When I look at new music, I look for the same traits that I seek in not new music. For example, Brahms impresses because he balances intellect, emotion, and beauty so well. In new music, I want music that sounds well on the piano—music that is conceived for the instrument, written by someone who has thought about and understood the timbral needs of piano writing. I want music that stimulates my curiosity: there has to be a strongly musical idea behind the notes—a sense of backbone. And, I want music that projects an emotional and intellectual world from its first note. I have performed a wide variety of styles of new music, from the often triadic works of Lowell Liebermann, to the piece on my music rack today, a new “Lunar Rhapsody” by a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado, Mike Barnett—a work based on originally-conceived highly chromatic symmetrical scale collections that (I think) are predicated on a denial of the principle of octave equivalence. No matter that the two languages just described seem very different on the surface, the music in both cases demonstrates a concern for how pitches combine both vertically and horizontally (a compositional ear), and in both cases is designed so that listeners will receive a strong impression from a first hearing.
As a performer, of course, I have a responsibility to open my mind and let a new score grow on me (if I’m not impressed by it right away). And, I have a responsibility to do my part to make the piece work: the performer’s contribution is a real part of the artistic creation (and, truthfully, I don’t think I’d be really thrilled to work with any composer who didn’t understand that basic concept—speaking as an occasional composer myself).