A Debate for the Ages: Programming “New” Music

October 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

I had the pleasure of spending the Summer in Brevard, North Carolina working at the Brevard Music Center. While there, I sat in the audience of the first (and presumably last) Music Center performance of a work by Steve Reich. The work was Different Trains, Reich’s Grammy-winning musical exploration of life during World War II, which has been part of the chamber repertoire for over twenty years now. While the performance was enthusiastically received by the students in the crowd, a number of the older audience members—who constitute the core of the Music Center’s patrons—walked out in the middle of the piece amidst grumbles about how this “noise” simply “isn’t music.” Sadly I wasn’t extremely surprised by this incident as it paralleled similar audience complaints during a CSO performance of Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie I attended earlier this year, and echoed complaints I have been hearing for years every time I attend a concert that programs even one piece composed after 1945.

Of course, these types of audience reactions stand in stark contrast to the opinions shared in my recent interview with one of the current champions of new music, Hilary Hahn. When asked about her dedication to commissioning and performing new works, Hahn stated “What is an art form if it is not living and breathing? The new works help keep the older ones vivid and rich and keep all of us thinking about the exciting music we can enjoy from all generations of composition.” This sentiment is widely shared among the rising generation of musicians, and why shouldn’t it be? The canon of “new” music that is most often performed was composed decades before current 20- and 30-somethings were even born. Students coming up through colleges with striving composition programs are surrounded by new music being written by young composers influenced by Berg, Bartok, Glass, and any number of other modern composers whose music sounds too “new” for current audiences.

What this comparison points to is the uniquely precarious situation currently faced by classical music ensembles. There is an almost century-wide gap between music being composed, and that being demanded by the majority of audience members, but as today’s young musicians grow to be the core audience this gap will close quickly. The programming question we must face is not only how to keep music as an art form alive and breathing, but how to balance the demands of a current core audience that primarily prefers traditional Classical music with those of a rising core audience that will increasingly demand programming of “new” music composed within the last century. In the meantime, I expect to be part of several more mixed receptions for works in the new canon.



§ 2 Responses to A Debate for the Ages: Programming “New” Music

  • Stephanie says:

    As sad as it is, I do find some humor in watching older patrons leave disgruntled. We made a youth orchestra outing to the CSO’s Messiaen performance last season and I warned the students of what many were expecting to happen. I think counting the number of people walk out (I think I saw close to 30 only from my view in the gallery) added a whole new aspect of entertainment to the 80 minute performance.

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