Archive for August, 2005

from Greg Sandow and my reply:
GREG SANDOW on the future of classical music

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Good idea

Linked on ArtsJournal today is a fabulous “critic’s notebook” by New York Times music critic Allan Kozinn, about the way orchestras program new music. Or, rather, about one way that they don’t program it.

Allan had heard a piece at Tanglewood that knocked him out-Stephen Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, which was premiered a year or so ago by the LA Philharmonic, and won the Pulitzer Prize this year. And so Allan asked why he had to wait this long to hear it:

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?

Where, to put it differently, were the New York Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the American Symphony Orchestra and all the other orchestras that while away the musical season in a city that regards itself as the center of the musical universe? And what about orchestras elsewhere that might have picked up on the work , then brought it to New York on tour?

He concedes, of course, that orchestra programming is done long in advance, and – or so orchestras insist – can’t easily be changed. But why not?

He’s right to ask. In fact, I’ve asked the same question myself. Back when Gorecki’s Third Symphony was such a smash popular success, I wondered why American orchestras didn’t rush to program it. One answer, back then, might of course have been, “Because we don’t like the piece” (since many people seemed to disapprove of its apparent simplicity, not to mention its popularity).

But think of what orchestras would gain – and what the cause of new music would gain – if successful new pieces were widely performed. First, orchestras would look like they really cared. “Look! Here’s a new piece that’s a raving success, and we thought [speaking now to their audience] that you just had to hear it! So we tore up our schedule to bring it to you.” Wouldn’t the audience sit up and take notice?

And, taking this further, wouldn’t the entire city where the orchestra plays? This is the second advantage. One problem orchestras have (especially large ones) is that most of their concerts don’t really register as events. “What’s the New York Philharmonic doing this week?” “Playing classical music, as usual.” Of course, the Philharmonic would annoyedly point out that they’re doing Mahler’s Sixth, or whatever, and that there are good reasons for people to care about the piece. But that doesn’t register with any large number of people. It speaks only to those who already know the repertoire. For others, it’s just about meaningless.

But how about this? What’s the Philharmonic doing this week? Sweeping everything aside to play a new piece that really matters. That’s news. That would get attention. People who don’t usually go to orchestra concerts might show up out of sheer curiosity. And who knows? Do this often enough, and you might build a new audience, full of people who like the new music you program, and really care that you’re playing it.

Plus there’s something else. New music, in the classical music world, lives in an insane kind of limbo. We all know that, but I don’t think we pinch ourselves often enough, and realize quite how insane it is. We think we’re art, we think we’re thoughtful, we think we’re serious, we think we represent some kind of pinnacle of thought and reflection. But go to the most serious, committed subscribers at any major orchestra – or, for that matter, go to most members of the orchestra’s staff or board, or even to the musicians, or even to leading music critics – and ask them to name the five best new pieces premiered by any orchestra in the last few years.

They won’t be able to do it. They won’t, in almost all cases, even be able to name five candidates. And why? For exactly the reasons Allan says. The works aren’t recorded, and aren’t widely performed. A successful, even tumultuously successful premiere isn’t followed by other performances. Eventually a piece might get around (that’s happening to two Jennifer Higdon works right now, Blue Cathedral and her Concerto for Orchestra), but it’s a slow process, which misses far more cities than it hits.

So what’s the problem? Let me quickly note one way for critics, at least, to fill in these gaps. If I wanted to hear Stephen Stucky’s piece, quite possibly I could go to its publisher, and ask for a private recording. I’ve heard a good many new pieces this way. Performances are sometimes (though not always) recorded, and CDs are available, if you’re in the business and ask the right people.

And also it’s probably not necessary for orchestras to send, as Allan suggests, representatives to important premieres. The artistic administrators of every major orchestra know far more about these premieres than anybody else in the business. If a new piece is a success, they all hear about it. They can easily get recordings, if they exist, and in fact may even have recordings showing up in their mail, unrequested.

