First Words: A Panel Discussion About Reviewing Premieres

First Words: A Panel Discussion About Reviewing Premieres

JOHANNA KELLER: Well, I was just going to add a story when the L’amour de loin incident came up… An interesting anecdote about somebody with great intelligence and great ears changing her mind. It was when I was interviewing Betty Freeman recently, the great philanthropist who, as we all know, funded Harry Partch and Terry Riley and Steve Reich and very much in the modernistic and California end of things and that’s her favorite kind of music. She was telling me–she had been one of these funders for L’amour de loin–she had gone to the premiere and she said, “I really didn’t like it. The music was too soft.” She said, “It was too pretty. I really didn’t care for it at all.” She said, “But then I heard it seven more times. [laughter] Actually, I’ve become very fond of the piece; I see what she’s after.” And I thought it was a really interesting–Betty is very musically astute–but I find that’s a lesson for all of us because we’re all called to write about a piece right off the bat, but later, we may change our minds about it. We may find that an aesthetic begins to grow on us and then we begin to understand, keeping our ears open, even, you know. Here someone funded the piece, you know, but it was a very honest response to an aesthetic change and I thought, O.K., if you do listen to something seven times then maybe your mind does get changed eventually. It was an interesting story.

MURIEL BROOKS: I want to comment on that because I think the most successful compositions that I have heard an audience take to have been in concerts where the work was played twice at least with the composer talking about it in between. And I think one of the problems is even in performance–it was mentioned before–the performers have a great deal of trouble with some of these difficult scores and they even improve on a second performance and therefore both the critic and the audience has a better chance of understanding the work or at least coming to accept it. And I think this is one of our biggest problems. And I would also just like to say about this an anecdote that I did tell to David Stock before. I have a very close friend who is a wonderful composer and she was commissioned to write a work for chamber orchestra and chorus. She was very pleased there was only one other work on the program–Beethoven’s Ninth. And after the performance–and everybody didn’t like the program–and this was done by Paul Dunkel. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with him. He was with his orchestra in Westchester commissioning a new work for every concert and having the composer for a pre-concert lecture. So after this, I asked my friend, Ruth Schonthal, how she liked the performance because it went over very well and the audience enjoyed it. And she said, well, she wasn’t pleased and I said, “What was the matter?” “Well,” she said, “it was on this program with Beethoven’s Ninth so they had to spend more time rehearsing the Beethoven’s Ninth because more people would be familiar with it.” And if they made errors in her work, nobody would know, so rehearsals for her work are short-shrifted and that is a big problem. But on the other hand, many composers like Ruth don’t like to be part of a program which is all new music. They want to be part of the act.

MARGARET BARELA: A couple of things occurred to me because I’ve been having high energy conversations with performers that are doing new works and they always complain about that one–how can you possibly make a judgment on that if you’ve only heard it once? And one of the things that I say to them is that I may have only heard it once, but the performers have a real obligation in premiering a work because they have had access to the work. They are the ones who have to be convincing and project the piece in such a way that it goes across to an audience. And an audience wants to find a connection, going back to your point about neophilia. That’s probably one of the things people can’t identify with. They’re sacrificing content for newness and not thinking about having something to say. That’s a shift of values that I think over a period of time in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, you know, was simply the case. The second thing, there was a very interesting thing that happened in Albuquerque this past spring. They had only the second performance of Pierrot Lunaire in Albuquerque in the history of Albuquerque concert music and it happens that the man that was my piano teacher, who used to be a student of a colleague of Schoenberg‘s, performed both in the first performance in the ’50s and in this second performance. He made the comment that the first time they spent many, many weeks preparing for it. It was conducted both times, but the first time the person doing it had a real commitment to really putting the piece across and I remember, I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, and it had a huge impact on me. I just liked that dark stuff for some reason. But the second one was less satisfying for a variety of reasons. But my former piano teacher’s comment was, “You know, we didn’t have nearly the rehearsal time this time.” And I think maybe it’s because of union considerations about how much rehearsal time they can allot to different pieces, that they give short shrift to a lot of performances. And that doesn’t do a service to the music; it doesn’t do a service to the performers.

FRANK J. OTERI: How do journalists then respond to that? How do we in our role as people who are trying to make the field better address that issue? When there’s only so much space to allot to anything? And another thing that nobody’s touched on here that I wanted to get into: the situation where you’re covering a performance and, say, you don’t like it, but the audience did. Or, you loved it but it was clear that the audience hated it. Should that be something that’s part of your review? Are you reporting on the event as well as giving critical evaluation of what you’re covering? Now David wanted to get something in there…

DAVID STOCK: Yeah, I just wanted to ask all of you two quick questions. The first one was, think back the last, I don’t know, 5, 6, 7 years, wherever you were working. How often in those 6 or 7 or some such number of years has the same organization, symphony orchestra, chamber music, whatever, repeated the work in a future season? Once, twice?

