Responses and Dialogue (Part 1)

This week is the first of a two-part response to a recent New York Times article by David Allen that explores the rise in prominence of “response commissions”. I was interested to read this article since I’ve enjoyed numerous pieces in concert that – to a greater and lesser extent – fall into this model. For example, the article mentions the series of companion pieces to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s Beethoven Cycle that, though I felt varied widely in quality and effectiveness, nevertheless made a stimulating addition to the trajectory of these concerts as a whole. Similarly I still remember the spine-tingling sensation when I first heard works like Detlev Glanert’s Four Preludes and Serious Songs, which weaves the composer’s music around an orchestration of Brahms’ late meditations on life and death. This kind of melding together of the known and the unfamiliar speaks to me so powerfully since I take it to be a kind of microcosm of the way that we might approach concert performance more generally: seeking to challenge, surprise, and use our musical gifts to constantly reinvent the familiar in sound. Or, to put it in the words of the Juilliard String Quartet’s motto: “to play new works as if they were established masterpieces, and established masterpieces as if they were new works.”   

Allen’s article notes the ways in which “response commissions” look to bridge the gap between an orchestra’s sense of responsibility towards new music and the practical concerns associated with its programming. I have some reservations about the characterisation of audiences’ “built-in distaste toward modern music”, which I will consider in my next post. Nevertheless, I think Allen certainly speaks to one of the greatest strengths of this kind of commissioning when he notes the possibility it presents for more “coherent” programming. Between computer documents, scraps of paper, and clippings from brochures and programmes I have a personal library of hypothetical concerts that aspire towards the kind of “coherence” that I think Allen is suggesting. Though this is quite possible to achieve without “response commissions”, or even new music, it seems clear to me that we should consider ideas of structure and musical relationship as important in the setting out of pieces in a programme as they are within those individual pieces themselves. Works that have such a tangible connection to each other would seem to be an effective way to underscore this way of thinking.

A quality not considered in the article is the possibility that “response commissions” present for the life of new music beyond the premiere. Since in most cases these are works designed around programmatic niches that appear with some regularity, one would assume there are myriad possibilities for other orchestras to perform recent works as part of similar or even identical programmes. Apart from presenting a far less onerous cost than commissioning for orchestras who want to contribute to the culture of new music, this might also goes some way to alleviating the fate of many new pieces that, after their premiere, seem to fade to obscurity. That these kind of repeat performances are not a more common occurrence might be because of a lack of awareness of such works. However a few moments spent searching suggested that of the five new pieces commissioned by the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig for their Beethoven cycle in the 2011/12 season, each has received only a handful of further performances. This for pieces premiered as part of a simultaneous concert cycle in Leipzig, Paris, and London, and that received not inconsiderable press attention.

Of the thousands of performances of Beethoven’s symphonies in the years since these premieres I find it hard to believe that perhaps only a dozen concerts presented a suitable opportunity to also feature these new works. My fear is that this might be indicative of an underlying attitude of disposability towards new music; that commissions and their one-time performances are seen to constitute a sufficient effort towards keeping classical music a living art form, perhaps with the belief that quality (or even genius) will somehow rise to the top. I certainly do not think that all concerts should feature new music, that all new music should be “response commissions”, nor that all new music is necessarily even worth more than a handful of performances. However “response commissions” seem to address some of the problems inherent in programming new music by recognizing the restrictions that orchestras and conductors operate under in programming from a canon that remains substantially unchanged over the years. Perhaps we should be more emphatic in reciprocating this attitude, recognizing that these new works will never graduate from being a one-time novelty if we do not continue to find space for them to enter into the kind of dialogue with music of the past that their composers have sought to fashion.