Knights lead

New-Music Balancing Act

As the year nears its grand finale, several critics have reflected on the place of contemporary music and living composers within our field’s ecosystem. Anthony Tommasini and Allan Kozinn, both of The New York Times, looked at recent new-music developments—at the major institutions and in alternate venues, respectively—while Rob Deemer of NewMusicBox offered a slightly different take. “Classical music audiences seem more curious than ever,” Tommasini observed in the Times on December 11, “and performers have been emboldened over the past decade or so to take more chances. Composers from the early and mid-20th century have been brought pretty well into the repertory. These days orchestras and ensembles trumpet their premieres. So should those who have campaigned for contemporary music declare victory?”

Not according to you, SymphonyNOW readers. In response to a July poll asking, “Should orchestras perform more contemporary music?,” 76 percent of you voted in favor of bolder programming: 57 percent said, “Yes. Musicians enjoy the artistic challenge and living composers need more of a forum,” while 19 percent responded, “Depends. We hear enough of the more accessible composers. What we need are more works that truly push the envelope.” A still-respectable 17 percent emphasized the need to preserve the canon even while giving living composers a forum.

These results highlight the delicate balancing act of programming at today’s orchestras. Tommasini notes how much more adventuresome the New York Philharmonic’s programming has gotten under music director Alan Gilbert. Gilbert opened his tenure in 2009 with works by Messiaen and Magnus Lindberg; has offered daring staged opera productions; and inaugurated the CONTACT! series, which presents new works performed by smaller ensembles of Philharmonic players at Symphony Space and the Metropolitan Museum. “Still,” writes Tommasini, “there are only two programs, each played twice a season. Unless the series expands, it will inevitably seem an offshoot.”

Offshoots included, orchestras are still just one of many avenues available to emerging composers. “Increasingly [young composers] have come to consider the machinations of the big-ticket musical organizations—and debates about how to get them to accommodate new music—as beside the point,” wrote Allan Kozinn in a separate Times article on December 11. Kozinn goes on to profile an alternative scene of composer-musicians and genre-bending groups like ETHEL and the Now Ensemble. The scene thrives in places like Le Poisson Rouge and Cornelia Street Café in New York’s Greenwich Village and Galapagos in Brooklyn—places with the quiet of a recital hall where you can still sip a beer while you listen.

The view from “inside” the contemporary music circle is quite different, however. In a December 16 post on, Rob Deemer writes that Tommasini’s piece “reflects some of that scene’s intransigence when it comes to breaking through the historical and stylistic firewalls that many ensembles and audiences have constructed. That intransigence is most acute when Tommasini brings composers from the early and mid-20th century into the discussion; with examples that include Bartók and Janáček, the article does little to refute the idea that these composers can and should still be thought of as ‘contemporary.’ The fact that very few living composers are mentioned throughout the article does little to strengthen the argument that things are looking up on the contemporary side of things.” Kozinn’s piece, meanwhile, elicited “disbelief that this trend was being presented as being something new, as many of the changes and innovations that were mentioned seemed old hat to those of us who live and breathe new music.” (Jayson Greene reported on the classical music “club scene” for Symphony in July-August 2009 .)

What do you think? How does an orchestra balance its role as advocate of new composing talent and preserver of the classics? Do young composers ultimately need to find “alternative” platforms in order to have their works heard? And what about generational issues—are recent trends in contemporary music finally breaking through the stereotype that atonality and loud percussion are for the young and reckless while Brahms is for the old and stodgy? Are we perhaps even seeing new genres being born? SymphonyNOW welcomes your thoughts below.

Photo of New York-based chamber orchestra The Knights at Le Poisson Rouge by Supermarche


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