JANET BEDELL: This is just something we’re starting to get into at the Baltimore Symphony–the sense that organizations feel, “Well, we’re doing our bit for contemporary music by commissioning, commissioning, commissioning.” When we start looking back over what we have commissioned it becomes clear that some of them are real winners. Some of the pieces that came up are really quite striking and really deserve a re-hearing and we’re just starting to think about it–and I think many organizations should be thinking about this–in this whole suite of repetition that we do of familiar repertoire, why not look back over recent commissions and bring them back. Bring them back quite soon and, you know, give the orchestra a chance to get better on top of what they did the first time.

DAVID STOCK: Can we see a straw vote? How many people remember this happening more than occasionally wherever you are? About 3 or 4. Yeah, yeah. My other question, which is much more complex in a certain loony way, is how many of you think that in whatever span of time you’ve been working in the city you are in that what you say about contemporary music has any direct effect on what actually gets played? Do think the orchestra or the chamber music society or whatever, pays attention?

PAUL HERTELENDY: I think perhaps a very strong arts organization with a very strong sense of goals and determination, they can be bulletproof as far as critiques are concerned. In a lot of areas, like where I live, I find that they are weak-willed enough that if reviewers jump on world-premieres and make them out to be rather negative experiences, the following year or the year after they’re not going to do any more commissions. And that’s one of the reasons why I think a lot of us write about new pieces in a somewhat more positive vein than the inner heart is telling us because we realize that these arts organizations are going to be intimidated and not spending the money on commissions in the future if they keep getting bad reviews.

JOHN KENNEDY: To answer David’s question, there actually is a young American conductor whose programming, if you look at the orchestra’s schedule, for the past 3 years now has reflected what has been written about in the Sunday Times without fail. And you know, to his credit, he’s reading the Sunday Times, but on the other hand do you want your only source to be Paul Griffiths, for instance? And so, I do think that there is the opportunity to help change the perception of what’s out there. Performers read the media. Performers try to find all the sources they can and, you know, the publishing houses just want to send you PR and you want to find other perspectives that aren’t part of the industry.

MARC GEELHOED: I think that one way that might increase the reaction and potential for a positive effect in new music is writing up previews of when a world premiere is coming and we’re talking a lot about reviewing the piece and everything like that but I think that one really positive way would be to say, you know, there’s a premiere coming, I’ve seen the score. It looks like it might be really great… I had a chance to see the score and listen to a recording of an American premiere by the Swedish composer named Sven-David Sandström who teaches at IU. They were doing his High Mass there and after I heard the recording, I was like: “This is going to be a really great thing!” So I wrote up a very positive preview of the thing and there was a packed house that showed up for the thing and people loved it. So, I think that that might be even more effective for getting repeat performances than a positive review.

NANCY LANG: In Washington, we have the Hechingers who provide funds for new works that are done regularly with the National Symphony. I think you have to recall that the Ford Foundation years ago gave grants for new works. I think what we need to do, if it’s possible somehow, is get corporations, if possible, to fund new works, more so than what is being done currently. Recordings are fine, radio is fine, but I think you need more money and I think that maybe that’s the source where we should go.

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to respond to something that Marc said which I thought was really interesting. The quotes that I read at the very beginning of the session are from a very interesting collection that the University of Nebraska Press just put out of critiques of Beethoven by his German contemporaries. It’s a whole collection of responses to the world premieres of these pieces. It was fascinating reading in preparation for this discussion because not only were they reviewing the performances, but often times they were reviewing the publications as they were published. If a score got released of a piano four-hand version of a symphony, there’d be a review of it. Now the world has changed a great deal. [laughter] Could you imagine coming to your editor and saying this new score has come out from Boosey & Hawkes or Schirmer or Presser or what have you and you would love to review this publication! You know, “I sat at the piano and I worked through it and the typography on this was inadequate at measure 54!” But this Beethoven book has articles by people saying this stuff! And I’m reading this thinking, wow, why am I not living then? (Well, you know, living conditions weren’t so great, but…) But, how do we deal with this so that music isn’t as new to us in approaching it and the preview idea is a very good one. Something that got raised at the end of the last session, which spiraled into our lunch conversation that I want to raise here… Often, when we’re covering something, especially in smaller cities, in smaller markets, we might be the only person at one paper covering that artistic beat, so what we say about that event is the only piece of documentation for that event and for a premiere this is particularly terrible. What could we do in terms of funding? I would say, yeah, it’s great to fund more performances of new music, but how about getting people and getting organizations to fund multiple reviews of performances so that we can engage the audience in a dialogue so that the audience isn’t just reading this as though it was word from on high, but so the audience would actually begin to listen critically as well and engage in the debate.

WILLIAM LITTLER: Well, I think we are coming up against a space problem in the realities of contemporary journalism. Anytime you do something, it means you’re not doing something else. Anytime you take the time to go a rehearsal as well as a performance, you’ve avoided going to another performance and what the critic finds himself or herself doing, is trying to be fair about the coverage of the field. And it means inevitably that what takes more time, which is the preparation to review new music, gets cut short because we have the other responsibilities as well. And I don’t see that changing if we’re dealing with the general press. Now what we really need is a scholarly musical press of consequence. The trouble is the funding for that sort of thing, given the number of readers that there are, is very hard to come by. And likewise, corporations sponsoring the new music, they’re interested in numbers and new music does not represent by and large, large numbers.

