Celebrating Holland, Bebey, and Casseus

If you have no idea where to look or even begin, please refer to the resources included at the end of this article. Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color. In the paragraphs below, I’ve highlighted three BIPOC composers.

Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color.

Justin Holland (1819-1887) was an African American classical guitarist, composer, and arranger from the 19th century. Justin Holland’s classic method book is perfect for beginners. Referring to methods of Sor and Aguado, he says “They are poorly adapted to the use of beginners. All of the great Masters (Sor, Aguado, Giuliani) … Some omit elementary explanations, some harmonics, others have no mention of the great number of musical embellishments constantly occurring music…” Which I totally agree with. These Sor and Aguado books lack many important rudimentary explanations––so, if you don’t have a skilled teacher, these very popular method books can be a disaster for young guitarists. The first 15 pages of Holland’s method book carefully explain what it takes to play the instrument (fret visual mapping, posture, etc.) and to learn music (music theory, how to count time, etc). His original work Andante demonstrates his immense talent, and you can also see that he was a skilled arranger (Prof. Ernie is an amazing artist).


Francis Bebey (1929-2001) was a Cameroonian composer, guitarist, and writer. His works are very impressive—I especially love his composition Black tears. There is a lot happening in this piece––chromatic harmonies and African rhythms—and the emotions keep shifting to such different places, high then low, it’s dissonant for a moment and then it’s not—we are jolly for a moment—ah—not anymore. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a piece, and it requires a tremendous level of musicianship to execute well. Black African Music is not meant just for the ear but for all the senses and faculties of the body. It reflects Africa’s vision of the world on earth and the world beyond, a world of change and movement, a world in permanent search of betterment and perfection.” (Bebey 1974) I’ve listened to this piece over and over again, and I’m in love with it.

Matt and Jiji holding up copies of a published collection of guitar music by Frantz Cassius,

Frantz Casseus (1915–1993) was a Haitian-born composer, guitarist, and arranger who emigrated to the United States in 1946. He was also the teacher of Marc Ribot (who is one of my favorite guitarists and who wrote a great article about Casseus). He had an active performing career which sadly came to a halt in the ‘70s due to tendonitis in his left hand. His composition Haitian Dances from the mid-20th century incorporates classical writing combined with Haitian folk songs and jazz. It’s one-of-a-kind and absolutely gorgeous, and I’d love to see this piece valued as a 20th century major work. This quote from Ribot sums up the perpetual problem Casseus faced during his career: “… [He] lived as a black man in a United States whose southern racists wouldn’t let him stay in the hotels where he performed and whose northern liberals had difficulty accepting his work as classical, preferring to hear it within a “folk” context when they heard it at all.” (Ribot 2003). Let’s not be those “northern liberals”—it’s fantastic, worthwhile music.

As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues.

As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues; beyond this, we need to adapt and move forward as society makes progress. We can’t just shout the buzzwords “diversity, inclusion, and equality!” and then not take initiative when we have opportunities to do so. We cannot continue to dismiss diverse voices because they don’t adhere neatly to our “classical” definitions. I’m planning to do better. Are you with me?

I’d like to thank Liz Lerman and Deanna Swodoba for inviting me to ASU’s transformation group and for helping me to recognize systemic abuse. A million thanks to my student Matthew Briehl who has inspired me to make changes. And another million thanks to my dearest friend Hilary Purrington who has generously helped with this article. 


Bebey, Francis. “The Vibrant Intensity of Traditional African Music.” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 2, no. 2, 1974, pp. 117–121.

Ribot, Marc. “Frantz Casseus. BOMB Magazine, January 2003.

Further Resources 



Grenier, Robert. “La Mélodie Vaudoo. Voodoo Art Songs: The Genesis of a Nationalist Music in the Republic of Haiti.” Black Music Research Journal 21, no. 1 (2001): pp. 29-74.


Teaching the Music of Now: A Mission, a Project, and a Conference

Research on Contemporary Composition Conference

Most of us who teach music history at the college level want to develop a curriculum that brings students right up to the present day. We know that the story of Western art music doesn’t end with the last chapter of the textbook, and we worry about accidentally teaching students that innovation and creativity in the field of composition are things of the past.

Many of us also seek to resist the canon. As historians, we are aware that the “important” composers enshrined in our textbooks are less significant than the diverse and complex musical landscapes in which they flourished. We are also increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that those “important” composers are almost all white men whose work was facilitated by their ability to take advantage of socioeconomic structures (and, in many cases, the invisible labor of their wives).

Finally, some of us are actively committed to introducing our students to the work of living composers. We are interested in expanding and challenging our students’ tastes, bringing new audiences to contemporary music, and helping students to understand how the art music economy works today.

The last chapter of the textbook was no particular help. I concluded the semester with the nagging concern that I had just taught my students about the end of art music.

These goals and concerns certainly occupied my thoughts the first time that I taught 20th- and 21st-century music history. It was 2013, and I was in my first semester as an instructor at the University of North Georgia. I taught a fairly conventional class that traced the emergence of major stylistic movements and focused on new ideas about how and why to write music. When I arrived at the end of the 20th century, however, I faltered. Where was this story going? The last chapter of the textbook—a scattershot survey of composers and works up to the early 2000s—was no particular help. I concluded the semester with the nagging concern that I had just taught my students about the end of art music.

In 2014, I set out to remedy this error. I designed a new research project for my students to complete over the course of the semester. Instead of asking students to research and write about music from the past, I paired each with a living composer. (I started with a roster of my own friends and acquaintances, although this project has since grown to incorporate a large number of composers whom I have never met.) Each student interviewed their composer and studied one of their compositions. At the end of the semester, students gave in-class presentations in which they introduced their colleagues to the composer and work, examined the economic and creative contexts of the composer’s labor, and positioned the work within the current musical landscape.

I was very pleased with the initial round of presentations. I saw my students doing their best work and making deep personal connections with the music they had studied. The next year produced similar outcomes. In 2016, therefore, I scheduled a Saturday symposium, put up posters, and invited the entire department to come see the talks. Although attendance was hardly overwhelming, the event sparked the imagination of my colleague, composer Dr. David Peoples. Why not develop a real conference around the topic of research on living composers and their work?

In November of 2017, the first annual Research on Contemporary Composition Conference (ROCC) took place on our Dahlonega campus. The one-day event brought scholars and composers from across the country and from abroad to present their work alongside my students. In addition, afternoon and evening concerts featured new compositions by members of the NACUSA Southeast chapter. In 2018, ROCC was expanded to two days and the event included an invitation for composers to submit electronic compositions or scores for performance. Participants enjoyed hearing about each other’s work and discussing their research, but they were particularly enthusiastic about the conference’s pedagogical component.

In 2019, therefore, we hope to include presentations by undergraduate students from other institutions, and I would like to strongly encourage music history educators to become involved with this endeavor. If you want to assign my research project in class, you can access the assignment here. However, we welcome undergraduate submissions on any topic related to contemporary composition, whether the work is completed independently, as a summer project, or as a senior thesis. We also continue to welcome submissions from scholars and composers. This year, ROCC will take place on October 26 and 27. The call for submissions can be found here.

Pursuing undergraduate research is a recognized High-Impact Practice—a pedagogical approach that has been proven to boost graduation rates and increase student success. I have demonstrated that this particular project has a positive impact on students’ knowledge of and personal investment in the work of living composers. Yet perhaps most importantly, my students tell me that participating in ROCC is a transformative experience. It changes the way that they think about themselves as musicians and scholars.

By completing original research and sharing it with the broader community, students don’t just learn music history—they help to write it.

By completing original research and sharing it with the broader community, students don’t just learn music history—they help to write it. Each develops a unique perspective and knowledge base that empowers them to shape the conversation taking place around contemporary composition. This is a thrilling experience. Too often, music history students are expected to memorize and regurgitate narratives that have been uncovered and enshrined by “real” scholars. When they become scholars themselves, they don’t just learn about the subject under investigation. They learn about the role of the historian and analyst. They learn that scholarship is subjective, contentious, slippery, and incomplete.

Researching contemporary music also teaches students something important about history. A survey course can easily convey the impression that “great” music is a finite resource generated by a handful of genius composers, each of whom built upon the achievements of the last, and that the composers who have been forgotten failed to earn a place in the repertoire due to their own shortcomings. Concert programming, performance curricula, and popular discourse all serve to reinforce this message. When students become researchers, however, the picture changes.

