Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

This is the fourth and final installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the previous parts here, here, and here.

On December 20, 1973, Aaron Copland made a guest appearance on the public television series Day at Night. Within this wide-ranging and lively discussion, one particularly fascinating exchange occurs when the interviewer, James Day, inquires about Copland’s contemporary musical language:

James Day: Why can’t you write in the language of the past?

Aaron Copland: It wouldn’t be natural! Why should we limit ourselves? We have rhythms that Chopin never thought of…. We have a more complex language in one way, a more dissonant language which can express harsh feelings in a more effective way, I think. The language of music is really, you know, advanced with the times and our listeners have to lend their ears in that way.

Day at Night – James Day and Aaron Copland, 1973 (4:57)

While this sentiment sounds great on paper, getting listeners to successfully “lend their ears” to a new piece of music is often easier said than done. As the classical canon began to take hold of Western thinking in the mid-to-late 19th century, a large swath of listeners, critics, and performers grew to prefer music that they already knew and loved—that is, older music instead of newer music. Of course, new pieces continued to be written and performed, but audiences by and large clamored for the familiar, not the new. Plus, anything new had to either fit in with the canonic “mold” or risk derision for being too “out there.”

This fixation on the past continued to dominate concert hall programming throughout the 20th century and persists even to this day. Why is that? On the one hand, we need to keep in mind that, for better or for worse, orchestras, opera houses, and chamber groups are businesses. They have to program works that will spur interest and demand (i.e., draw a sizable audience) and help recoup production and labor costs. What do you think would sell more tickets: a program of big names like Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff, or a program entirely of works by Kaija Saariaho? If you guessed the former, you’re probably correct. Simply put, Beethoven sells tickets. Anything outside this, not as much.

Funny, but also sadly true. (And sorry, I don’t know who to credit for this image!)

(Side note: any newer works that are programmed statistically tend to be written by white male composers, an issue that is only just starting to be addressed.)

But it’s not just musical organizations and their business acumen that are driving this almost obsessive reliance on “masterworks” and “classics” of the past. Many classical audiences tend to be apprehensive, or even scared, of anything that’s new or unfamiliar. Some claim to have had terrible experiences with “contemporary” music in the past and make sweeping generalizations that anything written within the last 100 years is garbage. (OK, that’s a really dumb hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Other listeners are willing to “suffer” through a concert that features a new work, so long as they get their Brahms on the other side. (More on this in a sec.) These attitudes can also crop up with pieces composed in the 20th century. Several years ago, I heard some concert attendees speak disparagingly about Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is pretty strange considering the work was composed in 1943 and is neither “new” nor “difficult.”

Again, why? Why are many classical listeners resistant to new music or anything remotely “challenging”? One possible explanation can be found in Alex Ross’s fantastic 2008 book The Rest is Noise:

Looking at a painting in a gallery is fundamentally different from listening to a new work in a concert hall. Picture yourself in a room with, say, Kandinsky’s Impression III (Concert), painted in 1911…. If at first you have trouble understanding it, you can walk on and return to it later, or step back to give it another glance, or lean in for a close look (is that a piano in the foreground?). At a performance, listeners experience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately from the same distance. They cannot stop to consider the implications of a half-lovely chord or concealed waltz rhythm. They are a crowd, and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind.

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (2008), p. 61

Ross makes an interesting point here. At an art museum, you can physically move around the space and choose to engage with any pieces that catch your eye. If you don’t like one, you can simply move on to the next one. At a concert—that is, a classical one—you’re basically “trapped” in your seat, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of other listeners. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, you either have to endure it or make your way to the exit, which brings its own set of risks (and noises) with it. There’s seldom an easy “way out” at a classical concert.

Before moving on, I should acknowledge that many of the above statements are built on my own broad generalizations. I realize that not all classical listeners dislike new music or 20th-century music. Some like certain pieces and composers, but not others. Some prefer old pieces but are willing to hear something new. However, as a whole, a general spirit of adventurous listening has been lost. 250 years ago, concert attendees would eagerly await the newest works of Haydn and Mozart. Now, many people would rather hear Beethoven’s Fifth for the umpteenth time instead of a brand-new piece by Tyshawn Sorey. Of course, not all pieces were universally loved when they were first performed (the early reception of Beethoven’s symphonies come to mind), but these days, people are generally less willing to engage with the new or unfamiliar.

So, what can be done about this? In my mind, there are two main things—one for classical music organizations and one for classical music listeners…

Classical music organizations: don’t hide from or apologize for presenting new music

In February 2020, the Pacific Symphony presented a concert which was advertised on their website as follows:

Notice anything odd? Under “What’s interesting about this concert,” there is absolutely no mention of the piece Prospero’s Rooms. Not the fact that Christopher Rouse was an American composer and composed it for the New York Philharmonic in 2012. Not the fact that is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Not the fact that Rouse himself had passed away in September 2019, a mere months before this February concert. Nothing. While the Paganini and Rachmaninoff works were the clear draw of the evening, it’s almost as if the orchestra was trying to hide the fact that a new piece of music was appearing on the program, for fear of scaring potential listeners away.