FRANK J. OTERI: Classical music in total doesn’t represent large numbers.

WILLIAM LITTLER: That’s right. So we have to be realistic, once again, in terms of our expectations. These things are desiderata but are they practical realities? Not likely.

BARBARA JEPSON: I actually think one of the best things that you can do to encourage repeat performances is to write a piece that has legs. I’ve now been covering new music long enough to see that there are some pieces that have legs and that there are some pieces that fall by the wayside justly. And I think that a sphere where this seems to happen more often than most is when a composer is commissioned to write a piece for a particular member of an orchestra and then if that piece–if it has those legs–is picked up by other orchestra members who bring it to the attention of their conductors and say, “Hey, there’s this great percussion concerto by Joe Schwantner, and Chris Lamb premiered it at the New York Philharmonic and you know, it’s been recorded by so-and-so and I’d like to do it here.” And there’s a certain politics in major orchestras where they try to feature their principal players, a few of them a season. And just as an example of that, Sofia Gubaidulina wrote a piece for two violas for Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young at the Philharmonic and that piece, I think, the Philharmonic itself has already performed at least 7 times, I think more. They’ve toured with it, they’ve repeated it in New York and I’m sure that other orchestras are picking it up as well.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s on the Masur set, so it’s recorded.

BARBARA JEPSON: Yeah, that’s right.

JOHN KENNEDY: I just wanted to say I think, you know, we don’t give our audiences enough credit sometimes. It’s like sometimes…we’ve been a little concerned with the whole subject a little bit and talking about audience reception of new pieces, and I tell you, I’ve done some very radical repertoire over the years and very rarely have people gotten up and walked out of a concert. It’s not the scenario that we had in Chautauqua some years ago. I just find that peoples’ ears are more open. Maybe I would feel differently if I was music director of an orchestra and I had to be concerned about those issues, but I think we can push the envelope and I don’t think we have to look at audiences with this sort of trepidation. It’s just music. It happens to be new. We were talking about funding for performances and composers. I’ve got a quote and we can guess when it was and who said it.

“The shifting scenes of our social and economic environments are so fluctuating, so crowded with heterogeneous influences, such a helter-skelter race of commercial jockeying, that it is very difficult to strike any bedrock economic or human relationships. Our economic system has fostered the productive psychology with such narrow limitations that no allowance is made for the leisure which is necessary for productivity in the arts. The problem of social and economic adjustment is doing more to destroy talented American composers than any other problems and of course its only solution will come when enough American individuals recognize that we cannot buy musical culture any more than we can buy a home environment.”

Roy Harris, 1933.

WILLIAM DUNNING: Yeah, I was thinking about–and I think perhaps it’s worth putting it in here–something called Asimov’s Corollary, which Isaac Asimov came up with several years ago at a science fiction convention, not unlike this [laughter]…

WILLIAM LITTLER: I’ve always wondered whether you knew where you were, Bill!

WILLIAM DUNNING: I know where I am. I’m right here, where are you? [laughter] Ted Sturgeon is said to have said, “Ike, do you realize that 90 percent of the science fiction that is written” (and you may substitute if you want new music) “is crap.” And without missing a beat, Asimov snapped back and said, “Ted, 90 percent of everything in the entire universe is crap.” And that applies to music in that the crap of two centuries ago has been forgotten and tossed out.

FRANK J. OTERI: Except on classical radio!

DAVID STOCK: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no! It’s all back on public radio. Oh, no! Oh, no!


JOHN KENNEDY: It’s those little pieces by the famous composers.

WILLIAM DUNNING: Except for the recent rediscoveries of music by PDQ Bach. No, if it hasn’t been, it should be perhaps. But the new music that’s coming out today, includes the 10 percent and the 90 percent and somebody has to sort them out. Now, to a large extent, that’s going to be history’s job and in 200 years the decision will have been made, but to some extent it’s our job. We have to point the fingers and say this is the good stuff, this is not the good stuff, and it’s a terrible responsibility, but we do have to do it.

STEVEN SWARTZ: I’m from Boosey & Hawkes and I’m here with the kind permission of Frank to be at this session. I’ve been the publicity person at Boosey for 12 years and one thing I’ve seen is the collapsing of outlets for criticism involving major markets from 3 papers to 2 papers; now you have 1 paper in most markets plus an alternative weekly and if we’re talking about getting a multiplicity of views, if we’re talking about getting different perspectives and a dialogue going, that’s obviously one of the biggest problems. Unfortunately, I don’t even know if there’s anything that can be done. The Examiner and Chronicle out in San Francisco…It’s been a problem for the future of new music simply because this last word thing is even more pronounced than it had been before, when there are fewer and fewer places to read about a new piece of music.

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