First, they encounter the extraordinary diversity of ideas, styles, values, objectives, and careers pursued by composers. If there is so much variety today, how can the past have been as monotonous as they are led to believe? They immediately understand that music has always been created from diverse perspectives.

Second, they gain first-hand experience with the vagaries of permanence. They see how a lucky break can thrust one artist into the limelight, while others of equal merit continue to work in the shadows. Where is the guarantee that the “great” composers of today will be remembered? The notion that permanence must be equated with genius becomes ludicrous.

Finally, by leading students to engage with contemporary music, educators can easily begin to address the diversity problems that plague the music history curriculum. There are plenty of non-male and non-white composers creating all kinds of music today, and it is not difficult to bring their voices and sounds into the classroom. Of course, this does not free us from our responsibility to address historical inequalities and to incorporate the contributions of sidelined composers from all eras. It is, however, an excellent place to start.

Ethical Artistry: Are we really asking ourselves these tough questions?

Outdoor string quartet performance

A little background: For more than two years, I worked to co-curate the Intricate Machines project with composer Phil Taylor and the Aizuri Quartet. Along the way, we had many discussions ranging from the pragmatic details of venue and budget, to deep artistic conversations about musical values. Our process challenged many of the assumptions we had about concert curation and presenting routines, showing us that no single set of guidelines apply to every project, and that decisions we made at every stage—from instrumentation to venue to repertoire—encompassed “lessons” that weren’t unique to us, or even to concert curation in general; instead, they were part of larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists.

So here we are. In a nutshell, over the next four weeks I will discuss the types of projects we pursue and who they benefit (Part 1); I will illustrate the complexity of certain decisions we face when running ensembles and curating concerts (Part 2); I will consider various ways we tend to evaluate our work (Part 3); and, I will argue that our efforts really do matter in terms of how we affect and reach others through our artistry (Part 4).

Pursuing Projects, Finding the Balance, & Reckoning with Artistic Guilt

It came as a surprise when I realized I’d been organizing, presenting, and performing contemporary music concerts for more than a decade. Sometimes these were really special projects near and dear to my heart, but more often they were rather pedestrian, fulfilling some calendar quota at a summer festival or university.

From a very young age musicians get lulled into the routine of these events, from holiday concerts in grade school to those tedious group studio recitals.

Later, in universities and conservatories, we perform degree recitals where our artistic choices are filtered through a rubric of academic requirements. They are often structured with a sort of formula or routine. For example, if you do a quick google search for “voice recital degree requirements,” dozens of similar rubrics pop up. (Here are a few from the University of North Texas and San Francisco Conservatory.)

These sorts of prescriptive recital curricula have strong educational value, ensuring that any student working through a degree program will develop targeted skills. Voice students, for example, will have practiced singing works in different languages, different mediums (e.g. art song, aria, oratorio, etc.), and different historical periods, and this will help in a variety of professional areas where they may later work.

Yet, in spite of their pragmatic design and pedagogical value, our students easily conflate that ticking off these sorts of checkboxes is the essence of what we are meant to do as artists. In fact, these recitals are not an end unto themselvesthey are meant to develop our skills so we have the versatility to pursue other far-reaching artistic endeavors!

When I first started curating concerts outside of school, I struggled to make this distinction. I was swept along in the entrenched patterns I trained under, and it was all too easy to keep my head down and just go with the flow—Hey, just tell me where/when the gig is and I’ll be there!rather than asking if my concerts and artistry were really reaching people in powerful ways.

Crowd Out w/David Lang

A performance of crowd out for 1000 untrained voices by David Lang, performed in Chicago, 2014
David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities

If we’re not careful, we can easily take for granted the ways in which our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience that may or may not have an intimate knowledge of the musical world we inhabit. Because of this, we not only have a chance to connect to our audiences, but an obligation to help guide their concert experience in meaningful ways. If we don’t embrace this responsibility and challenge, we miss the opportunity to showcase the beauty and relevance of our unique artistic world, or worse, we risk turning people off from it.

Our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience.

Why Am I (Are We) Doing This?

This is one of the toughest artistic questions we face, and one easy to run from when we curate a project. It is often easier to follow the steps of a well-defined rolelike gigging as a freelancer, enjoying the active musicking of performing in a community choir, or working as an employee in a professional ensemblethan it is to invent or craft our own projects.

But, at other times we do choose to step outside of these defined roles, pursuing projects in which we invest our own time, money, and mental energy. In these cases, what is the driving force? Is it a career boost? Is it a musical opportunity we don’t have elsewhere? Is it part of curatorial duties we fulfill with an ensemble? Is our project centered around an aesthetic idea, or a collection of repertoire and artists? Is the project fulfilling a social or cultural need in the community? Or maybe it’s a combination of these (and other) factors.

Understanding and deeply connecting to your project’s underlying artistic goals can inexorably guide your work. Your belief and passion is the basis around which others will connect to your ideas. Whether your project centers on a social movement, a set of composers, or even a vague artistic notion that you imagine but struggle to articulate in words, your conviction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982), a choreographic rendering of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, Come Out, Violin Phase, and Clapping Music staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 2006 BAM Next Wave Festival.


For those unfamiliar with Fase (and with early Steve Reich), this setting lasts over 50 minutes, as each of the four Reich scores is played in its entirety. Unlike many of Reich’s later works, these early pieces are extremely limited in their materialrepeating a few small musical cells over and over and over, in phasing repetition. Keersmaeker’s choreography is similarly minimal and repetitive, focusing on a few gestures and movements that cycle again and again, closely mirroring the musical architecture in long, unvaried, stretches.

In other words: it’s long, extremely intense, and fairly boring in the sense that it provides very little variety or reprieve. But, for me, it was also nothing short of brilliant and inspiring!

Keersmaeker’s work had such conviction and dedication to its concept. Meanwhile, Keersmaker and Dolven performed with virtuosity, focus, and determination, sweeping me up in the experience, in spite of the fact that it was long and psychologically intense![1]

This was the type of concert experience that illustrated the visceral power of art and made me want to be a composer. Today, curating my own projects, I try to harness the type of conviction I saw in Fase as I craft projects to try and reach others.

Your convinction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

Unfortunately, as much as conviction can positively guide our artistry, a lack of conviction in programming ideas can also detract negatively. Sometimes our programming can be sort of lazy and half-hearted (e.g. going through the motions, checking off the boxes, etc.). At other times, we feel indifferent, making curatorial choices that are sort of random, or which we feel are minimally relevant. Perhaps scariest of all, we can take a nihilistic view that no programing decisions we make will really matter or affect others in a meaningful way.

I can’t force you to be morally optimistic, but I think a lot of us as artists and listeners have experienced moments of powerful personal reflection and transformation at a concert, and these moments seem to fly in the face of artistic pessimism. Whether it is towering sound giving us chills and goosebumps, or the depths of a haunting piece that ravages our emotions, or some unique communal experience we felt while participating together in a live musical event, it often feels like these revelatory moments result from musical conviction, not from coincidence.

In a word, if we ask ourselves, “Why am I even doing this?” and spend some time really thinking about our answer, I suspect it might guide us towards a sense of conviction that will reach others in a powerful way.

Who Does My Project Benefit? Be Honest, Not Guilty.

As artists, it is important to have autonomy and freedom. And, pursuing any kind of curation or concert project takes a lot of work. So we shouldn’t feel guilty about pursuing projects that deeply interest us, or that will benefit our career in an obvious way. (After all, we’re the ones putting the work inwriting grants, calling venues, renting equipment, and so on!) Furthermore, many of us see the value of projects oriented towards community or social justice, but are reticent to involve ourselves if we feel the projects won’t meaningfully contribute to our own artistic life and goals.

We shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty about any of these positions, but we also should be willing to face the music and admit that some projects we pursue primarily benefit ourselves, and some more widely engage with others.

Wrestling with this balance is largely the crux of what Elliot Cole discusses in his article “Questions I Ask Myself.” Cole notes how much of our musical work as contemporary composers is often structured around personal gain and value systems defined by the specialization of our field, rather than being focused on what it provides to communities outside of the field. Cole’s honesty, and his willingness to engage with these questions, are important steps to take in measuring the impact of our artistry. Are we lost in a monotonous flow of formulaic concerts and accepted practices for artistic work? And are we putting too much weight on awards-based paradigms as the main criteria of evaluating artistic work?

