The New, Exciting and Soon Forgotten

An article in today’s NY Times highlights a problem in new music that affects musicians and music lovers alike. It’s called first-performance disease. I think it happens in all genres — even pop musicians generally only play material from the current album (with great exceptions like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson). How many exciting new jazz compositions have you seen or heard about, only to see them performed once at the world premiere? It’s even tougher for post-classical music. Commissions are a great opportunity for composers to write something new, but it’s a shame when there’s only one performance to show for it. Here’s Allan Kozinn in today’s New York Times:

Last week, as the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood was gliding to a close, the large student orchestra of the Tanglewood Music Center lit into Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra. It is an electrifying piece: three movements that explore an orchestra’s potential in much the way Bartok’s and Lutoslawski’s concertos for orchestra do, but in ways that sound fresh and exciting. It alludes to works by other composers without losing its own focus, and like many of the festival works it stands apart from academic disputes about style and language, and strives for direct communication.

But although Mr. Stucky’s description of the score and his method of composing it piqued my interest, there wasn’t much to be done: it became one of those works you read about but have no access to. The best you can do is file away the impression and hope that the piece turns up, either in the concert hall or on disc.

When I finally did hear the work, at Tanglewood, the exhilaration of discovering a vivid new score was tempered by a nagging question. While intending no disrespect to the Tanglewood Music Center or its superb young musicians, who produced a fantastic performance, I wondered why I had had to drive 150 miles to hear a student orchestra play it, some 17 months after a premiere that, by all accounts, was a success and four months after its Pulitzer?

Kozinn goes on to make the point that orchestras ought to be more flexible and adaptive to great new works. I especially liked reading this:

…forget the outmoded notion that where new music is concerned, only premieres are important. Audiences and composers don’t think that way.

There is no real prestige in giving the premiere of a work that no one else plays, and there is no loss of prestige in giving the second, third or fourth performance of a worthy new score… And once an orchestra establishes a track record of finding works that resonate, audiences will come to trust these changes and look forward to them.

That’s good to hear, and something I suspect to be true.

There is also no easy solution, especially for composers who are not performers of their own work. One example of an attempt: a great new program over at Chamber Music America called the New Works Encore Program.

It’s interesting to look at the musicians involved. It reads like a who’s who of great composer ensembles in improvised music. But it still seems it’s up to them to keep the work alive, and up to us to seek it out.