The Only Way to Keep Orchestras Alive: Start Championing New Music

The first time that I attended a contemporary music venue was when I attended Robert Black’s recital over at the Hartt School at University of Hartford back in May of 2010. I went to the concert expecting that I would be listening to standard solo repertoire such as a concerto by Bottesini or Koussevitzky. Instead, I was exposed to an avant-garde double bass solo by Jacob Druckman entitled Valentine. At a moment that I was expecting to hear pleasant sounds and beautifully phrased melodies, suddenly my mood shifted to feelings of confusion and bewilderment as I watched Mr. Black hit the bass with timpani sticks while simultaneously making a vocal, hissing sound.

Level of Exposure to Contemporary Music

One of the things I appreciated most about attending the Hartt School was that we had nearly 24/7 exposure to contemporary music. Between studying with Robert Black, who was one of the founding member of a New York-based contemporary ensemble, Bang On A Can All-Stars, and performing in the Hartt Orchestra; being a Hartt double bass student meant that you had limitless exposure to new music. Edward Cumming, the conductor of the Hartt Orchestra (and former conductor of the Hartford Symphony) was actively programming all different types of new music (or “newer” works)— we had the opportunity to perform the music of unbelievable composers such as John Corligiano, who also simultaneously came as a guest to provide feedback on our rehearsals. One of the greatest aspects of performing contemporary music is that you can invite, call, text, or FaceTime the living composer, and gain direct information from them on how to perform the piece. The Hartt Orchestra was avidly programming the works of the school’s faculty and composition students.

Orchestras Do Not Advertise New Music As A Way To Draw New Audiences

Back in driving school many years ago, I was taught that people drive in the direction where they are focusing most intently on. Mainstream symphony orchestras are not taking enough risk by refusing to draw their audiences’ attention to new music. Here, I will share with you three ways in which orchestras are too timid to make a statement with conviction and advertise contemporary works as the main piece of the evening.

1 ) They hardly ever program new music on the second half of a concert because they fear that audiences will not stick around

2 ) The posters that appear on bus shelters and subway stations hardly ever advertise an event with the words “A ‘Must-See’ World Premiere Coming Soon to Symphony Hall”.

3) They hardly ever program repeat performances of a piece over the course of several consecutive years so that the music becomes more “mainstream” to listeners

I am particularly passionate about the third reason because back in the days when Petrouchka was first being performed by the Boston Symphony, Pierre Monteux conducted repeat performances of this work over the course of several years. Fast forward to 2017, and Petrouchka is now widely accepted as mainstream orchestral repertoire, even though the style and execution are radically different than a Mozart performance. Orchestras have to take greater responsibility for the future of the ensemble (perhaps now more than ever before) by directing their audiences’ attention toward the latest compositional trends, at the risk of alienating concertgoers with more conservative tastes.