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

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.”

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Copland’s Piano Concerto

The music of American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is no stranger to the concert hall (Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Fanfare for the Common Man are all played quite frequently), but some of his pieces are rarely brought out into the open. A good portion of this somewhat unfamiliar repertoire belongs to the early part of Copland’s career. In the early 1920s, Copland studied in Paris with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught a stunning array of other twentieth-century musicians. Boulanger encouraged Copland to cultivate his unique musical voice, and Copland followed suit with a style that embraced elements of modernism – dissonant tone clusters and jagged rhythms – as well as elements inspired by popular music, such as jazz. (The Spotify playlist below features an album of some of his “modernist” works, all brilliantly played by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.)

1899
Aaron Copland enjoying an ice cream cone at Interlochen in 1970. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

One product of Copland’s early style was his Piano Concerto, which was completed in 1926 and first performed in 1927, with Copland as the soloist. The first movement opens boldly, with a brass call-and-response before a soaring, cinematic melody is presented in the horns and strings. In a surprising turn, the piano is introduced by itself and softly, seemingly caught in an introspective moment. The music gradually builds in confidence – with help from the opening brass material – but is also full of conflict, becoming increasingly saturated with dissonant chords.

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