So the information is there, inside every major orchestra. Why can’t the orchestras change their programs? Well, first, they all probably think that as it is, they’re doing all the new music their audiences can stand. They can’t very well cancel some new piece they’d programmed, to substitute something that was a smash hit elsewhere. That would be an insult, to say the least, to whoever composed the piece they originally planned to play.

So what else can they do? Take some beloved warhorse off the program, as Allan suggests? Probably not, for two reasons. First, the audience would screech. Subscribers and donors, even some major funders, might be outraged. Second, the two pieces, the warhorse and the new piece, wouldn’t require the same amount of rehearsal time. The new piece, presumably, would need more. So this means rejiggering not just the program, but the rehearsal schedule.

And then there are issues of instrumentation. Does the new smash hit require eight trumpets, or nine percussionists? Start smashing the piggy bank – now you have to hire extra players, and they might break your budget. So you’d find you had to adjust something else. Maybe you’d have to cancel the Janacek Sinfonietta, which you’d scheduled the same season, because it needs lots of extra trumpets, too.

But the odds are that any smash hit new piece won’t need extra musicians, because whoever commissioned it didn’t want to break the piggy bank, either. So this, in most cases, won’t be an issue. There is, of course, an extra cost for renting performance material. If you’re doing the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, and you’re a major orchestra, you already have the orchestra parts in your library. If you replace it with Stephen Stucky’s Second Concerto, you have to rent parts from the publisher, and pay a royalty, too. So there probably will be extra costs involved.

Beyond that, are there any issues. Unfortunately, yes. It’s not easy to arrange a full season of orchestra concerts. You have to balance more things than most people realize, including tricky questions of which musicians play on which days. I once programmed a season for an imaginary orchestra, for a panel discussion at the annual conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League. I thought I’d done a reasonably decent job, but then someone got up from the audience and told me I hadn’t given the tuba anything to play until half the season was over. I’d never thought of that.

And then there are probl
ems with guest conductors and soloists. You can’t very well displace an expensive soloist you’ve hired, to accommodate your new burning need to play Stephen Stucky. And you can’t foist Stucky’s piece onto some guest conductor who might not want to conduct it. In most cases, you’ll have to ask your music director to conduct it, and what happens if he/she doesn’t want to, doesn’t like the piece, has no affinity for it, or (pardonably) really worked hard on the existing programs, and isn’t happy to see any of them changed?

And what if the new piece needed a soloist? Where would you find one – someone willing to learn the piece – in a hurry, if the soloist at the premiere was (as would hardly be surprising) not available?

But enough of this. The obstacles are real, but at the same time, they’re imaginary. If any orchestra really wanted to change a season in midstream, that could happen. The music director, of course, would have to support the idea 100%. If the music director (and this really happens) is too busy with other commitments to learn a new score in a hurry, then an assistant or associate or resident conductor can learn it. (Well, these people are probably even more overworked than the music director, but I think they’d jump at the chance for this kind of exposure.)

I’ve seen orchestras find imaginative solutions to problems, once they decided to look for them. When the LA Philharmonic did the three acts of Tristan on three successive days one weekend this year, they initially couldn’t see how they’d find enough rehearsal time. The musicians, since they’re not an opera orchestra, by and large didn’t know the score, which also is more than double the length of an average concert program.

But the LA Phil did find a solution. They made sure, in the weeks just before Tristan, to program some repertory pieces that the musicians had already played with their music director. These needed less rehearsal than other works might, and the time this saved was given to Tristan.

One marketing director I know wants his orchestra to consider playing special concerts for the 6% of its audience who say, in surveys, that they like new music. These concerts of course would have more new music than usual, but might be done only once in the course of a week, instead of the usual three or four times. If this plan were adopted, the programs might be left somewhat open, to accommodate new pieces that had just been successful somewhere else.

