New vs. Old Music Unending Battle in Classical Programming

Alan Gilbert directs the New York Philharmonic, which has received a $10 million grant for "new" music.

Alan Gilbert directs the New York Philharmonic, which has received a $10 million grant for "new" music.

Note from LRG: After reading “New York Philharmonic Receives $10 Million for New Music” in the New York Times, I asked Chuck to share his thoughts on the programming of new vs. old in classical music. Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section.

The issue of programming performance pieces in Classical music has been a point of contention for as long as I have been in the business of music. The problem centers around conductors needing to protect themselves and their jobs. Historically, “new” pieces of music have not met with public favor in the form of low attendance at concerts.

The issue is not that the piece is “new” – the issue is the pieces and the composers that are chosen. Inevitably, a composer who is, in reality, an academic will get the call to premiere a new piece. The composer is often chosen for his or her academic credentials, not for his or her track record of writing music that appeals to listeners.

So, when the piece fails, as it often does, the conductor gets to say something to the effect of: “Well, I chose a writer who was a music professor from Harvard. I guess that the public just doesn’t like new music and so, we will go back to Mozart, etc.”

This could be solved in a very simple way. Take the example of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, which, at one time, employed Dr. Harold Boatrite to consider and choose new material for the orchestra. He was not swayed by a composer’s academic qualifications. He only considered the musical and artistic merits of the piece. Of course, not surprisingly, his position was ultimately eliminated.

If anyone is concerned about the choices of an orchestra being dictated by one person, a group of qualified experts could be tapped to oversee the new repertoire choices. Will this ever happen? It remains to be seen.

5 comments

1 Carol Kujawa
Posted 09/30/09 at 9:42 pm

I have a theory about why much recent classical music is unlistenable. Tell me if you agree. Way back when, composers composed for specific institutions(churches), occasions (coronations), or audiences (the king, duke, patron). They had others to please, so it was in their best interests to compose music that audiences would like. Their music was popular at the time, and those who could play, did so. There was no such thing as a concert hall-music was played on the public square, in church, or in private homes. But the main thing was the composer had to compose for others’ edification. Starting in the early 20th century, composers ceased composing for others and started composing for themselves-i.e. expressing THEMSELVES. Their attitude became more of “if you don’t like my music (art), it’s your fault, you just don’t understand me”. I believe that this attitude has remained, in all the fine arts. The question is, who decides what is “art”? In the past, the Public decided. Now, the “artist” decides. Maybe this is why we have so much ugly, offensive stuff that passes for art, and so much unlistenable music. If composers remembered that the audience has to hear it, they might consider writing listenable music. I have also wondered why so much recent music is so hard to get. You’d think that composers and publishers would want their music in as many hands as possible, so more people could hear or play it. But the Luck’s Music Library has so much stuff that is ONLY available by rental at enormous fees, and not available at all for purchase.

2 Leah R. Garnett
Posted 10/01/09 at 11:55 am

Carol: Thanks for your thoughtful post. The identical conversation goes on in jazz. There are many jazz musicians who have no interest in hard-on-the-ears jazz. This form of pure self expression does, unfortunately, turn many people off to the genre. Chuck actually markets his work as: “audience friendly, progressive jazz guitar” for this very reason. This need to prove to an audience or to a readership how much a person knows is rampant in all fields.

3 Bob Yarbrough
Posted 10/15/09 at 3:37 am

When I read this article describing ‘old’ classical music, I take into consideration the period of renaissance through late romantic. This was truely a golden age of musical development, where there was a seemingly linear trajectory of musical growth in form, harmony, complexity. Each new period, each new rebellious young artist, stood clearly on the shoulders of giants, their predecessors. Truly Beethoven’s works are a collective testament to his gifts along with the gifts and output of Haydn, Mozart, Bach and all those great who preceded him.

So I think ‘Old’ music benefits from this architecture of growth and has a type inherent simplicity that attracts still audiences to it.

Now I think of ‘new’ classical music and we see a complete explosion, in ways counterculture growth in form, harmony and musical complexity. A real democratization! From serialism to minimalism, classical music loses its identity in the modern era. People get lost, only the true explorers seem willing to wade through this complex forest of musical expression.

I for one continue to enjoy looking for and listening to modern music and recordings. But it is truly a hit/MISS experience with the stress on more misses than hits. Without some type of common thread or experience through our modern classical language, I don’t think followers will congregate for ‘new’ music concerts. That is, in my humble opinion.

All the best,
Bob

4 Anne Ku
Posted 12/27/09 at 10:50 am

This is a topic close to my heart — how to program the optimal live music concert — and how to choose music for different audiences. I write about the concert going experience — and find that new music doesn’t stick like the old, familiar ones do. And that makes a difference. The choice of music for an elderly audience (with dementia), for example, has more to do with mood than genre. For other types of audiences, it’s different. More at http://concertblog.wordpress.com and Bon Journal Reviews

5 Brian
Posted 03/23/10 at 10:44 pm

Almost every new piece of music, post 20th century that is, from any genre SUCKS big time. It sems that th digitl music-making tools have made it too easy for non-talented composers of all kinds to create their noise pollution and distribute it over the net. Rest assured that in the future, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and those of their talent levels will still have an audience while Tupac and Snoop Dogg will be long forgotten and thankfully DEAD and gone. Now there’s a new genre called HORROR CORE whose fans assult, batter and murder people. Isn’t that special? Classical music, serious music is still great and each new piece should be judgd on its own merits regardle of freshness, staleness or whatever; HELL, IT’S CLASSICAL MUSIC, be thankful that you’re not listening to Lady Ga Ga or some twit from American Idol (or is that American idle?). Classical music on local KUSC is all that I listen to, day or night, if it didn’t exist I’d be SOL. I don’t go to concerts much any more, but hearing music that was written by someone with talent from whatever time is so wonderful. At least classical orchestras aren’t playing music about womens’ booties and murder (except for opera, perhaps). I used to think that film music was part o the clasical continuum, but that was in the days of Korngold, Rozsa, Waxman, North, Herrmann and Prokofiev. Film music of the 21st century SUCKS along with everything else. Digital tools haven’t done serious music any good. Mozart didn’t need a computer and a midi.

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