In thinking about many of Cole’s specific questions, and about my general query of who our concerts benefit, we might bear in mind two important considerations. First, we should evaluate our artistic efforts and impact according to a broad and long-term view. In a lifetime spent in the arts, we have a chance to pursue certain projects for ourselves, focusing on individual growth, career gain, and other personal considerations, while other initiatives we pursue primarily benefit others as we provide education, access to music, community engagement, and so on.

Second, the purposes and impacts of any one project can be manifold, meaning the event you are investing so much time and effort into can ideally benefit you and others at the same time. In fact, many times we start a project focused on its benefit to our career or artistry, but as it grows, we may find ways for the project to have a wider outward impact.

When Phil Taylor, the Aizuri Quartet, and I began work on the Intricate Machines project, our passion for presenting five powerful, recent, string quartet works guided many decisions. Audiences on our tour connected deeply to our conviction for the music, which had spawned the project in the first place. But the project also evolved over time, and we ended up leading composer guest talks at five different universities, as well as multiple outreach events with the Aizuris coaching teenage and collegiate string musicians. In the end, our project benefited our careers, while also impacting audiences and communities on a wider level.

If you look at your own career (or ensemble or series, etc.) what balance do you strike? Are your projects exclusively career oriented? Or, are you devoting substantial time towards community ventures, but putting your artistic growth on hold as a result? Is there a middleground you can find?

Maybe the core of the amazing artistic project you are pursuing (e.g. a recital, recording, commission, etc.) can stay the same, but you can find additional ways for the project to impact (or be accessed by) communities that might not otherwise experience it. Or, maybe the community project you spend so much time on can start to include repertoire or curation that will simultaneously benefit your career in a direct way.

These ideas and suggestions take time to pursue, and they may not apply to every project. But, when we take extra steps to think deeply about our artistic work, we often improve both the quality of our projects and the scope of their impact.

For me these two central issues—conviction in concert programming (“Why am I doing this?”) and audiences who are potentially impacted (“Who does my project benefit?”)—are an important litmus test. Some groups are striking a great balance in their work, while others, it seems, are hardly taking these issues into consideration.

1. I think others experienced the work in a similar way. John Rockwell, writing for the New York Times remarked, “It is dry, austere and long, the movements inevitably lacking the shimmering resonance of…Mr. Reich’s scores. But in its intensely focused way it’s still a masterpiece.”

Help Me Help You: What Orchestra Managements Need from the New Music Community

In a recent tweet addressed to orchestra administrators, the American conductor James Gaffigan asked for help “to program more of the great living composers I have recently come to know and love,” and went on to propose a list of composers, aesthetically and demographically diverse, contributing to a vital contemporary music scene.


As both a composer and a recovering orchestra administrator (I served as senior director of artistic planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2010 to 2013, followed by an interim stint as artistic advisor for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 2013 to 2017, while the equivalent position was vacant), I felt I might have a unique, dual perspective on the question underpinning Maestro Gaffigan’s tweet: how can we all—composers, conductors, administrators, patrons, advocates—help to diversify the programming of American orchestras? And how can we in the new music community help administrators make living composers part of their orchestras’ daily diet?

Every spring, as orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, the engine of social media agita revs back up, as it, alas, inevitably will again in 2019: far too many orchestras will have programmed far too little music (if, indeed, any at all) by composers outside the canon of European men born between 1685 and, maybe, 1882. The new music community will call the industry out en masse for its myopic programming. Rinse, repeat. At best, this perennial shouting match, perhaps, moves the needle infinitesimally from one season to the next. In fact, I suspect it doesn’t much help at all.

In reflecting on what my own various professional experiences have taught me, I keep coming back to one theme: if we all had a better understanding of one another’s priorities, circumstances, concerns, and constraints, we would be in a better position to address the problem constructively. And let’s be clear: the underrepresentation of living composers in orchestral programming is a problem; none of what I’m going to discuss here should be misunderstood as an apologia for homogenous programming. Our orchestras can and must do better.

Many of us fundamentally assume that homogenous programming results from cowardice and/or lack of imagination on the part of our orchestras. The first step in constructively addressing the problem is to challenge this assumption. Certainly, there is always room for more bravery and imagination; that’s true for all of us, not just orchestra administrators. But the artistic planning, marketing, and development departments that I’ve worked with are populated by some of the most passionate and creative people I’ve ever met. They love music. They’re smart, talented people who undoubtedly could pursue a more lucrative career in the for-profit sector, but have chosen this field out of their passion for the art form. Writing them off as soulless charlatans is inaccurate, unfair, and—frankly—lazy. They are charged with synthesizing a dizzying matrix of institutional imperatives and constraints en route to executing the organization’s artistic mission. Many of the people in these positions would otherwise love to fill each season with living composers. Here are a few ways we can all help them succeed.

Become familiar with the orchestra’s work rules. I’m only half serious about this—there’s little reason for the layperson to slog through an orchestra musician’s contract—but it’s important to at least understand that an orchestra’s work rules are regulated by a union-negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. These rules govern everything that the orchestra does, from rehearsal schedules and overtime pay to how many miles away from home a run-out concert can be before requiring an overnight hotel stay.

Alexandra Gardner was the Seattle Symphony’s composer-in-residence during the 2017-18 season. Her experience in that role prompted another tweet that caught my attention.


As part of her Seattle residency, Alex led workshops with LGBTQ+ youth that resulted in the creation of Stay Elevated, a collaborative work performed by musicians of the Seattle Symphony. Alex told me about her original vision for the piece: a moveable event that the audience would follow from outside to inside the museum, and that would use the space in creative ways. When the Symphony had previously produced such events, the orchestra musicians participated as volunteers. This year, for the first time, an orchestra service was used (for the civilian reader, a “service” is any rehearsal, performance, or other musician activity governed by the CBA), which meant work rules now applied, and playing outdoors and on the move were off the table.

Understanding the administrative arcana behind decisions can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

It’s up to orchestras’ artistic operations departments to manage such administrative arcana. The end result can often seem to reflect an imagination deficit. It’s almost always a little more complicated.

Take, for example, two 20th-century concerti widely regarded as modern masterpieces: the Ligeti Violin Concerto and James MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Both are thrilling pieces and very effective soloist vehicles. And when they do manage to get programmed, both have broad audience appeal, not just to new music aficionados. Why aren’t they in heavier rotation with your local orchestra?

In one of the Ligeti Concerto’s most memorable moments, the oboist, clarinetists, and bassoonist play ocarinas. In the climactic ending to Veni, Veni, the orchestra players are asked to play bells “or two pieces of loud clanging metal.” In addition to renting the scores and parts to these concerti, orchestras have to acquire the ocarinas, bells, and pieces of metal, and determine whether, as per the CBA, these passages warrant doubling fees for the musicians. These costs can add up and, for a smaller-budget orchestra, become quite significant expenses. The orchestra committee might agree to hold a vote to waive the doubling fees—but if they negotiate for an extra off-day in return, the guest conductor or soloist might feel she’s left with inadequate rehearsal time and opt for a warhorse like the Mendelssohn Concerto instead.

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo's Red Inner Light Sculpture

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo’s Red Inner Light Sculpture, for violin, flamenco dancer, and orchestra. Image courtesy SPCO

There are, as Alex told me she witnessed firsthand in Seattle, “a great number of interlocking gears in motion” behind every programming decision. Understanding this can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

Go to concerts! I realize it sounds simplistic, but both the easiest and most powerful way to reward adventurous programming is to show up when your local orchestra rolls the dice on a new piece by a living composer. And we can all do a better job of this.

A lot of the pressure on orchestras to program Beethoven and Mahler comes at the board level, but not for the simplistic reason you might think. While, yes, by and large, board members’ tastes probably tend a certain way, it’s not just that they hate contemporary music and demand traditional repertoire. Just as operations and marketing departments deserve more credit than they’re often given, it’s important to resist the stereotypical image of the board member as merely a moneyed dilettante wanting in artistic conviction. Many of them may not have the finer artistic discernment of the conservatory-trained among us, but let’s remember that boards consist of volunteers who have given hours of their time and thousands of their dollars, sometimes over the course of many years, to support the orchestra; and they have accepted a fiduciary responsibility to the orchestra’s institutional sustainability. They go to concerts (when I was at the SPCO, I saw almost every board member at almost every program). And they see full houses for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and empty seats for contemporary fare.

