Over the past several weeks, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has been throwing itself a little party under the banner “Sound Investment—35 Years of Premieres.” The four-concert series was intended as a way to swiftly honor a history of some 123 commissions by presenting highlights of 43 of those works.
What might not have been immediately obvious to everyone was that since there simply wasn’t enough time to play that much music, excerpts and cuts were to made to pare the 43 compositions down to a single movement or a ten-minute slice of longer works (see sidebar).
The original idea to present so many works only in part as a way to celebrate the organization’s commissioning history came from former Artistic Administrator Martha Bonta. Artistic Director David Shifrin and Music and Education Advisor and composer Bruce Adolphe helped facilitate the discussions with the composers involved as decisions and cuts were made.
“Most composers at first hesitated,” says Adolphe when asked about the unusual concert format, which stirred discussion within the composition community. “But almost all then accepted the idea and helped us choose the excerpt or at the very least approved our choices.”
Adolphe hosted pre-concert panel discussions during which the music and issues relating to the presentation were discussed. Composer panelists included Lukas Foss, David Schiff, Peter Schickele, Joan Tower, David del Tredici, George Perle, Derek Bermel, Ned Rorem, Charles Wuorinen, William Bolcom, Steven Mackey, and Edgar Meyer, among others.
“There was quite a lot of talk about excerpts,” recalls Adolphe, “with all views represented, and even some people changing their minds during the talks.”
In his role as education advisor, Adolphe feels strongly about the impact of an activity like this one for the CMS and its audience. “The concerts were a great education for the public who may not be new music experts, but who wished to discover the amazing diversity of compositional styles that have been in evidence during the last 35 years, while CMS has been commissioning.”
Pointing to the huge marathon concerts like “A Great Day in New York” and the volume of new work commissioned and presented by CMS, composer Joan Tower commends the organization for its commitment to new work, but on the excerpting decision she offers a mixed review. The strategy “worked for some pieces and not others (including mine)” she says. Tower noticed that single movements selected didn’t seem to suffer as much, but artificial “slices” of longer pieces “depend more on the ‘context’ (and flow) of the music to make those passages work.”
Chris Rouse, who did not attend the performances, says he had no strong feeling either way—”All I could muster was a shrug—it didn’t really matter to me.”
Steve Mackey says he considered saying “thanks, but no thanks” but decided that there was something of value in giving an audience “a little sampling of the sounds and sensibilities of many composers.” In response to questions about the event, Mackey suggests that instead of focusing on the composers it might be a good time to explore the public’s reaction to this type of presentation. “I would be interested to know if the audiences enjoyed the smorgasbord of American music of the last 35 years over a handful of concerts; I did.”
According to Adolphe, that was exactly the point. “I came to think of it as a fair, like a New York street fair, full of samples of what we have to offer.”
But composer Michael Colgrass sees an inherent problem in that strategy. “How do you prepare your taste buds for that? It’s like grazing at a food fair, tasting a little of this, a little of that, but not getting a real meal out of anything, and maybe ending up with a stomachache.”
When he was approached about an excerpt, Colgrass says he counter-suggested that CMS pick the works they really liked the best from over the years and play those in full, even if that meant his piece would not be played. An excerpt from his New People, however, was part of the eventual program.
Despite the debate that surrounded the event, Adolphe remains pragmatic. “An important fact about this series, I think, is that it provoked a lot of talk about new music, about style, diversity, presenting in general, and about composers,” he says. “That is great.” And an audience member whose interest was piqued during the performance could purchase CD recordings of complete works by the featured composers immediately in the lobby, sales of which, according to Adolphe, appeared brisk.
For his part, Colgrass expresses his hope that “when all this cools down they do consider performing some of the works that truly stimulated listeners’ minds and touched their hearts. Those are the only pieces we need to hear again anyway.”