Here’s another example, when the Orange County Philharmonic Society advertised a touring program by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (which was sadly canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic):

Again, notice anything odd here? In the blurb at the bottom, there is no mention whatsoever of Thomas Adès’s “Orchestra Suite from Angel Symphony.” This work—compiled from Adès’s 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel—was supposed to be premiered in London by the Cleveland Orchestra in October 2020, followed by further presentations across the U.S. by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In short, this was going to be a pretty big deal—a brand-new work by one of the leading composers of our day, played by one of England’s top orchestras. Similar to the Pacific Symphony, the Orange County Philharmonic Society likely didn’t want to frighten possible listeners by revealing that there was—heaven forbid—a living composer on the program, choosing instead to mention every work but the Adès. (Strangely enough, Mieczysław Weinberg isn’t a super well-known name in classical music, but at least they had the gumption to call his Violin Concerto “splendid.”)

Now, I don’t mean to disparage the people who wrote these blurbs. I realize that marketing classical music is tricky. Administrators have to toe a fine line between talking about the music on the program and enticing listeners to buy a ticket and go. (And there’s only so much space to do so.) I am also well aware that classical music audiences in Orange County tend to be more conservative in their listening tastes. If either of these programs were presented in Los Angeles, the new pieces would definitely receive a more prominent billing in the marketing.

Regardless, this still highlights one of my biggest pet peeves—when classical organizations try to quietly “sweep” a new piece or living composer under the so-called rug. This can take many forms, such as failing to mention a new piece on the advertising—as seen above—or shoehorning one into the beginning of a concert, so listeners are unlikely to be “scandalized” and leave early. Conductor Alan Gilbert has called this the “Bolero effect,” referring to the general trend of orchestras programming a contemporary piece of music but then “washing it down” with a beloved, big-name classic afterward, something that the majority of the audience would have shown up to hear.

Even worse is when organizations try to “apologize” for putting a contemporary or 20th-century piece on their program. Take this now-infamous example from the Toronto Symphony:

Yikes. It’s like the writer is basically saying, “Look, we know you thought Ligeti’s music was scary in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But don’t worry, this piece [likely Ligeti’s Concert Românesc] isn’t like that. It sounds like Kodály, so it’s nice and folksy. Hooray!” There are so, so many problems and unfair value judgments there that I honestly don’t have the energy to get into right now. (And this post is already leaning towards the longer side.) But this is basically treating classical audiences like they’re stupid. Honestly, people can figure out for themselves whether they like a piece or not—they’ve literally done so for thousands of years. So, to classical organizations: PLEASE don’t apologize, sugarcoat, or cower whenever you program new or 20th-century music. Instead, celebrate it and be proud of the fact that you are helping to keep this incredible art form alive.

Classical music listeners: it’s OK to not to like a piece of music, but at least give it a chance

Every listener at a concert has their own tastes and preferences. Some might like concertos but not symphonies. Others might like Debussy but not Ravel. Everyone is perfectly entitled to their own likes and dislikes—it’s what makes us human. If everyone enjoyed exactly the same things (or vice versa), life would be pretty freakin’ boring.

BUT (and this a big BUT!), something truly wonderful can happen when we open ourselves up to new musical experiences. Case in point: a number of years ago I attended an LA Phil concert that paired Brahms’s Second Symphony with John Corigliano’s First Symphony, which was composed in 1988-89. At the time, I was only vaguely familiar with Corigliano’s output—mostly through his score for The Red Violin—and had definitely never heard his First Symphony. Still, I was interested in what the work would entail. Turns out, hearing this work for the first time was one of the most gripping and moving concert experiences I’ve ever had. Period. Would I have thought the same if I was familiar with the work beforehand? Who knows. In this particular case, though, being an uninitiated listener paid off dividends.

On the other hand, there are plenty of pieces—both new and old—that I don’t like. Another example: I once went to a chamber concert that featured several premieres by living composers. One of these pieces (which will remain anonymous) I absolutely hated. H-A-T-E-D. Every single second of it. With a fiery passion. Although I like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded and forgiving listener, I found nothing absolutely redeeming about the piece.