The steady graying of the average orchestra’s audience alarms boards more than any other constituency. Board members, least of anyone, want to see the institution they’ve supported for years die of old age. At one of the orchestras I served, one of our most dedicated board members would often challenge us to think creatively and strategically about how to broaden our audience reach; pointing to his own gray hair, he would warn us that too much of the audience looked like him.

And it’s just as important for the musicians to know that there’s an audience for this music. In one of my previous positions, I received an email from a musician in the orchestra—the day before the world premiere of a piece we had commissioned!—suggesting that we cancel the premiere, because he felt it hadn’t been adequately rehearsed, and, in any case, the audience was coming for the Beloved Classical Music Masterpiece on the second half, not to hear some weird new music. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this picture, but one of the most important takeaways for me was that this musician felt that new music had no audience support, so why were we even doing it?

So when your local orchestra programs contemporary music, buy a ticket, bring a friend, and show the musicians onstage and the board members in the house that adventurous programming appeals to a younger, more diverse demographic. (This may not be fair, but I’m taking it as a given that new music audiences tend to look younger than my graying board member.) By simply attending, we send a clear message that the orchestra has a future beyond Beethoven and Brahms.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously. I can’t tell you the number of times my marketing colleagues—who, in spirit, supported diverse programming themselves—held up audience survey results to remind me that the single-most popular concert program from the Mesozoic era to the present day was “Glories of the Italian Baroque.”

But I was in the house for all three performances of our world premiere last week! Standing ovation all three nights! The lobby was buzzing during intermission! Yes, but survey says.

How I wish I could have read a letter to my management colleagues and board as effusive as what I had heard directly from the audience at the concert.

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, 2017. Image courtesy SPCO

Put a few bucks in the hat. If you’re in a position to enclose a check with your thank-you letter—even a modest gift of $10 or $25—so much the better. (NB. You’re right to think that your $10 check won’t make a significant difference to the bottom line of the orchestra’s x-million dollar budget; but you as an individual donor—especially if you are a new donor—represent a valuable asset to the orchestra as it appeals to major donors, corporations, and foundations for big-dollar support.)

Single-ticket purchases, thank-you letters, supportive phone calls, and small contributions might seem like drops in the ocean, but they can make a real difference. Imagine an artistic administrator able to stand up in front of the board, staff, and musicians at the orchestra’s annual meeting and report, “This past season, we increased our programming of music by living and under-represented composers by 15%, and we saw a direct correlation between these programs and a 3% audience growth. These programs also attracted 64 new individual donors.” If she could give this report, then read a letter or two from audience members sharing how much they value the diversity of the orchestra’s programming, what a powerful message that would send to the entire organization.

Finally, if the reader will indulge a slight left turn, here’s a pro-tip for prospective guest conductors and soloists (and their managers) looking to land a debut: include contemporary music in your repertoire proposals. So many up-and-coming conductors want to make a splash with their Bruckner 7; every young virtuoso wants to set the world on fire with their Beethoven concerto. But orchestras aren’t just looking for the most accomplished musicians: they’re looking for the most interesting musicians. An orchestra musician I worked closely with on developing programs used to insist, “A soloist should transform a concert.” For my money, the most interesting artists—the ones who can be counted on to deliver the most transformative Beethoven concerti—are the ones whose repertoire doesn’t stop at 1999, much less 1899. Approaching the literature, not as a museum catalog but as a living, dynamic continuum, invariably makes your Beethoven more interesting. Offering contemporary repertoire doesn’t mean the orchestra will necessarily ask for your Widmann or Wolfe, but it’s informative to know whether you value this music at all.

It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

Also, some perspective: does the orchestra have one of the world’s preeminent Bruckner conductors as its current music director? Did the world’s most famous violinist play the Beethoven with them last season? If so, it doesn’t matter how great your Beethoven is—truly, I know it would be great! Your exceptional artistry is why I’m on the phone with your manager to begin with—you’re setting yourself up for a difficult comparison. At the orchestras where I served, musician surveys played an important part in determining whether to re-invite debut guest artists, and the conductors and soloists who made the strongest first impressions did it with repertoire outside the standard canon. A young violinist making their debut with Sibelius typically prompts responses of, “Eh, fine, but we’ve had better.” It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar—leaving the orchestra and its audience eager to hear what you can do with the standard repertoire—than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

The magic of our art form is its capacity for reinvention. The inheritance and transformation of tradition is the greatness of Beethoven is the greatness of Stravinsky is the greatness of Ligeti is the greatness of Matthew Aucoin and Alex Temple and Angélica Negrón. By advocating for the music of the present day—whether as artists, audiences, or administrators—we not only promote the work of living composers; we renew the vitality of the art form as a whole. I applaud Maestro Gaffigan’s efforts to champion the work of living composers. We can all do more than lay this charge at the feet of orchestra administrators. Let us all take up this cause constructively, proactively, and with gusto.

How We Pick Rep and Keep Surprising Our Audiences

How does my string quintet Sybarite5 pick the music we play?

People ask me this all the time.

First of all, it’s important to know a little about how we program and perform. We program in modular fashion. What do I mean by this? Selections are usually three to eight minutes long, so we have great flexibility. It’s easy for us to slip newer works and experiments in and out of a set. This also allows us to tweak programs on the road. Much like a rock band, there’s an element of excitement and surprise in not knowing exactly what’s next, and we use that to create dynamic concert events as much as possible. If someone writes us a 30 to 50 minute piece, chances are slim we’ll play it often. Sometimes composers send us multi-movement works, and often we treat each movement as its own piece.

This happened recently with a new piece written for us by the just-announced 2018 Pulitzer finalist Michael Gilbertson. We commissioned a three-movement, 20 minute work using awarded funding from BMI and Concert Artists Guild. Once we got the music, we realized it was just going to be too much for one show. We decided that the best way to premiere the piece was to break it into three separate works—Endeavor, Outliers, and Collective Wisdom—and to premiere each piece individually over the course of 18 months or so. At first we were freaked out by the idea of splitting it up, but once we talked with the composer, we realized what a blessing it was. This gave us three world premieres to talk about instead of one, while also providing the space to get to know the composer and the flexibility to experiment with his music over a longer period of time. I believe wholeheartedly this approach gave us more focused and higher-level performances, all the while fitting with our modular program. (Wanna hear it? We’re premiering Endeavor on May 3 at the cell theatre in NYC. Event info here.)

Also important to know: all of the works on a Sybarite5 concert are announced from the stage. Anyone who knows me knows I feel strongly about this. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, the last thing I want an audience member to be doing is checking a program for what’s coming up next or studying how to spell the composers’ names. I want them 100% listening and watching, not reading and researching. I want them in the moment with us as much as possible. We do recognize that the composers are VERY important to us and our fans, so we publish our setlists with precise titles, composer names, and links on our blog right after each show. That way, people can get the info they need without being distracted during the show. Here’s an example.

Also, everyone in the ensemble speaks with the audience. This also gives us a chance to talk about the music, what it means to us personally, and where the audience can find it directly.

Don’t worry, we don’t leave our audience completely in the dark. Our printed program generally describes the show and mentions key composer names. Here’s an example:

Outliers: Sybarite5 is always on the lookout for new tunes and composers that speak with a unique and relevant voice. Outliers is a celebration of works written for us by our favorite composers and friends we’ve made traveling the world performing music we love. Sybarite5 plays the music of its friends Andy Akiho, Shawn Conley, Jessica Meyer, Marc Mellits, Brandon Ridenour, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Steven Snowden, and Dan Visconti paired with the group’s favorite works of Armenian folk music, Piazzolla, Barber, and Radiohead.

Regarding talking with the audience, I want to be clear here: I believe in engagement before information, so we don’t give a lecture about sonata form OR the polyrhythmic structures in our music. That is not gonna happen at our shows. Why? Because ~93% of the population does not want to hear about that; they cannot actually process that information in a performance-enhancing way.