And there surely are other solutions, which I won’t try to anticipate, because orchestral programming is a specialized craft, one I don’t pretend to have mastered. But I think the artistic administrators I know could figure out a way to do what Allan Kozinn urges – if they really wanted to, if their music directors bought into the idea, and if the orchestra was willing to spring some change from the piggy bank. It would be worth the money, I think, for all the reasons I’ve said.

Greg Sandow

from JB:

Dear Greg,

I read with serious intent this blog from August 16th. True, it is a tall order to get conductors and administrators to take the time to conjure new concerti, and get them premiered. I have routinely sent you emails (I think) relating to the projects conceived. After the Zwilich Millennium project of 2000, which had over 20 orchestras co-commissioning the new work (and has yet to be commercially recorded), the success of the project and the reviews of the new ‘Millennium Fantasy’ propelled me to do another one of its kind. Next May, the Milwaukee Symphony will premiere Lowell Liebermann’s Third Piano Concerto with me, and in an effort to fund the concerto and ensure it doesn’t die on a shelf after one performance, there are nearly 20 orchestras co-commissioning the work as well as a Canadian, European and Scandinavian premiere for the concerto for the 2006-07-08 period.

You are correct that most soloists might not learn a new work for a one-shot deal, though I am sure up-amd-coming soloists might relish the idea of a new concerto with a major orchestra to get their feet in the door. Milwaukee did a smart programming tactic: Liebermann Third Concerto first half, Beethoven Ninth Symphony second half. In addition, Andreas Delfs will have come fresh from New York two weeks prior from the World Premieres of Lowell’s second opera, Miss Lonelyhearts. He will be in the Liebermann style and will embrace the concerto with relative ease.

I remember when Marc-Andre Hamelin received notice when he premiered Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s First Piano Concerto in Carnegie Hall (was it 1983 or before?) when there was a competition for new works. At that time, Ellen was Composer-in-Residence for Carnegie Hall. Perhaps such a project might be considered to bring new works into existence. With Edgar Bronfman’s new e-label, perhaps the idea of a new work made available online would be less expensive for our orchestras to get produced and released, rather than the typical full cd. It might take time to see if that strategy of selling downloaded recordings would fit the classical and new music market. Has there been a poll of how many classical audiences purchase classical downloads online? Perhaps then, a Milwaukee Symphony can record the Liebermann Third and make it available online for downloaded purchase. ‘E-classics’ might become the wave of the future of selling recorded music in ’singles’ spots, and it would make it much easier for conductors, soloists and administrators to secure recordings of new works instantly and cost effectively (unless they know the publisher for a free cd).

Just some points to ponder–I always enjoy reading your amazing blogs.

My best to you,

Jeffrey Biegel

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The phone calls have come in–what time is my lesson, Professor? It’s always a daunting task–work around their classes–he wants a lesson before our open master class at 2, she wants it after the class to fix her horrific mistakes–they want to sign up for a two piano course–they don’t think they can make a solo career–he wants to learn Beethoven 4–she wants to teach chorus in schools, but can’t play through a Bach 2-part Invention–help!!!!!!!!!

As I get older, I find more and more that the young people entering the music programs at Brooklyn College and those lucky enough to get into the DMA program at the Graduate Center have dreams that might and might not get realised, and some who have tremendous drive and assurability, and those who have false hope. With all the talk about the industry and the supply and demand wavering from season to season, I become more inquisitive with each student as to their goals, repertoire, and simply ‘when you graduate, how do you plan to pay the bills?’ mentality. It’s like a Reality TV show every week–although I am extremely easy going, with a fire inside trying to help light their way, I am always looking ahead in offering repertoire suggestions that would be helpful for them later on, or career decisions. Some have no clue how limited the openings are for what they do, and they need to carve their niche slowly while in the school mode. True, the classics are important to study, perform and be able to do well, though according to the direction they need to go, I am careful (and cautious, based on their aspirations) to open their eyes and minds to what might be available to them to consider, should that ‘classic’ career not happen right after they get their diploma. It rarely does anymore. Chamber music, accompanying, composing, teaching, arranging, editing, and so much more is at their disposal. Perhaps we were at the crossroads twenty years ago, and with new technology, there are more possibilities in music today. So, for all the new students and those continuing their studies, keeping your eyes open to the various ways to make music and taking advantage of the avenues that surround you will make it a positive experience, and don’t be afraid to learn music from styles that were at one time considered forbidden if you were a ‘classical’ musician. No holds barred–go for it. Somebody showed me a remarkable book of Dave Brubeck solo piano works–perhaps a Bach Suite followed by a Brubeck Suite–why not??

