New Music and the Power of the Programme

Recently I attended two concerts, one in London and the other in Brighton, which included world premieres of new works for piano. These new works were interspersed with more familiar repertoire which made interesting and witty connections between old and new, as well as offering a varied and contrasting listening experience. It struck me that this was an intelligent, accessible and enjoyable way of programming new music by giving audiences an opportunity to experience it without hitting them over the head with it, as is sometimes the effect if one attends a concert comprised entirely from brand new music. It was refreshing to come across these programmes in which familiar works were placed alongside the new and not-so-familiar, for such juxtapositions can shine a new light on the old and highlight previously undiscovered connections between works and composers.

Sometimes performers will devise programmes which mix conventional repertoire with new music to tempt audiences and “disguise” new music within a more accessible or familiar programme. I have heard successful programmes which combine new works with the “older” music which has influenced it, thus allowing the audience to hear where the composer is coming from. This helps to contextualise new music and gives the audience “signposts” to guide them through it. Eclectic programming encourages people to listen openly to modern or new music in the same way they do to more familiar repertoire: placing new music in this context can lead to surprising discoveries by audience members and the new often shines a different or unexpected light on the old - and vice versa.

It saddens me, however, as a regular and voracious concert-goer, that there are not more programmes conceived like this, particularly in mainstream concert halls. Contemporary composers often struggle to have their music heard outside more niche ventures, and there isn’t nearly enough new music heard on on the radio, in my humble opinion. Last year the BBC edited its Proms tv coverage, removing certain new works, presumably because in its wisdom it felt its listeners and viewers didn’t want to hear this music, that we don’t like it, or that we are actively afraid of it.

In 2013 the Southbank Centre did something wonderful and extraordinary: a whole year of concerts devoted to 20th– and 21st-century music in its exciting and popular The Rest Is Noise Festival (the jumping off point for this was Alex Ross’s book of the same name). If one needed proof of the public’s interest in and appetite for contemporary music, one only had to witness the packed halls for these concerts, and the attendant events (lectures, film screenings, workshops etc) which ran alongside the main performances. People scared of new music? I don’t think so….

If we are not exposed to new music how can we ever experience it and decide whether or not we like it? Oh sure, there are certain contemporary composers whose works regularly appear in concert programmes, but these are a select few. But in general it strikes me that concert promoters, artists’ agents, venue managers and broadcasters are actively trying to prevent contemporary repertoire being performed and heard. Of course, it’s not as simple as that: conversations with colleagues involved in the business of promoting concerts tell me that it has a lot to do with funding and the need to sell tickets. Cash-strapped orchestras and ensembles simply can’t afford to take the risk, while marketing hacks think contemporary classical music is off-putting to audiences and discourage promoters and performers from including such music because it might render the concert “inaccessible” (yet an obscure piece of “mainstream classical” music might also be inaccessible, or equally as challenging as a contemporary work. And at one time the music of Mozart, Chopin, Wagner et al was considered “new”!). This is a great shame because it suggests that new music is not valued, and that sends a very depressing message to audiences and, more importantly, those who create new music - composers. It suggests that certain establishment bodies regard new music as something almost taboo - and that they don’t trust audiences. But if the music isn’t there in the first place, we are not very likely to bump into it by accident.

The activities of musicians whose concerts I heard in London and Brighton are, in a small but persistent way, bringing brand new music to a wider audience through premieres, concerts and recordings which combine new with old, and I’d certainly like to see more of this kind of innovative and imaginative programming in mainstream concerts.

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones….”
John Cage

(This is the revised version of an article which originally appeared on the Music Haven blog).

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She is a reviewer for international concert and opera listings and review site Bachtrack.com, and contributes art and exhibition reviews to US-based culture and art site CultureVulture. She writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content, and contributes guest articles to a number of classical music and music education websites around the world, including Clavier Companion and The Sampler, the blog of SoundandMusic.org, the UK charity for new music. Frances is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series, an innovative concert concept which gives talented amateur musicians the opportunity to perform alongside young and emerging professional and semi-professional artists in the same formal concert setting.

Read more on her blog: www.crosseyedpianist.com.

Author: Frances Wilson
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