Only 7% of Americans are in the “art club.” Meaning they self-identify as people with the arts as a central part of their lives and identity, and function according to understandings and abilities its members have developed. We make two big mistakes in trying to expand the reach of art beyond the club members: 1. We make false assumptions that those not in the Club think and function the same way as people in the Club, and they don’t. For example, we assume everyone can read a composer’s bio in a program and turn that into an enhanced experiencing of the performance—that is usually true for Art Club members, but not true of those not in the club. I based it on several studies from the UK, Canada and the U.S.—psychographic research mostly, but the interpretation is not a hard research finding, but interpretation. 2. We focus way too high a percentage of our creative energies on the Club, to keep them happy, to prevent anything they might find unsettling. Eric Booth

I agree with Eric. At best 7% know the difference between terms like baroque, classical, romantic, neo-classical, minimalism, serialism, or Gustav Mahler vs. Antonio Vivaldi.   So the minute you use a term such as “rondo,” “looping,” “allegro,” or “G major,” you lose 93% of the audience! No bueno. So, we often speak about what the music means to us personally, or—if there is one—tell a story about how the music came into our repertoire. We rarely talk about what the music is literally about because I want the audience to decide for themselves. At the end of the night, the audience leaves knowing us and the music better. In the end, I find this to be a powerful performance tool. And it also means we need to know the music and the composers on a more profound level.

Sybarite5 with composer and friend Francis Schwartz

To much energy for the camera to capture: Sybarite5 with composer and friend Francis Schwartz

How do we select our rep? Sometimes we have loose parameters, simply deciding it would make a great opener or a great closer. Sometimes a piece just speaks to us or fits like a glove. Sometimes it’s a very personal experience, and I like that aspect of it because it tends to give deeper meaning to our programming.

Truthfully, there’s really only one way we can add new rep: we do it together and in person. We read it together. We play through it in person. Sometimes we talk about what it means to us as individuals and what it may mean for our ensemble. Sometimes it’s a short talk; sometimes it’s a long discussion. There is trust involved. I have to respect my colleagues. I have to believe that if they are going to bring an idea or composer to the table, it’s important to them, and therefore important to the artistic growth of our ensemble.

Is this a quick process? No. Often it takes six months to two years before we can read a new work. Part of this is due to our huge pile of “to consider” music. Also, our touring schedule can be insane.

Do we have an open call for scores? Nope. Should you just send us music out of the blue? Probably not, unless you’ve got some mad street cred, or <gasp> we know each other. So, get to know us or have a mutual friend introduce us.

Before I end this post and as a reflection of how our ensemble actually works together, I wanted to include some thoughts on repertoire choices from the other people in Sybarite5. In the spirit of our collaborative efforts, here are some quotes from my bandmates:

Sami Merdinian, violin

Choosing new rep is one of the most thrilling aspects of being in Sybarite5. We look into composers that have a unique voice, that have a fresh and visionary approach, that are interested in expanding sounds and techniques for us, that are willing to grow and develop together during the collaborative process.

A lot of the composers that we end up choosing are acquaintances or friends, and they are aware of the programming we do, so seamlessly we incorporate their works into our repertoire. I feel mutual admiration ends up being a key component for a successful commission.

Laura Metcalf, cello

The musicians of Sybarite5 choose our repertoire in the most organic way possible: we play the music that we love. When considering composers with whom we build relationships, we look for a unique, authentic voice, and an aesthetic that makes sense with the rest of our programming. Many of the works we end up loving and playing again and again are by our instrumentalist friends who are new to composing – we don’t look for the most accomplished composers “on paper,” but rather find sounds that resonate with us.

Angela Pickett, viola

If I discover a piece that I love and that I think would complement the other works in our current rotation, I’ll bring it to the group. Recently this was Josef Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St. Wenceslas”, op.35a, which is a rich and lush romantic work with versions for string orchestra and string quartet. Had the idea of a string quintet been popular in Suk’s time, I don’t think he would have objected to a third version!

Sarah Whitney, violin

In SYB5, we love to surprise our audiences. Since we don’t have a library of existing repertoire to choose from for string quintet, we get to create our own repertoire with very few rules. I bring music to the group that is unusual and engages an audience in a new way. We challenge the definition of classical music, and it’s even better if we can present something in a way that’s never been done before.

Solidarity Revisited

The relationship between composers and musicians’ unions has always been complicated. While orchestrators and copyists are covered by the union, composers are not. In many instances (unless a composer also acts as a contractor or music director), they tend not to have any direct interaction with the union, often finding themselves to be middlemen (or at least interested third parties) between the union and the organization that pays the musicians.

In the concert music world, composers are affected by union rules when they ask for recordings of orchestral works (Nico Muhly wrote an extensive post on this topic a couple of years ago) or if a new music ensemble is forced to cancel a concert because of a union dispute. Over the past year, there have been articles (here and here) pointing to the growing resentment of musicians’ unions in response to the decisions made by film and video game studios to record scores in non-union locations (London, Seattle, Prague, and Bratislava are most commonly chosen). The decision to not utilize union musicians is usually not made by the composer, however, but rather by the producers who hold the purse strings.

It is with this oblique relationship in mind between those who create the music and those who protect the performers that bring that music to life that a recent initiative by one of the largest musicians’ unions comes to light. Last week, an e-mail newsletter went out to the membership of AFM Local 802 (covering New York City) that began with the following:
How do you really feel?
If you’re having trouble making that out, it reads:

How do you really feel about 21st century repertoire?
In many ways, the future of classical music depends on the repertoire. But, as a musician, what do you really think of new work? What do you like most about performing new compositions? What drives you crazy about them? How do you think 21st century repertoire speaks (or doesn’t speak!) to audiences? What’s it like when a composer is present at a rehearsal and gives comments?
Allegro is planning a story on what our members think of 21st century repertoire—both the good and the bad. We’d love to hear your thoughts, because you represent the front line. Composers and audiences need to hear your point of view. If you’re interesting in learning more about participating in this project, click here.

[The link auto-generates an e-mail which already includes the following text: “I’m interested in learning more about your story. Please e-mail me with additional information to see if I want to participate. Thank you.”]

Allow me to break this message down into its component parts in order to understand what is being asked.

1. “How do you really feel about 21st century repertoire?”

In the abstract, the idea of asking performers how they feel about 21st-century repertoire is a good one—composers should welcome a healthy discussion of this type. The title, however, is not in the abstract and with its inclusion of “really” (in italics, no less), it is improbable, at best, to imagine that a healthy discussion is what is intended. The tone of this title is obvious—“It’s okay. You’re among friends here…tell us how you really feel about this new stuff you have to play.” It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading this as anything other than an invitation to vent.

2. “In many ways, the future of classical music depends on the repertoire. But, as a musician, what do you really think of new work?”

This is an odd set of statements. The first puts the weight of the future of classical music on those of us who are creating the repertoire (a discussion topic I’ll leave for another time). The second wraps around to the same question the title asks, this time emphasizing the negative aspects of the topic even more by starting out with “But…”. The question has now been asked twice, both times with a negative inclination.

3. “What do you like most about performing new compositions? What drives you crazy about them?”

“Drives you crazy”? Again, the tone couldn’t be more apparent.

4. “How do you think 21st century repertoire speaks (or doesn’t speak!) to audiences?”

Next, audiences are brought into the picture. Again, it’s impossible to miss the wink-wink-nudge-nudge of the tone here—“(or doesn’t speak!)” can only be read as carrying more emphasis, seemingly questioning the assumption that contemporary music speaks to audiences.

5. “What’s it like when a composer is present at a rehearsal and gives comments?”

Now it gets personal. This question has nothing to do with repertoire, but with the professionalism of composers within the rehearsal process. There are many examples of “composers behaving badly” in rehearsals just as there are examples of “performers behaving badly” in rehearsals, and it’s not clear how this question pertains to the topic of repertoire. Now if the true intent of the initiative is to allow performers to vent about contemporary composers and their music, then I could see how this might fit.

6. “Composers and audiences need to hear your point of view.”
Yes they do—as long as that point of view is given in the context of a healthy, respectful, and constructive dialogue.
The relationship between composer and performer has become increasingly symbiotic over the past three decades. Given that fact, it is curious why one of the largest organizations of musicians in the country would decide to pursue this particular line of questioning with its membership. Its misguided tone comes across as a clumsy attempt to gin up resentment between performers and composers. That resentment may exist in certain quarters in New York City and elsewhere, but unless it is addressed in a constructive manner, there is little wisdom behind such an initiative.

UPDATE: This was published today in local 802′s newsletter:


“Two weeks ago, we ran a question in this space, asking our members what they think of 21st century repertoire. Your responses have been thoughtful and interesting. However, we heard from some musicians that the way the question was phrased may have been disrespectful towards new music. That was certainly not our intention, and if we offended anyone, we’d like to apologize. We’d still like to know your thoughts on 21st century repertoire, and we’d love to hear from composers also. How can composers and performers work together in developing the future of the repertoire? What are the various challenges and success stories of performing 21st century repertoire — or getting it programmed? How can we get audiences more interested 21st century repertoire? If you’re interested in learning more about participating in this project, click here.”
Obviously it would have been better if something like this was in the initial newsletter…but it’s nice to see that they’ve recognized their misstep and have taken steps to fix things.