And honestly, THAT’S OK! Even though the piece made me incredibly angry, it still caused me to feel something. After all, isn’t that what music should be about at the end of the day—sparking our emotions? Sure, not every piece of music is going to make us feel blind rage—nor would we want it to!—but there’s a genuine possibility that some pieces might do that to us. Music should both encompass and express the entire gamut of human emotions. Too many listeners have come to accept the fallacy that classical music is just supposed to be “pretty” and “relaxing.” But that’s simply not true and ends up discrediting so much good stuff that doesn’t fall neatly within those camps (Shostakovich, for instance).

Also, I definitely don’t want to create the impression that all contemporary or 20th-century music is/should be challenging, dissonant, or “unlistenable.” That’s another terrible, terrible overgeneralization. There’s some amazing music from the last twenty years that’s incredibly beautiful, colorful, lyrical, and accessible. (Examples include Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, Christopher Cerrone’s High Windows, Nico Muhly’s Bright Mass with Canons, and Jessie Montgomery’s Banner.) There’s also a ton of incredible music out there that does venture into more dissonant melodic/harmonic realms and utilizes a metaphorical closet full of extended playing techniques. (Andrew Norman’s Play and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos come to mind, both of which are amazing.) And that’s also OK! Composers today have a much wider “palette” available to them than composers of the past, so why shouldn’t they utilize it? Why restrict them?

(Oh, and one last sidebar: we need to understand that programming new music—and music by women and people of color for that matter—does NOT negate or “cancel” the classics. Anything but. New music can help inform the classics, put them in a larger perspective, and create a richer picture of the astonishing diversity of sound and style that the genre has to offer. So seriously, relax—no one is trying to take your Beethoven away from you.)

All in all, the classical music world needs to re-embrace adventurous, open-minded listening. This doesn’t mean that every single listener has to sit down and force themselves to enjoy the thorny music of Boulez and Stockhausen. (Those are two composers that I still have a difficult time with, TBH.) But, the collective “we” needs to rediscover what it means to be curious. What it means to give both familiar and unfamiliar music a chance. What it means to hear a brand-new piece and be amazed to witness both music and history being created at the same time. There are so many “Corigliano moments” out there waiting to happen. We just have to, as Copland said, lend our ears.

Links for further reading:

2 thoughts on “Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

  1. Wonderful write-up, Kevin. I apologize for the length of what’s to follow, but I have a lot of thoughts on programming.

    I think we’ve dug ourselves into a cultural hole. I think that audiences are definitely going to tend towards a hivemind (especially considering the venue), but I also think that the vestigates of elitism still creep their way into these programming decisions.

    When I was first starting out as a musician, I was discovering a long and vibrant music history unfolding before me. I had come to love music primarily through pop-cultural sources like movies and video games, and thus initially favored repertory that was inherently more tonal or ‘safe’ in an aural sense. I attended a composition workshop with a few other people, one of whom acted like a German from Darnstadt in the 50s rather than an American from Chicago in the 2010s. He was interested in more contemporary ways of composing, a world I hadn’t been exposed to. He was also an insufferable ass about it. This experience with one bad colleague colored my appreciation of anything post-Rachmaninoff for a couple more years, and only when my own compositions began to move beyond juvenilia did I welcome the warm embrace of 20th-century practices.

    To tell another brief story, attending a performance at Symphony Hall in Chicago or anything of the like was completely out of my means, as we couldn’t afford the ticket price of live music. On one occasion, I did finally make it out to see something through a discounted ticket program, and because I was so happy to go I went to whatever concert was available that day. This was my first experience seeing a symphony, and the piece that was performed was so extremely difficult for a first-time listener to sit through. There wasn’t a particularly good note, and no one my age was around to discuss things with. In this moment, I was craving the types of ‘palette cleansers’ that you often see on these programs, but that wasn’t the case this time. Another bad experience that prevented me from accessing the wonderful materials the 20th century has to offer.

    On the flip side of all of this, working now in a conservative arts environment, I see the opposite is also in effect. Whereas my two prior experiences were essentially “this music is too complicated for you”, now it seems that it’s more about appeasing those who have the coin and capital to put on a production. Hardly anything interesting or exciting gets performed, as the kinds of works associated with spectacle (and thus elitism) are those that are canonical, safe, and generally uncontroversial. If a work is new, as you say it is often tonal, white, and male.

    I guess what I’m trying to highlight here is how binary many arts organizations (and by proxy musicians, too) tend to view everything. I don’t like the baby being thrown out with the bathwater, so pretending that anything written before now is worthless is a kneejerk reaction. That said, to only program works that are known, safe, or come with a level of cultural cache is boring and an equally effective way of keeping people out.

    Programming is in my estimation is ultimately a problem of elitism. Whether that skews modern or conservative, the opposing poles are working from two different yet related spheres of control from an ivory tower. It’s only when an organization takes strides to meaningfully represent the scope of music’s expression that people will be drawn in, and won’t feel the need to be afraid of Ligeti’s name on a program.

    Liked by 1 person

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