Orchestras and new music

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

A friend recently suggested that I listen to some of the music of James MacMillan, a contemporary Scottish composer whose name I had heard, but with whose work I was unfamiliar. So, I visited Spotify, which has become my new favorite online diversion, and listened to a recording of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, an orchestral work by MacMillan that was premiered at the BBC Proms in 1990. The piece vividly depicts the confession of a Scottish woman accused of witchcraft, and is one of the most gripping and evocative modern orchestral works I have heard recently. I was somewhat surprised that I had not heard of this piece before (although it might be more well-known in Europe, for obvious reasons), and it got me thinking: what exactly are the modern orchestral classics?

It certainly seems to me–although I could be wrong–that there are very few pieces written over the last 50 years or so that orchestra aficionados (or orchestral musicians, for that matter) talk about in the same way that they talk about works from the 19th century or even the first half of the twentieth century, such as The Rite of Spring or the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Is it merely because the pieces haven’t been around long enough, as one friend of mine opined in a conversation we had along these lines over the summer, or is there something about the way that modern orchestral music is presented that prevents these pieces from “sticking?” Other arts organizations, such as theater and opera companies, seem to have a more established canon of newer works. Not only do they premiere new works, many of these works have staying power and are performed frequently.

This is not to suggest that there are no contemporary orchestral works that are replayed–certainly there are, but they are usually not the main attraction of an orchestral program. Rather, they are combined with a violin/piano concerto and a Beethoven/Brahms/Tchaikovsky symphony, while a performance of an established modern opera or play (partly due to the nature of these art forms) is always an event in itself. So, I guess my concern is this: if the best of the new pieces don’t become part of the standard repertoire and become something that patrons look forward to hearing rather than something they sit through while they wait to hear Beethoven’s Fifth for the 25th time, what is going to sustain orchestral music as a relevant art form and not simply a living museum for music written over a century ago?



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