A Temple for the Familiar

Though I’ve lived in New York City all of my life and Newark is only a 20-minute train ride away, I’ve hardly spent any time there. Aside from a workshop performance of a piece of mine there over a decade ago, I have pretty much traveled to Newark only to get on an airplane and go somewhere else. But over the weekend, my wife Trudy and I ventured there to hear one of the East Coast premiere performances of Steven Mackey’s piano concerto Stumble to Grace at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). Although Trudy—who was born and raised in Hong Kong—had been there once before, this was actually the first time I had ever attended a concert at NJPAC which is now in its 16th season.

Acorda de Marisco

Going to Newark this weekend not only was my first experience of NJPAC, it also introduced me to Açorda de Marisco

It’s never too late to rectify a sin of omission, however, and it was a great trip. NJPAC is quite an impressive hall, and it was thrilling to hear a live performance of Mackey’s piece—which received a committed and exciting performance by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (led by Jacques Lacombe) and soloist Orli Shaham—after having studied the score in some depth last year. Equally thrilling was our brief exploration of the nearby Ironbound district before the concert, especially our dinner at one of the neighborhood’s celebrated Portuguese restaurants, Seabras Marisqueira. I’ve yet to visit Portugal and have not eaten Portuguese food in decades. As far as I can remember, it was the first time I had ever tasted two of the most famous national dishes: Carne de Porco à Alentejana, which is cubed pork and clams braised in a garlic, white wine, and fresh coriander sauce; and Açorda de Marisco, a traditional Alentejo “dry soup” consisting of shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, and cubed Portuguese bread crowned with a poached egg.

I’m making a point of all this because I’ve devoted my life to exploring things that are unfamiliar to me. It’s why I am always excited to hear a new piece of music, read a new book, visit a new museum or art gallery, try a new cuisine, or to travel to a place I have never before visited. And every now and again that unfamiliar place is practically right next door. However, I am often made aware—remarkably, at this late date, often much to my surprise—that most people do not share my unbridled enthusiasm for new experiences and derive the greatest pleasure from reacquainting themselves with things they already know.

Case in point: the centerpiece of the concert on Saturday night was not Steven Mackey’s concerto but Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a piece of music that is performed almost every season by virtually every orchestra in the world. The concert was, in fact, titled “Tchaikovsky 5,” and it almost escaped my radar because that was also the subject line in the initial press announcement I received about the concert. Don’t get me wrong here. I actually like much of Tchaikovsky’s music, particularly his operas and songs; however, understandably, a concert advertised as featuring a performance of his Fifth Symphony would not be the event that would finally get me to visit NJPAC for the very first time. However, I have to admit that it was Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that most of the people in the audience wanted to hear. Mackey’s piece and its performance deservedly received resounding applause, and the composer was on hand to take several bows. But after the Tchaikovsky, which was on the second half of the program, the audience was ecstatic. Nearly everyone was standing and the cheers did not let up for what felt like five minutes, until Lacombe started to lead the orchestra in an encore: yet more Tchaikovsky—an excerpt from The Nutcracker which the audience seemed to appreciate even more. It was as if I had been transported to the final game of the World Series and the home team had just won.

Now the question is: Do orchestra audiences love Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and the The Nutcracker so much because they are the greatest pieces in the repertoire? Or do they love these pieces so much because they’ve heard them so many times before?
Despite my aforementioned admiration for much of Tchaikovsky’s music, I am always suspicious of something that someone describes as “the greatest,” so I’m more inclined to believe the latter. And I see corroborating evidence to support that view in how the general public responds to most things in our society—e.g. the popularity of everything from “oldies” radio stations (which play songs people already have heard a zillion times over and over again) to the success of fast food restaurants all over the world. (There has been a line at every McDonald’s I have walked past on six continents.)

In such an environment, a Temple for the Familiar if you will, new music—by its nature that which we have not before experienced—is doomed to failure, so the fact that Mackey’s piece, as stunning as it is, got any applause at all is a minor miracle. But what can we do to change that? For years I have harbored the belief that there is nothing more exciting than discovering something new, so it has been difficult for me to come to terms with the reality that few people agree with this particular world view. If most people want to relive experiences, whether in order to get a deeper understanding of what they have previously encountered or simply to enjoy a sure thing, then contemporary music needs to be presented differently. I’ve written about this issue many times before, even once in an essay with a name very similar to this one. But this time I’ll go out on a limb and suggest a possible new paradigm.

The new music community needs to make less of an emphasis on premieres and put more energy into making less familiar repertoire (e.g. recent compositions) more familiar by programming the music tons of times. A new piece should get programmed several times during the course of a season, not just one time or for a single consecutive run of performances. A new piece of music played during a season should be rehearsed throughout the season, not just the week before the gig. This, of course, will entail behavioral changes for all parties involved. The orchestra administration will need to re-allocate budgets to ensure there is ample time to do this. Musicians will need to rid themselves of the belief that they can truly do justice to any piece of music that they’ve only read through a few times. Publishers will need to be more flexible with how they rent materials to orchestras. Composers can’t miss deadlines and in fact should be held to tighter deadlines—if a piece being performed during the course of a concert season is not ready before the start of that season, it will have to be bumped to the following season or cut entirely.
Of course, emphasizing the potential familiarity of a new piece over its newness could have drawbacks as well. Perhaps a new piece won’t seem as fresh somehow if it’s done several times over the course of a season. Then again, no one seems to tire of The Nutcracker and everyone seems to have forgotten that once upon a time, it too was brand new. But of course that was back in the days before we had radio or Big Macs.

No Hesitation: Recording John Adams’s Music for String Quartet

Adams with Attacca at LPR

John Adams on the stage of LPR with the Attacca Quartet

“So, why John Adams?” This seems to be the most common question I and the other members of the Attacca Quartet get asked these days, following the digital release earlier this month of Fellow Traveler: the Complete String Quartet Works of John Adams. We are not specifically a new music quartet, and in fact, though we also play a fair bit of new music, our programs are far more often centered around the standard string quartet literature. Clearly, it strikes many people as odd that for our first commercial album we would choose to focus on the work of John Adams, who himself professes that chamber music is not his “forte” (forgive the really bad pun), especially with all the other incredible music we play in the string quartet canon. But for us, this choice was as natural as bringing a pencil to rehearsal—in fact, it may be one of the few decisions we have made as a group where no argument was required!
The 2012-2013 concert season marks the tenth anniversary of the Attacca Quartet, and the release of our first commercial album has been a very meaningful way to commemorate this milestone. We have developed a close relationship with the music on this disc over the past few years. They are works that we love to perform and audiences love to hear. How we have learned it, recorded it, and chosen to program it is an interesting story.

The first of the three works we encountered was actually the one written the most recently—String Quartet (2008). John Adams composed it for the St. Lawrence String Quartet after hearing them perform his Book of Alleged Dances. The String Quartet was commissioned by The Juilliard School, and the St. Lawrence gave the premiere in January 2009. At that point, I was not yet a member of the Attacca Quartet, and in fact, the Attacca were no longer students at Juilliard. Leading up to the premiere, the St. Lawrence was scheduled to coach one of Juilliard’s student ensembles on the String Quartet in preparation for an informal performance of the first movement by the student group. Because of this movement’s immense size and difficulty, however, none of the student groups felt they could take on the challenge in the short amount of time given.

It was at that point that Ara Guzelimian, provost and dean of The Juilliard School and dedicatee of Adams’s Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), called the Attacca Quartet and asked if they would be willing to step in at the last minute as alumni performers. After working on the String Quartet with the St. Lawrence, the Attacca Quartet’s performance was met with great excitement by the composer himself, who subsequently asked the Attacca to give its Alice Tully Hall premiere in December of that year.