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I typically try to refrain from writing about every concert experience, but this time is particularly exciting. Having worn out the 1973 cassette of the Claude Bolling ‘Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano’ (and lost the thing–had to find the cd online), and the fact that the amazing flutist, Eugenia Zukerman performed and toured with Claude Bolling with his ‘Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano’ during the 1980s, made the first rehearsal a dream come true for me. The recording with Jean-Pierre Rampal was a big hit back in the mid-1970s, and is such a remarkable piece blending jazz with Baroque. Accompanying us is the bassist Pablo Aslan and percussionist John Hollenbeck. [The concerts are Saturday evening (August 13) and Sunday afternoon (August 14) at the Barge by the Brooklyn Bridge]. The sound of the live instruments gave me the chance to feel free, improvising and taking in the glorious sound of my fellow instrumentalists. After 30 years, I finally got the piece out in the open and watched the boats passing along the New York skyline–that the boat rocked quite a bit was par for the course, but worth every rock and sway.

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With music going in all directions these days, I found it challenging and fun at the same time, in arranging some beautiful music that has been performed and recorded by the young Josh Groban. Immediately following the release of my solo piano transcriptions of “The Best of David Foster” for PianoDisc in June, “The Best of Josh Groban” is scheduled for release in September for the PianoDisc player piano system. My description of the project appears below the track list:

Canto alla vita
Hymn A L’ amore
You Raise Me Up
Let Me Fall
Home to Stay
Alla Luce del Sole
You’re Still You
Un Amore Per Sempre
Gira con me
Cinema Paradiso
To Where You Are
Mi Mancherai
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
The Prayer

“I was first introduced to the magical vocal talent of Josh Groban during an episode of the television series “Ally McBeal.” As I listened to him, I was immediately moved by his natural warmth and the earthy sound he produced. Since then, I’ve watched his career with interest and delight. But it was during my visits to David Foster’s home and studio in 2004, while preparing my PianoDisc recording project, “The Best of David Foster” (PD/CD 2013), that I was inspired to delve into his music. Josh was, of course, Mr. Foster’s protégé and their collaboration made him a star.

So I bought the sheet music for his first CD and began exploring how I could recreate the songs for solo piano. As with the Foster project, the biggest challenge was making the piano sound as full as a symphony orchestra. Each song required a different approach. When I first read the music of ‘Gira con Me’, for example, my instincts propelled me to make a Chopin ‘Barcarolle’ out of the accompaniment for this grand Puccini-like aria. For ‘You’re Still You’ and others, the richness that Brahms and Rachmaninoff achieved in their piano pieces inspired me. In ‘Canto Alla Vita’, I echoed Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ Sonata and created a three-hand effect. For David Foster’s arrangement of Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ I utilized three lines to reflect the vocal and organ parts. In ‘The Prayer’, another Foster gem, co-written with Carole Bayer Sager, I played the vocal duet alongside the orchestral material. ‘Home to Stay’, co-composed by Amy Foster-Skylark and my dear friend, Jeremy Lubbock, is a tender song with heartwarming harmonies. From the second CD songbook, I added three songs, including Jeremy Lubbock’s arrangement of ‘Mi mancherai’ and the song that is perhaps Josh’s best known, ‘You Raise Me Up.’

As I studied and played this music, I was filled with admiration for the amazing young artist who sings it. In a time when melody has all but disappeared from the scene, Josh Groban keeps it alive. On behalf of audiences today and for years to come, let me just say”¦Thank you, Josh.”

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