Consequently, when I joined the Attacca Quartet in November 2009, I was thrust into a one-month “trial by fire,” learning this incredibly challenging and complex piece along with all the other repertoire on our upcoming concert programs! It is for this very reason, however, that the String Quartet has retained a particularly special place in my heart. The performance itself was a great success, and Adams graciously gave us permission to perform the piece for the next year (before it was available to the general public). Since then, we have performed the quartet all over the world—from various cities in the United States to Japan, Australia, England, and Mexico—and the piece has been unanimously greeted by enthusiastic audiences. In fact, we grew so attached to the work over the two years following its premiere that we took it to the Melbourne Chamber Music Competition in 2011, and, though it was an unconventional repertoire choice, we were told by many members of the jury that our performance of it was essentially what got us into the finals.
My first experience with John Adams’s music had been in high school when I attended the Interlochen Arts Camp. For the final concert of the summer, one of the pieces we in the World Youth Symphony Orchestra performed was The Chairman Dances (1985), an orchestral piece John himself describes as an “outtake” from Act III of his opera Nixon in China (1987). Though I knew some of the music of Philip Glass and Terry Riley, I had never heard this treatment of minimalist-based composition before, and I was completely floored by the effect it had on me. Over the years leading up to my joining the Attacca Quartet, I had also played other orchestral works by him, such as the ever-popular Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), Chamber Symphony (1992), and Son of Chamber Symphony. Since Interlochen, I have always loved listening to and playing his music.

Ultimately, our feelings about the String Quartet and about John Adams’s music in general were the catalyst for choosing the repertoire for our first commercial album. We perform and listen to a lot of new music; much of it is great, and a lot is not. John Adams’s String Quartet, however, is something special—a piece that will stand the test of time as one of the great works of the time period in which it was written. As Béla Bartók’s six string quartets are generally recognized as the most important ones of the early to mid-20th century and now virtually every serious quartet performs them, our quartet feels strongly that John Adams’s String Quartet should (and will) eventually become an integral part of the standard string quartet literature.

Adams, Attacca, Bise

Attacca’s cellist Andrew Yee, Amy Schroeder (violin), John Adams, Keiko Tokunaga (violin), Alan Bise (of Azica) and Luke Fleming (viola).

In the fall of 2011 (almost two years after first performing the String Quartet), we were approached by Alan Bise at Azica Records to record a studio album. We knew Bise’s work from his beautiful recording of the Brentano Quartet’s late Beethoven, which was used in the film A Late Quartet, for which we were all consultants and actors (minor cameos only!). With no hesitation, we decided that we had to include Adams’s String Quartet on the album. But what to pair with it? Pairing John Adams with a piece of standard repertoire such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Ravel can work really well on a concert program, but on a CD such a pairing could potentially let down either composition with the inevitable comparisons that would result among listeners.

Luckily, we were all huge fans of John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994), a collection of ten (mostly) short dances, six of which are accompanied by pre-recorded “rhythm loops.” Though the Alleged Dances was his first successful work for string quartet, it was not his first attempt at a composition for this instrumentation, which he has admitted still takes him a bit out of his comfort zone. In 1978, the Kronos Quartet gave the only performance of a piece of his called Wavemaker. While Wavemaker was not successful as a string quartet—he writes an amusing story of its catastrophic premiere at the Cabrillo Festival in his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction—he eventually transformed it into a work for string septet. The result, Shaker Loops (1978), remains one of his best-known compositions.

With the addition of the rhythm loops perhaps offering a way of approaching the medium with greater comfort, John’s next venture into this genre came in 1994 with the Alleged Dances, also written for the Kronos. The Kronos Quartet had also recorded the work back in 1994, and though we knew that other groups such as the St. Lawrence had performed the work, no other recordings existed. Having performed the String Quartet quite a bit already, we were looking for an avenue through which we could learn and perform the Alleged Dances with some frequency before actually recording the piece.

Thankfully, as winners of the 2011 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition, we had been given the opportunity to tour Japan and were scheduled to take two different concert programs to ten Japanese cities over the course of three weeks. While Japanese audiences tend to be fairly conservative in terms of programming preferences, we managed to sell the presenters on the inclusion of the Alleged Dances as a part of one of the programs. Despite their initial hesitation, our performances of the work went over very well, and even received a glowing review in American Record Guide when one of its contributing writers showed up at a concert in Tokyo’s Tsuda Hall.

Alleged Dances has unique difficulties in a performance setting—especially on a tour—mainly because of those six dances that include the pre-recorded “rhythm loops” track. These are all made from samples of prepared piano sounds, and essentially function as a fifth member of the group onstage. While in a recording studio this aspect can obviously be manipulated and added in with some flexibility, a live performance presents a number of challenges: setting speakers to appropriate levels; managing sound delays between what the onstage performers hear vs. what the audience hears; dealing with the different acoustics of different halls, etc.

Thankfully, Adams gives the indication that these ten dances “may be performed in any order, and may be excerpted.” This gives us considerable leeway in structuring a live performance, regarding both length restrictions (in Japan, we omitted two dances for this reason) and personal preference on how the lineup of dances should affect the audience’s listening experience. And if a hall does not have the capability of handling the electronic requirements of performing the accompanied dances, we simply program the four unaccompanied dances as a 13-minute John Adams segment in the concert. The order we chose for the album is our current favorite, but nothing like the order we used for our Japan concerts. In fact, we are likely to put together many new combinations as we continue to program the piece.

Adams explains the title of this work with his characteristic good humor: “These dances…are ‘alleged’ because the steps for them have yet to be invented. They cuss, chaw, hock hooeys, scratch and talk too loud. They are also, so I’m told, hard to play.” (We can certainly vouch for the last part of that statement!) Here, the style of writing is rarely in his more recognizable minimalist vein; he more often veers in the direction of swing, jazz, and folk music. The individual dances are enigmatically (and sometimes hilariously) titled, with the various meanings behind them ranging from the literary to the absurd (“Rag the Bone,” “Toot Nipple,” and “Alligator Escalator,” to name a few). Clocking in at just over a minute, “Toot Nipple” actually shows up as an encore at the end of our concerts with some frequency, in part just because we like to announce its title to the audience (though this is a bit more difficult during children’s concerts…). Each of the dances is wonderfully unique, and we have had a blast both recording and performing this piece.

As for the final work on the album, all I can say is that we completely lucked out on that one. After we had made the decision to do an album of the String Quartet and the Alleged Dances, we decided to call the album “The Complete String Quartet Works of John Adams,” which had never been put together on one disc. But after talking to people at his publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, we discovered that he had written one other short work for string quartet that had never been recorded: Fellow Traveler (2007).
We immediately got to work on including the piece on the album since the recording was scheduled to happen in only a few short months, and now we wanted to make the album a vehicle for Fellow Traveler’s premiere recording. After presenting the recording project to John Adams and getting his go-ahead, we hurriedly cut and pasted together individual parts from the full score (which was all that was available at the time), and we gave our first performance of it at the Kennedy Center in January 2011, just two months before we recorded the piece at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.

Fellow Traveler is an unpublished single-movement piece, conceived as a 50th birthday present for John’s longtime friend and collaborator, the opera and theatre director Peter Sellars. The title is doubtless a nod and a wink in the direction of Sellars’s restless globetrotting as well as his absorption with the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the principal character in the Adams-Sellars opera Doctor Atomic (2005). Oppenheimer was a scientific genius who during his lifetime was hounded by the FBI, who suspected him of being a “fellow traveler,” i.e., a secret communist sympathizer.

The music of Fellow Traveler is largely a gloss on the final movement of Adams’s Son of Chamber Symphony, woven together with two moments from the earlier Adams-Sellars creation, Nixon in China (1987). Die-hard John Adams fans will be amused, and those who have never heard his music will be given an exciting introduction to Son of Chamber Symphony and Nixon in China, two of his great compositions. Like everything else on this disc, it is a piece we love to perform, and it is a fitting conclusion to an album of the music of one of the great composers of our time.

And now, where do we go from here? We are currently about halfway done with a long-term project called “The 68,” on which we are performing all 68 of Haydn’s string quartets in New York. This project has expanded to its inclusion on a concert series in Ontario, and it has been incredibly rewarding for us to survey the lifetime of work Haydn put into making the string quartet genre what it is today. Our next recording project will most likely be an album of our favorite Haydn quartets.

We certainly have no plans to stop performing John Adams’s music: for a recent concert at UCLA, we programmed the four unaccompanied Alleged Dances and the second movement of the String Quartet as an “Adams medley,” something we are doing more and more often in smaller halls without the electronic capabilities required for the other six dances. After doing the official release event of the album at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC with Adams speaking, we are also playing the String Quartet and Alleged Dances at the John Adams Festival at the Library of Congress in May, again with the composer in attendance.

John has also recently written the quirky, inventive, and ultimately mind-blowing Absolute Jest (2011), a concerto for string quartet and orchestra we can’t wait to dive into, with performances in Madrid with the Spanish National Orchestra in negotiation at this very moment. With the String Quartet in 2008, John Adams showed himself to be far more formidable a composer of chamber music than he may have once thought. We would welcome any of his future forays into the genre!


Luke Fleming
Soon after making his solo debut in Alice Tully Hall in 2009, violist Luke Fleming joined the internationally acclaimed Attacca Quartet. Among his many festival appearances have been the Marlboro Music School and Festival, the Steans Institute at Ravinia, and the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. He holds an Artist Diploma, Doctor of Musical Arts, and Master of Music from the Juilliard School, a Graduate Diploma with Distinction from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and a Bachelor of Music summa cum laude from Louisiana State University.

“How Old Are You Now?”

Over tapas and perhaps too much sangria one evening last week, I got into an extensive debate with a friend about whether or not something could “live on” if it was not “great.”

“Only the really good stuff survives. Can you name anything that’s still popular from over a hundred years ago that’s no good?” my friend asked almost rhetorically, pretty much convinced that I would not be able to come up with something to refute his claim.
Even though I completely disagreed with him, I was in something of a bind since I have made it a life’s goal to not think in terms of good vs. bad. If I don’t like something, I’m fully aware that my feelings toward it have more to do with myself than whether or not it is objectively good or bad, and my attraction to things has changed considerably over time. The same seems true for just about everyone else. Therefore to assess something based on its popularity (either among the general public or a small coterie of taste arbiters) holds no validity for me.

If opinion has no role in establishing quality, whether or not something remains popular for a very long period of time cannot be used as a way to prove that it’s “good.” So even though I have no idea what “good” means (nor do I ultimately believe that anyone else does), I decided to play the game just to challenge the notion that what the majority values over time could determine what is worthwhile. Of course if I were to play this game by my own rules, my subjective assertion that something was not good would have no more weight than the weight of that group of many people over time. But, chalk it up to that blasted sangria, I summoned up my own subjectivity in an attempt to refute subjectivity overall.

“The song ‘Happy Birthday’!” I blurted out. “The music is dreadful and the lyrics are utterly insipid. Yet it has undeniably been the most popular song for well over a century and I highly doubt it will ever go away, though I often wish it would.”

Birthday Cake Profile

Image via Bigstock.

That pretty much ended the debate. However, the following day I received an email from a different friend in response to my previous essay on these pages in which I described my personal realization that my own composing emanated from the same impulse as my writing about the music of other composers—advocacy through communication. For him, however, the “virtue of a piece of music isn’t its ability to ‘communicate,’ but rather its ability to supply a unique experience.” And here’s the zinger:

“No one in new music will ever communicate more directly than ‘Happy Birthday’.”
So then, might “Happy Birthday” be one of the great aesthetic achievements of mankind and might my disdain for it somehow reveal that I’m actually pretty close-minded? Or is my second friend right and might it ultimately not be about communication after all?

The Names on the Ceiling

Albany Train Station
Sometimes it’s more alluring to travel to an exotic faraway land than to get to know places that are proverbially right next door. I had roamed five continents before I ever visited Philadelphia (although I’ve been there countless times since) and I had spent time on all six habitable continents prior to my first trip to Canada in 2009. I’ve still never been to Far Rockaway, although I still hope to get there one of these days. Before this past weekend I had only spent a couple of hours in Albany, mostly to transfer between trains and buses. But on Friday, my wife Trudy and I got on what turned out to be the last train going from New York City to Albany-Rensselaer during the blizzard, and spent the weekend there in order to finally hear a live performance by the Albany Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve long been a fan of the Albany Symphony’s recordings, since the orchestra, under the leadership of its music director David Alan Miller, has an extensive discography of American music, much of which is not available elsewhere—e.g. the second violin concerto of Paul Creston, the second piano concerto of Benjamin Lees, symphonies of Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, and Vincent Persichetti, and on and on. I’ve also long been impressed with the Albany Symphony’s commitment to performing music by living American composers. As in previous years, every concert of the 2012-13 season includes at least one work by a living American. This past weekend’s concert offered the opportunity to hear one of only three vocal works by Christopher Rouse that he currently acknowledges. Kabir Padavli, a fascinating 1998 song cycle for soprano and orchestra based on six poems by the 15th-century mystic poet Kabir, was gorgeously sung by Talise Trevigne, whose voice soared over Rouse’s signature explosive barrage of timbres. They are recording the work later this week, so I suppose I could have wimped out and not trekked through the snow, but hearing it live in a concert hall is a fabulous aural experience.

Troy Carpet

That carpet!

The live experience was further enhanced by the remarkable acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, which is also one of the nation’s more unusual venues. It was built in 1870 to house a bank on the ground floor with a concert hall directly above it. This was apparently commonplace in the 19th century, but this is one of the only specimens of such a dual purpose establishment to survive into the 21st that I know of. Over the weekend I learned that the bank closed this past year, which means that the future of the space is somewhat uncertain, but hopefully arts supporters will find a way to preserve what really ought to be a national historic landmark.

Haydn, Bach, Chopin

Chopin managed to make the grade of immortal classical composers even though his native language was not German.

One of the most inescapable sights of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, apart from the all wooden walls and floors, which are only carpeted on the aisles (with miraculously unworn carpet), are the names of six composers which are emblazoned on the ceiling—Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, J. S. Bach (so folks won’t be unduly confused and think that it might be C.P.E.), and Chopin. I’ve long been fascinated by similar lists of names on the ceilings of the Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y in New York City and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, particularly the latter since seeing it for the first time was my initial exposure to the Dutch composers Cornelis Dopper and Johannes Verhulst. Which brings me to my only pet peeve of the weekend. Though that list at the Concertgebouw is also filled with the usual suspects (including all six folks on the ceiling in Troy), those now lesser known local composers are there as well. Considering the Albany Symphony’s reputation for championing the work of American composers, it’s a shame that there isn’t a single American composer listed up there. Then again, putting new names on that ceiling would somehow violate it. It is, after all, a pristine artifact of the late 19th century.

Mozart, Beethoven, Handel

When concert attendees only see the names of dead European composers on the ceiling of a concert hall, might they be less inclined to welcome a living American composer? Obviously not at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall where the Albany Symphony plays a work by a living American composer on every concert program.

Indeed, as such, it is a very apt place to perform classical music which also is largely a phenomenon of an earlier era within which new components often seem to sit uncomfortably. The precarious balance between the past and the present in fact was brought home by the rest of the program on that Albany Symphony concert I attended. Despite featuring Christopher Rouse’s song cycle as well as Zoltán Kodály’s 1933 suite Dances of Galánta, the centerpiece of the evening was a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with pianist Yefim Bronfman. It was actually billed as the main attraction. The posters outside read “Bronfman Plays Beethoven” and so did all the ticket stubs. Not a word about Talise Trevigne and Christopher Rouse, let alone Kodály. It was actually a somewhat sad reminder that at the end of the day what got me to travel 135 miles north to attend this concert is not the same thing that brought most of the rest of the folks to the hall, at least if the way the concert was marketed is what drove attendance. (The hall was packed.)
Albany Symphony Ticket
Before I ever got interested in classical music, it baffled me that dead composers were more of a draw than living ones, but perhaps that’s why classical music doesn’t capture the interest of more of the general public. Had the signs and tickets read “Trevigne Sings Rouse Kabir Cycle” perhaps there could have been just as large, if not a larger audience, although many of the folks in the audience might not have been the typical classical music concert crowd. Admittedly, Rouse or just about any other living composer is not as big a name as Beethoven, which makes it a harder job to market. But shouldn’t the marketing departments at all of our musical institutions be finding better ways to market the music of our time and place? Beethoven is championed the world over and doesn’t really need our help at this point; but if we don’t champion the music of our own composers, who will? And considering that the Albany Symphony has a better track record than most of our orchestras in that department, shouldn’t that always be the message they put out front and center?

But ultimately this is a small quibble about what was otherwise a great weekend. Peering through the rest of the 2012-13 season, there are so many other Albany Symphony concerts that I want to hear so I plan to return as soon as I can. As I learned this past weekend, it’s pretty easy to get there from here, even with feet of snow descending!